Both Missouri and Auburn use the Tigers as a mascot, but the SEC Championship game is really a battle between programs more like the mythical Phoenix.
Before the season, nobody predicted No. 5 Missouri and No. 3 Auburn, who went a combined 2-14 in Southeastern Conference play last season, would meet at the 3 p.m. Saturday at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta to settle the SEC title.
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Yet, here we are.
Missouri, 11-1 and 7-1 in the SEC, finished 2-6 a year ago in its first season moving to a new league, but coach Gary Pinkel’s Tigers have rebounded in spectacular fashion and won the SEC East division title.
Auburn’s turnaround was perhaps even more shocking under first-year coach Gus Malzahn, who had been the offensive coordinator from 2009-11 under Gene Chizik before spending last season as the head coach at Arkansas State.
For an idea how unexpected this matchup was entering the season, Missouri was picked to finish sixth — ahead of only Kentucky — in the East, while Auburn was picked fifth — ahead of only Mississippi State and Arkansas — in the West.
“It’s interesting,” Pinkel said. “People are going to look at and analyze it, flip it, spin it, turn it. There’s a lot of different ways of looking at it, I guess. That’s part of being in the SEC. There’s a lot of great teams and the competition is at its highest level.”
Malzahn had some familiarity with Auburn before taking over the program, but he didn’t dare set a lofty goal for wins heading into the 2013 season. He said the team didn’t set any goal for numbers of victories.
“When we first got here, we knew we had some talent,” Malzahn said. “They had been through a storm the year before. We really were just focusing on us, getting our edge back, playing good Auburn football.”
The primary goal was week-by-week improvement, which mirrors the approach Pinkel used with Missouri.
“I thought we had a good football team going into the season, but one thing that has been key for us is that we’ve really improved,” Pinkel said. “We’re a lot different team than we were in the first of September and October we got a lot better and even November we’re better.”
Now the unexpected title contenders, who rose from a season of ashes back to national prominence and relevance, are on the cusp of college football immortality.
Both Missouri and Auburn probably need help to reach the BCS title game, but a slip by Florida State in the ACC championship versus Duke or by Ohio State in the Big Ten title game against Michigan State would open the door for a one-loss SEC champion.
The Seminoles moved up to No. 1 in the latest Associated Press Top 25 after Auburn’s stunning victory in the Iron Bowl on a missed field-goal return as time expired.
The Buckeyes are second in the AP poll followed by Auburn and Alabama.
The top five is identical in the USA Today Coaches Poll and Harris Poll. Both account for one-third of the BCS rankings, which will be announced Sunday night.
Rounding out the AP top 10, Oklahoma State moved up one spot to seventh with Clemson’s loss against South Carolina, which jumped from 10th to eighth.
Stanford checks in seventh with Baylor ninth followed by Michigan State.
Three other SEC teams — LSU (14), A&M (22) and Georgia (25) — were also ranked by the AP along with two other Big 12 teams, Oklahoma (18) and Texas (23).