One year ago, this was one of the most improbable SEC Championship Game match-ups you could come up with.
Missouri was 5-7, reeling after its first season in the SEC and setting itself up for more questions about just how ready the former Big 12 refugee was for the league. Auburn had just fired its coach after going 3-9 overall and winless in conference in what was arguably the worst season in the program's history. If the teams were being disrespected by the media, there was a good reason for it.
In retrospect, we should have seen what was coming. The signs were all there of turnarounds both in Columbia and on the Plains, though for very different reasons. The most improbable match-up for the SEC Championship Game might actually have been the most likely lineup of them all.
Start with Auburn. The roots of the Tigers dreadful 2012 season really had nothing to do with talent on injuries or any of the usual reasons that a team slumps. Quite simply, Auburn was terrible in 2012 because the head coach made terrible decisions. It is Exhibit A in the case for why coaching matters in football.
The key mistake that Gene Chizik made was his tragicomic decision to hire Scot Loeffler as his offensive coordinator. Yes, Chizik's defenses were bad, but Chizik's defense wasn't exactly a top-flight unit when the Tigers won the national championship in 2010. Loeffler's teams actually averaged the same number of yards per play in 2012 as the Tigers had when Malzahn lead the offense in 2011 (5.3), but the total yardage declined for Auburn while staying roughly the same for its opponents. And the average was 2.1 yards lower than it was when the Tigers won the national title two years earlier.
Now, Gus Malzahn is back, and everything is back to normal. Auburn averaged 6.9 yards per play in 2013, churned out 5,892 yards and will play this afternoon in Atlanta. On a per-play basis, the defense hasn't really done that much better (5.8 yards this year compared to 6.0 last year), but the offense has by and large made up for it.
Particularly the running game. Auburn is running for 318.2 yards per game. That is more than the total average offensive production of 12 FBS teams. (You will not be surprised to learn that Florida is one of them.) The Tigers have rushed for more than 300 yards in half of their games this year.
But wait, you say, Missouri has the best running defense in the conference when it comes to SEC play, slightly edging out Alabama. (The Tide allows 0.2 yards more per carry and 2.7 additional yards a game.) And that's all well and good, except that Alabama is almost as good as Missouri statistically and got shredded by Auburn in the Iron Bowl. The Tigers racked up 296 yards on the ground last week. What's to say they won't do the same to Missouri?
Missouri's problems in 2012 were of the more conventional variety. In short, injuries essentially derailed the season, which should have been a dead giveaway that a big boost was coming. And while there was talk before the season that the Tigers would improve -- well, let's just say that no one saw a swing of six games.
But look at some of those injures in 2012. James Franklin missed four starts and three games altogether, with Corbin Berkstresser backing him up instead of Maty Mauk. Henry Josey was out. Meanwhile, uber-recruit Dorial Green-Beckham had limited success at the receiver position (28 catches for 395 yards and five touchdowns) Without so many of its key weapons, the Missouri offense slumped to 11th in the conference at 356.4 yards a game.
Almost all of that changed in 2013. Franklin still missed a few games, but his passing efficiency jumped by nearly 30 points this year, and Mauk's passer rating this year was almost 40 points higher than Berkstresser's was last season. Josey has run for 951 yards and 13 touchdowns on 153 carries, meaning he will almost certainly cross the 1,000-yard milestone if he avoid injury for the last two games.
Meanwhile, Green-Beckham and L'Damian Washington had great years as wideouts. DGB caught 49 passes for 686 yards and 10 touchdowns, but Washington was in many ways the star of the passing game, hauling in 44 receptions for 824 yards and 10 touchdowns of his own. Combine those with another target like Marcus Lucas (50-596-2), and you've got the recipe for an explosive attack.
And that showed up on the scoreboard. Only three teams this year held Missouri under 30 points -- South Carolina, Ole Miss and Texas A&M. Even in a down year for defense in the SEC East, that's still a pretty remarkable record of consistency. And consistency counts in games like this.
But how do you account for magic? Because whether you want to call the field goal return for touchdown a lucky fluke or not, it was clearly not the kind of way that normal teams win games. Nor is a tipped ball on a Hail Mary that comes down into the hands of a wide receiver streaking toward the end zone. Call it a team of destiny, call it whatever you want -- but there's something about this Auburn team.
Which is why, ultimately, I can't bring myself to pick against them. Like Year2, I expect a good game with a final margin of just a few points. But I'm going with the other Tigers. And as a bonus pick: Michigan State upsets Ohio State and Auburn gets the ticket to the BCS title game. (That last part is probably more wishful thinking than anything else.)
Auburn 38, Missouri 31