Turnarounds land Tigers in SEC title game

December, 4, 2013
12/04/13
9:30
AM ET

There's no doubt that Saturday's SEC championship game will feature two of the nation's best teams. To say otherwise about No. 3 Auburn (11-1, 7-1 SEC) and fifth-ranked Missouri (11-1, 7-1) would be silly. But their roads to Atlanta were improbable at best.

A year ago, both programs were drowning without bowl games or much life. Injuries ravaged a Missouri team making its SEC debut, while two years removed from a national championship, the Gene Chizik-led Auburn Tigers had one of the nation's most inept offenses and slinked through a disappointing 3-9 season that got Chizik fired.

[+] EnlargeJames Franklin
Jamie Squire/Getty ImagesAfter winning just five games in 2012, James Franklin's Missouri Tigers have climbed to the top of the SEC.
Missouri won only five games in 2012, and coach Gary Pinkel entered the 2013 season -- his 13th at Missouri -- on the hot seat.

Fast-forward to right now, and both of these teams are standing tall and looking down at the rest of their conference mates who had higher hopes and expectations for 2013. They both have high-powered offenses and went 4-1 against ranked opponents. Missouri took down Texas A&M to clinch its spot in Atlanta after defeating traditional SEC Eastern Division power Florida and Georgia, while Auburn has had a bit more flare for the dramatic with its nail-biting wins over Georgia and Alabama.

Both rank in the top four of the SEC in total offense and are scoring a little more than 38 points a game. And both teams have a lot of momentum rolling into the Georgia Dome.

This sport can be cruel to its participants, but for Auburn and Missouri, they beat the odds to play in the sport's toughest championship game and are right on the cusp of a trip to the Vizio BCS National Championship in Pasadena, Calif.

"Last year was our first losing season in the last nine years," Pinkel said. "It was all of a sudden, we're not going to be very good.

"Obviously, coming off of spring football, I thought we were going to be good. I thought it was important to stay healthy.

"It was one of our goals, getting to Atlanta."

Mizzou's offense couldn't leave the infirmary last season. Even before the year began, the Tigers started to see their offensive line crumble to the injury bug. Eventually, only freshman Evan Boehm made it through the entire season healthy on the offensive line.

The most crippling casualty was quarterback James Franklin. He dealt with a shoulder injury, a concussion and a knee injury that kept him on the field for just nine games. With him in and out of the lineup, Mizzou finished the season with the SEC's No. 11 offense.

This year, a healthy Mizzou team ate up SEC defenses. Even with Franklin suffering another shoulder injury that sidelined him for a month, the Tigers still finished the regular season averaging 489.5 yards per game, which is 133 more than last season.

"We knew that last year we didn't handle injuries very well on both sides of the ball," Franklin said. "Lot of frustration. We weren't working together very well, and that helped us for this year when we did have a couple of injuries on the offensive and defensive side of the ball. We worked together as a team, and learned to pull through and not go against each other and be frustrated with each other, but help lift each other up.

"Coming into this season, we knew that if we could do that and stay healthy, even if we did have injuries, still remain positive and have each other's back, then we could have some success this year."

For Auburn, it was left beaten mentally from the storm that was 2012. While Gus Malzahn was a very familiar face on the Plains, the embarrassment and pain that came with last season stuck with this team during the early part of Malzahn's tenure.

There were sluggish spring practices, anger, frustration and sloppy effort, but Malzahn kept pushing guys. His goal from the start was to complete college football's biggest turnaround. Slowly -- and quietly -- the wins started to pile up after a tough loss at LSU. There were thrillers against Ole Miss and Texas A&M before blowouts over Arkansas and Tennessee.

Then, Auburn pulled some magic with unthinkable finishes in wins over Georgia and Alabama to win eight straight.

"For us in January we got together and Coach Malzahn got with us and he said it's going to be a new day," Auburn defensive end Nosa Eguae said.

"We just want to make sure that the young guys are playing for us and we're playing for them. We've just got a bunch of guys that are playing for each other. We're hungry. Just from what happened last year, guys learned a lot from it, and they're willing to go out there and fight for one another."

Both of these programs were overlooked as legitimate SEC contenders this season, and both proved everyone wrong. The talent that seemed buried behind injuries and poor execution shined this season. They clawed their way out when trapped against the wall and stunned the country with their special runs.

"Our situations are pretty much identical," Missouri linebacker Donovan Bonner said. "It's really exciting. It's what SEC ball is all about. If you knew the two teams that had the toughest seasons last year would be in the SEC title game, people wouldn't believe that. So it's really just what is so beautiful about SEC football and this conference."

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