Auburn, Ala., is only 108 miles from Atlanta, which is approximately an hour-and-a-half drive northeast on Interstate 85.
By TOD PALMER
The Kansas City Star
On the other hand, Columbia is closer to 700 miles from the Georgia Dome, where No. 5 Missouri meets No. 3 Auburn to settle the SEC championship at 3 p.m. Saturday.
There’s a good chance the game, which will be broadcast on CBS, will feel like a home game for SEC West champion Auburn.
So, it’s probably a good thing that SEC East champion Mizzou feels comfortable playing in hostile environments far from mid-Missouri, going 5-0 in road games during the regular season — the first program’s undefeated season away from Memorial Stadium since 1979.
No matter how the crowd’s allegiances break down, Missouri coach Gary Pinkel isn’t going to lose sleep over it. Now, Auburn’s run game is a different story.
“We’re just glad we’re there,” Pinkel said. “We have no control over that. I would be disappointed if we didn’t get 20,000 Mizzou fans down there. I know it’s a big stadium. We’ll get more than that. We already sold out 16,000 already. We’ll have our Mizzou fans there. We’ll have a good group.”
Missouri’s allotment of tickets sold out quickly and there’s understandable buzz around the program, which reached the SEC title game in its second season in the league.
What chance does Missouri have to the game and claim its first conference championship since winning the Big Eight in 1969 under Dan Devine? We asked Auburn beat writer Ryan Black of the Columbus (Ga.) Ledger-Enquirer to provide some perspective from the opponents’ side of the game.
• For all the things Missouri’s defensive line is — fast, relentless, deep — it isn’t big across the board. Do you get the sense that Auburn believes it has an edge in the trenches offensively as a result, especially after manhandling Alabama’s D-line? And is there any way to slow Auburn’s ground game?
Auburn was already brimming with confidence heading into last week’s game, but being able to run for 296 yards on what was then the top-ranked rushing defense in the SEC has sent that confidence through the roof. Regardless of what team you put in front of the (Auburn) Tigers right now, they truly believe they won’t be stopped. And with the kind of tear Auburn has been on — rushing for an average of 361.3 yards during its eight-game win streak — can you really argue?
The best chance to stop Auburn’s running game is to get some push up front — which Missouri’s line certainly has the capability to do — and get to Nick Marshall or Tre Mason before they reach the second level. Once that happens, it’s “good night and good luck.”
• Looking at Missouri’s offense, which is both potent and balanced, what is the biggest concern for Auburn — a bruising run game that ranked second in the SEC or the passing game with those tall, speedy wide receiver?
Auburn’s defensive coaches and their players have all the respect in the world for what Henry Josey (as well as Marcus Murphy and James Franklin) can do with the ball in their hands, but there’s no question that Auburn is much more concerned about Missouri’s giant receivers. No starting member of Auburn’s secondary stands taller than 6-foot-2 safety Ryan Smith. All Dorial Green-Beckham should do is pop in the tape of the Texas A&M-Auburn game earlier this year and watch Aggies receiver Mike Evans abuse the Tigers’ defensive backs. As defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson pointed out this week, his defenders are “not going to grow two inches before Saturday.” Needless to say, Auburn is just going to have to make due the best it can when it comes to trying to stymie Mizzou’s colossal pass-catchers.
• Auburn seems to be getting most of the love nationally, which is perhaps warranted and expected given the victory against No. 1 Alabama and the spectacular way Gus Malzahn’s gang has polished off the last two wins. But is there a danger the Tigers will get big-headed and overlook Missouri’s Tigers?
Think of the largest number you can. Take that number and double it. At that point, you’ll have the percentage of the likelihood that Auburn could overlook Missouri. Just look at comments from players this week; they take all of their cues from Gus Malzahn and his single-minded — if not robotic and drab — coachspeak. All Malzahn ever talks about is “getting better each practice and each game,” and more often than not, players regurgitate it verbatim in their own answers. So, while Auburn’s season (and the last two games in particular) has shown almost anything is possible, one thing you won’t see Saturday is Auburn coming out and taking Missouri lightly. It hasn’t happened all season. There’s no reason to think that will change now.
• Be honest, coming into the season you never dreamed you’d be covering this team Dec. 7 in Atlanta. What has been the most remarkable aspect of Auburn’s turnaround and rocket-like ascension?
Wow, I can only choose one thing? Before I fully get to my answer, bear in mind that this is my first year on the beat; I wasn’t around last season, so I can’t speak to that horrid campaign firsthand. But in a way, that leads to right into what I was going to say anyway. The aspect of this turnaround that has impressed me most is this team’s unwavering belief that it can’t lose close games. And it’s a fact: Auburn is 5-0 in games decided by seven points or less and 6-0 in games decided by eight points or less. On top of that, the Tigers have six come-from-behind wins this season.
Just think about that for a second. This was the same team that only a year ago was outscored 272-81 in eight conference games. (Or if you prefer that broken down per game, it means the average final score was SEC opponent 34, Auburn 8.) Yet, here the Tigers are one season later not blinking even in what appear to be dire circumstances.
Need an 88-yard touchdown drive with under two minutes remaining to beat Mississippi State in the SEC opener? No problem.
A go-ahead drive with less than five minutes to play is required to beat Johnny Manziel and then-No. 7 Texas A&M on the road? Don’t give it a second thought.
Have to find a way to convert on fourth-and-18 to come from behind and beat Georgia? Forget that. Just chuck it 60 yards down the field and let fate take care of the rest.
Down 21-7 in the second quarter to your archrival and two-time defending national champions? Yawn.
While Malzahn is to be commended for helping players erase last year from their memory banks — well, not counting the ones who wanted to remember as a means to continue motivating — the true protagonist of this turnaround is none other than Marshall. Ask any player or coach, and they would tell you the self-assurance he exudes, which grows the bigger the moment gets, is the reason the Tigers have been able to pull out so many nail-biting victories this season.
• Should Auburn play for the national title with a win? Or, if Missouri wins, should it get a BCS Championship game shot?
I have mixed feelings on this issue. On one hand, I think the SEC’s seven-year run of national titles should give it the benefit of the doubt. (Lest we forget, a pair of those games saw the SEC champion wallop overmatched Ohio State squads.) On the other, I still believe that finishing without a loss in the regular season should count for something. Those points aside, when it comes to my personal opinion, I do think the SEC champion deserves to be in the national game regardless of what happens with the Buckeyes on Saturday. Why?
Simply look at the strength of schedule of the three schools: Auburn is playing its fifth game against a team ranked in the top 25 of the latest BCS standings, posting a 3-1 record thus far. Missouri will face its fourth such opponent and, as you well know, the Tigers are 2-1, with that lone defeat coming in double-overtime with their backup quarterback. Finally, we get to Ohio State. Michigan State is only the second squad on the Buckeyes’ slate with a BCS ranking affixed next to its name at the moment. Wisconsin, which Ohio State beat earlier this year, is sitting at No. 21 right now. I understand you can nitpick aspects of my argument — “Ohio State can only play the schedule it’s given!” or “Who cares about strength of schedule? The bottom line is the Buckeyes won every game they played this season! That’s all that matters!” (Yes, I’m done with exclamation points.)
Regardless, my point remains: If I had a vote, the winner of Saturday’s contest in the Georgia Dome would be No. 2 on my ballot. Of course, I understand my opinion won’t change anything. As long as Florida State and Ohio State take care of business, they’ll meet in the BCS Championship Game, barring some crazy shift in the minds of human voters, like, say the Buckeyes barely winning and either one of the SEC title Tiger squads unexpectedly beating the other by four touchdowns (or more).
But if my years of watching college football has taught me anything, it’s that you shouldn’t view any game as a sure thing. For all we know, Duke and Michigan State could walk away victorious Saturday, setting up an all-SEC national title game for the second time in three years. As a young Joseph Gordon-Levitt once said in “Angels in the Outfield,” “You know? It could happen.”
To reach Tod Palmer, call 816-234-4389 or send email to email@example.com. Follow him at twitter.com/todpalmer.