NCF Nation: 2013 SEC championship

What we learned in the SEC: Week 15

December, 8, 2013
Has an SEC season ever been this much fun? Auburn and Missouri capped a tremendous season with a thrill ride of a championship game. Here are five things we learned from Saturday's tilt.

[+] EnlargeTre Mason
John David Mercer/USA TODAY SportsAuburn's Tre Mason not only carried the Tigers to a win in the SEC championship game, but he ran his way into the Heisman discussion as well.
1. Auburn's offense is impossible to contain: Missouri entered Saturday's game with a very good defense, ranking second in the conference and 14th in the nation against the run (119.1 yards allowed per game). When the burn marks cooled off and the game was over, Auburn had 545 yards rushing (the most in league history by an SEC team against an SEC opponent) as part of its SEC title game record 677 total yards. Gus Malzahn's offense was at its mind-boggling best, using every wrinkle in the playbook to steamroll yet another helpless opponent. When Mizzou geared up to stop the run in the first half, AU quarterback Nick Marshall went 6-of-6 passing for 94 of his 132 yards to loosen up the defense. When Tre Mason needed a blow -- which wasn't often -- Corey Grant and Cameron Artis-Payne stepped in to score one TD each. When Missouri went with an extra linebacker in a 3-4 alignment to attempt to keep Auburn from gaining the edge, the Gus Bus simply ran up the middle and flattened Missouri. All of it happened at a breakneck pace, as Auburn's offense set a tempo that no defense appears capable of keeping up with.

2. The SEC has a chance to extend its streak of national championships: The SEC just won't be denied. After celebrating with the league trophy, the oversized logo and the confetti cannons, Auburn players and coaches settled in to watch the ACC and Big Ten championship games. No. 1 Florida State took care of business, but No. 2 Ohio State fell to Michigan State. Toomer's Corner exploded with toilet paper for the second time on Saturday night, as fans spilled into the intersection to celebrate a shot at the national title. Auburn took care of business on the field but needed help, and the Spartans delivered. What else would you expect in the Tigers' miracle season? The SEC's seven-year winning streak refuses to die, as AU is now projected to play unbeaten FSU in Pasadena, Calif., for all the marbles.

3. Mason deserves serious Heisman consideration: If the junior from Palm Beach, Fla., somehow wasn't on the national scene before Saturday, he certainly is now. Mason broke five SEC championship game records with 46 carries for 304 yards and four touchdowns. It was three yards shy of tying the Auburn single-game record of 307 set by Curtis Kuykendall in 1944. He ran away with the MVP award (pun intended) and could now find himself in New York City next week as a finalist for the Heisman Trophy. Mason finished strong in 2013 and added to his eye-popping 2013 season stats -- 1,621 yards and 22 touchdowns. It's only fitting that the Heisman could come down to Mason and FSU quarterback Jameis Winston, the two biggest stars on the nation's two best teams.

4. Mizzou has a great offense of its own: James Franklin's valiant attempt to keep up with the Auburn juggernaut deserves recognition. The senior kept his Tigers in the game, throwing for 303 yards and three touchdowns and rushing for 62 yards and another score. His favorite target, sophomore Dorial Green-Beckham, put an exclamation mark on his breakthrough season with six catches for 144 yards and two TDs. Mizzou had balance and did plenty of big-play damage. Leading rusher Henry Josey broke off a 65-yarder as part of his 123-yard effort (13.7 yards per carry). But it wasn't enough to keep up, as Auburn's offense applied too much pressure, and Missouri eventually wilted in the fourth quarter.

5. If this is the new SEC, it sure is entertaining: An era of unbridled offense has taken over college football, and on Saturday the old formula of winning with defense, special teams and a conservative offense was nowhere to be seen inside the Georgia Dome. The first half was enough to know this wasn't your father's SEC. The combined 55 first-half points were not only the most in SEC championship game history, they were more points than the four-quarter totals scored in 15 other SEC title games. When it was over and the scoreboard operator got some much-needed rest, the combined point total of 101 had obliterated the previous record -- 75 points in 1996 (Florida 45, Alabama 30). Auburn and Missouri combined for a dizzying number of big plays, as the SEC's showcase looked more like a video game than ever before.

SEC helmet stickers: Week 15

December, 8, 2013
Time to hand out some helmet stickers from the SEC championship game. And considering there were 101 points scored between Auburn and Missouri, don't be offended that the two defensive coordinators didn't make the grade.

Tre Mason, Auburn: Was there any doubt? If one game can win you the Heisman Trophy, then go ahead and hand the award to Auburn's leading tailback. At least get him to New York City for the ceremony. Mason had arguably the best performance in SEC championship game history, running for an incredible 304 yards and four touchdowns against a Missouri defense that hadn't allowed a single team to break the 200-yard rushing mark this season. Mason finished just four yards shy of setting a school record. His 46 carries were the most ever in the league title game, passing former Tennessee Vol Jamal Lewis, who ran the ball 31 times in 1997.

Nick Marshall, Auburn: Auburn coach Gus Malzahn could have asked for nothing more from his quarterback, whom we'll all do well to remember came to The Plains only some six months ago. Marshall was the perfect orchestrator of Malzahn's offense on Saturday afternoon, knowing when to hand the ball off and when to tuck it and run on the zone-read. Auburn ended up with 545 yards on the ground, 101 of which belonged to Marshall, who averaged a staggering 12.0 yards per carry. But what has been most impressive about Marshall is his passing. He still is not the most accurate or developed passer, but when he throws it, he makes it count. Against Missouri, he kept the Tigers' defense honest by completing 9 of 11 passes for 132 yards and a touchdown.

Auburn's big uglies: Applaud Mason, congratulate Marshall and pat Corey Grant, Ricardo Louis and Cameron Artis-Payne on the back. But when you consider the running lanes they all had to work with in Atlanta, it's no wonder those guys went off for more than 500 yards. Reese Dismukes, Greg Robinson and the rest of Auburn's offensive line controlled the point of attack, moving around a defensive front that Alabama coach Nick Saban earlier in the day called the best in the league. Michael Sam's pass-rushing ability was negated and Matt Hoch wasn't allowed to disrupt the running game up the gut. Auburn's 545 rush yards was the most allowed by Missouri in a game since at least 2000.

James Franklin, Missouri: Missouri didn't lose to Auburn because of its offense, and fans certainly can't turn to Franklin and wonder, "What if?" Maty Mauk couldn't have done any better. Maybe no one could have. When you score more than 40 points in a game, you should win. Given the way Missouri's defense struggled to stop Auburn in Atlanta, it's safe to say Franklin kept his team in the game. The senior signal-caller threw for 303 yards, three touchdowns and one interception.

Dorial Green-Beckham, Missouri: Did anyone else watch Green-Beckham take that screen pass 37 yards for a first down in the second half and see shades of NFL All-Pro Calvin Johnson? The speed. The size. The graceful stride. It was all there when Green-Beckham ran over the middle and past the Auburn defense for the big gain. Auburn's secondary had no answer for the 6-foot-6, 225-pound former five-star receiver, who wound up going off for 144 yards and two touchdowns on six receptions.

Auburn completes stunning turnaround

December, 8, 2013

ATLANTA -- Good luck in selling this one to Hollywood. Nobody would buy it.

As Auburn celebrated its improbable SEC championship Saturday night, amid confetti falling from the Georgia Dome rooftop and a sea of orange and blue soaking it all up in the stands, the Tigers’ players and coaches alike did their best to put into perspective one of the most stunning turnarounds in college football history.

[+] EnlargeAuburn
Todd Kirkland/Icon SMIBehind a powerful running game, Auburn won the SEC after not winning a conference game a year ago.
“I don’t know how you explain it,” Auburn receiver Sammie Coates said. “I just know we’re SEC champs, and I know what it took to get here. We’ve been proving people wrong all year. I wonder who’s doubting us now.”

Not many. Certainly not after the way Auburn sliced through Missouri for 545 rushing yards in a 59-42 win that resembled a track meet for much of the game and served as yet another reminder that times are changing in the SEC.

Wasn’t it just two years ago that Alabama and LSU played a 9-6 overtime game -- the so-called Game of the Century -- in which nobody scored a touchdown?

On Saturday, the two offenses combined for three touchdowns in the first quarter, and when it was over, they had combined for 101 points and 1,211 yards in total offense.

“We’re going to pound you until you don’t want it anymore,” said Auburn’s Tre Mason, who set an SEC championship-game record and might have run his way into Heisman Trophy contention with 304 rushing yards and four touchdowns on 46 carries.

“That’s what we do. That’s who we are, and we don’t really care what kind of scheme you’re running on defense.”

Likewise, the Tigers didn’t care that nobody gave them a chance back in the preseason to be here and on a collision course with Florida State in the VIZIO BCS National Championship Game. It had already been a magical season on the Plains, but got even better later Saturday night when Michigan State knocked off Ohio State in the Big Ten championship game.

The previously unbeaten Buckeyes were one spot ahead of Auburn in last week's BCS standings, but thanks to some help from the Spartans, the Tigers are now in prime position to move into the No. 2 spot in the final BCS standings released Sunday night.

“We’ve done all we can do,” Coates said. “We beat the No. 1 team (Alabama). We beat the No. 5 team (Missouri). We’re ready for whoever they put in front of us because we feel like we’re the best team in the country.”

The surreal part of it all is that Auburn (12-1) hit rock bottom a year ago. The Tigers went winless in the SEC, losing their last two league games to Georgia and Alabama by a combined 87-0 margin, and fired their coach, Gene Chizik, just two years removed from winning a national championship in 2010.

Not only that, but the guy they hired to replace Chizik, Gus Malzahn, was coaching high school football eight years ago. One of the supposed knocks on Malzahn when he first broke into the college game was that his offense was gimmicky.

Well, there was nothing gimmicky about what the Tigers did to teams this season.

The combination of their breakneck pace, ability to push people around up front and their explosiveness at the different skill positions was more than anybody could handle.

Before rolling up 545 yards against Missouri on Saturday (and Missouri had the SEC’s second-best run defense coming in), Auburn had 296 yards on the ground last week against Alabama -- the SEC’s top-ranked rushing defense.

As the game wore on Saturday, Missouri looked like it didn’t know who had the ball most of the time. When Auburn wasn’t pounding away with Mason, quarterback Nick Marshall was keeping the ball on the zone-read or handing it off on a jet sweep.

Even for Auburn’s offensive players, the pace was blistering.

“I was tired, but my mind wouldn’t let me stop,” Auburn offensive tackle Greg Robinson said.

Marshall was another huge part of this storybook turnaround for the Tigers, who became the first team since Georgia in 1959 to win an outright SEC title after suffering through a losing season the year before. Marshall, who went over 1,000 yards rushing for the season Saturday, was at junior college this time a year ago after starting his career at Georgia as a cornerback. But, while at UGA, he got into trouble for stealing from teammates and was dismissed from the team.

“It was hard, and it’s something nobody wants to go through,” Marshall said. “But coach Malzahn gave me a second chance, and I was going to take advantage of it.”

The Tigers will now have to wait until Sunday night for the official word on their expected national championship date with the Seminoles in Pasadena. Their athletic director, Jay Jacobs, said if schedule strength is going to be the most important component next season in the selection of the four teams for the College Football Playoff, then there shouldn't be any question about the Tigers getting in this season.

And to his point, Auburn has five wins over nationally ranked opponents this season, which is more than any other team in the top six of the most recent BCS standings. The Tigers also have three wins over top-10 foes and own the top-rated schedule among the top six BCS teams, according to Sagarin.

What’s more, 10 of the 13 teams on Auburn’s schedule this season are currently bowl-eligible.

Malzahn figures the chips will fall where they may. But the way his team is playing right now, and the way it’s made one thrilling play after another this season to win games, he likes its chances against anybody.

“We play the toughest schedule of any teams (out) there, and we’re playing our best football,” Malzahn said. “A lot of teams aren’t getting better each week. This team is.”

As unthinkable as it might have seemed four short months ago, it's a team that now has a national championship in its sights.
ATLANTA -- Matt Ritter watched in person as his Auburn team completed one of the most dramatic bounce-back regular seasons in college football history -- and that's when the real waiting started.

The 2006 Auburn grad and a group of friends then traveled across town to the Diesel Filling Station -- one of the Atlanta area's best-known Auburn-centric bars -- to watch a bit more football after the Tigers' 59-42 win over Missouri at the Georgia Dome in Saturday's SEC championship game.

Their reason? It was entirely possible that Auburn wasn't simply going to represent the conference in the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 2. If either top-ranked Florida State or No. 2 Ohio State -- both of which were undefeated when the day started -- lost in their respective conference championship games on Saturday night, Auburn would play in the Vizio BCS National Championship Game.

"Obviously we're all about Michigan State right now,” Ritter said at halftime of the Big Ten championship game, when the Spartans led Ohio State 17-10. “We knew Duke had a very, very small chance of winning [against Florida State in the ACC title game], but we knew Michigan State had the No. 1 defense in the country. We knew Ohio State, they're a good team, but I don't think they're a fantastic team."

Sure enough, the bar full of fans wearing orange and blue were chanting, “Pa-sa-de-na!” by the end of the night, once Michigan State running back Jeremy Langford's late touchdown run put away the Spartans' 34-24 win and cleared a space for Auburn to face Florida State in sunny California with a BCS crown at stake.

Ritter and friends had plenty of company at Diesel -- a former filling station in the Virginia Highland neighborhood whose marquee still read “Bama, You're 109 Yards from a Win. Go Tigers,” referring to Chris Davis' 109-yard return of a missed field goal on last Saturday's final play against top-ranked Alabama. According to the Atlanta Auburn Club, the city's metro area is home to more than 22,000 Auburn "alumni, fans and friends," and plenty of them crammed into bars and restaurants across the city on Saturday to watch Tre Mason and the Tigers pull away from Mizzou with a relentless rushing attack.

That night, Auburn partisans reconvened to cheer as Michigan State jumped out to an early 17-0 lead over Ohio State in the Big Ten championship game. On the other hand, things weren't going so well in ACC country, as Florida State took command early against heavy underdog Duke and eventually won 45-7. But the good news was that Auburn needed only one of the undefeated teams to lose, and Michigan State obliged its new fan club by delivering the win the Tigers needed.

Then it quickly became time to contemplate travel plans for a trip West in early January.

"We're talking about it,” said Jeremy Barrow, a first-year Auburn season-ticket holder. He and his wife, Danya, watched the Michigan State game at Diesel after staying home to watch Auburn's victory earlier in the day. “It's one of the reasons why we skipped the SEC game. We figured if we won, we'd need all that money to go."

But even without a trip to Pasadena, this would have gone down as one of the most remarkable seasons in Auburn football history.

Two seasons after Cam Newton carried the Tigers to the 2010 BCS crown, the Tigers bottomed out with a 3-9 record that resulted in coach Gene Chizik's departure and former offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn's return to the Plains. Considering how pathetic Auburn was in 2012, most Tigers fans entered the season simply hoping to reach bowl eligibility, with wins against highly ranked teams like Alabama, Georgia and Texas A&M seeming far from likely.

Now here they were at 12-1 after beating each of those teams and throttling No. 5 Mizzou with 677 yards of total offense on Saturday. Further, Michigan State's win proved that Auburn's horseshoe still had plenty of good fortune left for the Tigers and their allies.

"It was beyond all expectations of what we thought,” Danya Barrow said. “I was really like, 'If we could just make a bowl, I'll be happy. If we could just make the Capital One, I could go and it would be cool.'"

Auburn fans are free to dream big again now, however.

This time a year ago, when Alabama was preparing to win its second straight BCS title and third in four years, morale was at its lowest point in decades among Auburn fans. Malzahn and his resilient team, which already has a number of last-minute wins on its resume, needed just one miraculous season to restore their fans' optimism -- and a spot in Pasadena only adds to their jubilation.

“We're just so proud of the team in general and this season and the turnaround,” Ritter said. “Last season was just so terrible. Just to be where we are right now, I think that Auburn in general, it restored a unity and pride back into the university and the football program. I think everybody's excited for things to come from here on out.”

ATLANTA -- In the minutes that Tre Mason spent inside Auburn's locker room before Saturday's SEC championship game, he felt as though he was in some sort of a trance. He was fully aware of where he was and what was about to transpire, but his focus was heightened.

He wasn't jittery or anxious. He possessed a calm demeanor, but spoke with power when he finally stood in front of his teammates and told them the plan: They weren't leaving Atlanta without rings.

"I had the eye of the tiger," Mason said.

Once he stepped on the field, Mason had the strength, agility and heart of one, too, as he sliced and diced his way through Missouri's top-ranked rush defense to carry No. 3 Auburn (12-1, 7-1 SEC) to a 59-42 SEC championship victory.

Mason, who has quietly pummeled SEC defenses all season, not only left Atlanta with dreams of bling and a trophy, he left with a few records and some legitimate Heisman Trophy buzz after registering a career-high 304 yards and four touchdowns on 46 carries. The game's MVP set the SEC championship-game record for rushing yards and attempts, while leaving the rest of the SEC's running backs in his dust with a league-high 1,621 yards and a school-record 22 touchdowns on the season.

"Tre told me he was going to do that and he did," receiver Ricardo Louis said. "He's the greatest player here. He's the best running back in the nation."

[+] EnlargeTre Mason
AP Photo/John BazemoreTre Mason had four touchdowns against Missouri and has 13 TDs in his past five games.
Mason couldn't be stopped by a defense that entered the game allowing just 119 rushing yards per contest. Before Saturday, fifth-ranked Missouri (11-2, 7-1) hadn't allowed a team to rush for more than 184 yards or two touchdowns in a single game.

By halftime, Mason had 195 yards, two touchdowns and was averaging a bruising 8.5 yards per carry. With 14 minutes, 26 seconds remaining in the third quarter, his 12-yard, first-down run to Auburn's 37-yard line that gutted the middle of Mizzou's defense pushed him past LSU's Justin Vincent's SEC championship-game record of 201 rushing yards (2003).

With Mizzou worried about athletic quarterback Nick Marshall and that deceptive read-option, Mason barreled his way through a line that featured way too much three-man personnel. He did most of his damage through the middle of the field, churning his legs and exploiting truck-sized holes made by his offensive line, and finished the game with just 2 negative yards. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Mason gained 182 yards inside the tackles, the most by an SEC player this season. Mason also gained 5 yards past the line of scrimmage without being contacted on 14 of his 34 carries inside the tackles. When he made his way to the edge, he embarrassed Mizzou's ends, linebackers and defensive backs with speed that left them panting and strength that left their measly arm tackles futile.

It was only fitting that he sealed the game with a feisty 13-yard touchdown run that carried a few Mizzou defenders into the end zone with 4:22 remaining.

With Mason having his way with Mizzou's defense with every punishing run he mustered, Auburn rushed for a title game-record 545 yards (third-most nationally this season) and had seven rushing touchdowns.

"We put the workload on him for the majority of the game and he always delivers," tight end C.J. Uzomah said. "He always shows up and he's always ready to play. Sixteen-hundred yards ... there's no reason he shouldn't be in New York.

"Coach [Gus] Malzahn said we were going to run the ball down their throats and really try to impose our will, and he came out and had a performance that I don't think anybody will forget."

So it begs the question: Is Mason, who leads the SEC in rushing and has had eight 100-yard rushing games (five straight), worthy of a seat at next week's Heisman Trophy ceremony?

"I want to win that, that's a goal of mine," said Mason, who now holds Auburn's single-season record for all-purpose yards (2,137). "I want to be in New York and be a finalist for the Heisman."

"I struck the pose a couple times [Saturday]. I feel like I should be in the talk with those guys."

His coach, who knows something about the Heisman, agreed.

"You're looking at one of the top running backs in college football, and he proved it again today," Malzahn said. "So usually, the best players on the best teams have a chance at it, and you're looking at one of those guys right here."

In the nation's toughest conference, Mason ran over and through defenses. Five of the defenses he has faced rank in the top 50 against the run. He rushed for 100-plus yards against each but Mississippi State (34). He has averaged at least 5 yards per carry in nine games and has at least one rushing touchdown in 12 games.

He's confident that he's one of the best players on one of the best teams, and it seems foolish to leave him out of legitimate Heisman talk -- or New York.

He's etched his name into the Auburn record books next to -- and over -- names such as Bo Jackson and Cam Newton. His yardage total Saturday was the second-most in Auburn history. In a special season for a program that has made college football's biggest turnaround, Mason has been a major piece of the Tigers' championship run.

Now he's hoping his own run takes a detour to the Big Apple.

"I feel like I'm chasing after [my dreams]," he said, "and nothing can stop me on the way there."

ATLANTA -- Behind a monster running game headed by Tre Mason and Nick Marshall, No. 3 Auburn (12-1, 7-1 SEC) claimed the SEC title with a back-and-forth 59-42 win over No. 5 Missouri (11-2, 7-1) in what was the highest-scoring SEC championship.

The teams combined for 1,211 yards of offense. Auburn rushed for a season-high 545 yards. Mason, who vaulted his name into the Heisman Trophy discussion, rushed for a career-high 304 yards and four touchdowns on a career-high 46 carries. Mason's yards and carries were records for the SEC championship game.

With the win, Auburn has clinched a spot in a BCS bowl and is still in contention for a spot in the VIZIO BCS National Championship Game.

It was over when: Missouri quarterback James Franklin's pass to receiver Dorial Green-Beckham fell incomplete on fourth-and-goal from Auburn's 7-yard line with 1:46 remaining.

Game ball goes to: Mason broke LSU running back Justin Vincent's SEC title-game record of 201 yards set in 2003. Mason finished the day averaging 6.6 yards per rush.

Stat of the game: Auburn averaged 8 yards per play on a Missouri defense that entered the game allowing 5.1 yards per play and 385 yards per game. Auburn also ran for 545 yards on a defense that was allowing only 119 rushing yards per game.

Stat of the game II: Defensive end Kony Ealy's forced fumble that was recovered by defensive tackle Matt Hoch in the first quarter extended Missouri's takeaway streak to 43 straight games.

What it means for Auburn: The Tigers won the SEC for the first time since 2010 and will now await their BCS bowl fate. A loss by either Florida State or Ohio State would send the Tigers, who won just three games a year ago, to the VIZIO BCS National Championship Game.

What it means for Missouri: A special season ends with a No. 2 finish in the SEC. Not bad for a team that won five games in its debut season in the SEC last year. These Tigers are likely out of the mix for a BCS bowl, but with 11 wins, they could be headed to the AT&T Cotton Bowl or Capital One Bowl.

Johnson a big part of Auburn's turnaround

December, 6, 2013
Pinning Auburn’s incredible turnaround this season on just one or two factors or even one or two people, for that matter, would be unfair.

The Tigers and first-year coach Gus Malzahn have done a myriad of things right to get to this point.

But it’s no coincidence that the first hire Malzahn made on his staff was veteran defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson, who in a year’s time has gone from one of the most forgettable experiences of his long and illustrious coaching career to one of the most memorable.

“This has almost been like a fairy tale, to be here winning like we are and doing something that nobody thought we could,” Johnson said. “But I don’t connect the two situations. I really don’t. I know that may sound strange, but what’s happening here is fun because winning is fun and losing is miserable.”

[+] EnlargeEllis Johnson
Greg McWilliams/Icon SMIEllis Johnson has helped Auburn's defense dramatically improve from a season ago.
Just a little more than a year ago, the highly respected Johnson was out of a job after just one season as the head coach at Southern Miss. The Golden Eagles suffered through a disastrous 0-12 campaign, and Johnson didn’t get a second season.

It’s a losing streak that eventually reached 23 in a row and was finally snapped, ironically, last Saturday against UAB on the same day Auburn delivered its stunning 34-28 upset over then No. 1 Alabama.

As happy as Johnson was for the players and the entire community at Auburn, he was equally relieved to see Southern Miss finally end its drought.

“I really loved that place, and it hurt to see it in such disarray,” said Johnson, who had been at Southern Miss as defensive coordinator in 1988-89.

“Last year was painful for me professionally, but it was painful for me to watch that place and know through my years of experience what was wrong and nobody wanted to listen. They wanted to blame somebody other than their own problems, and I was the guy they wanted to blame because I was the guy there at the time.”

Again, though, Johnson is too much of a pro and too much of a bottom-line guy to get bogged down in what did or didn’t happen in the past.

So about three days after being fired, he gladly took Malzahn’s call. Not long after that, Johnson was back in the SEC at his fourth different school as defensive coordinator.

“I’m blessed to be here, back in the SEC and one of the best schools in the conference, one of the best places to live and great people,” Johnson said. “It’s been a blessing for me because I left a wonderful situation [at South Carolina] and being at home in Columbia and then got into that mess at Southern Miss.

“Looking back at it, I must be extremely lucky to have escaped with just a knot on my head instead of absolute destruction.”

The Tigers were even luckier that someone of Johnson’s caliber was available, and Malzahn acted quickly to land him with Florida State also interested.

“He was one of the keys to putting together our staff,” Malzahn said. “I knew how valuable he would be and knew we had to get him.”

While Auburn’s total and passing yardage numbers on defense this season haven’t been eye-popping, the Tigers have been significantly better where it counts -- keeping people out of the end zone.

They’re fifth in the SEC in scoring defense (22.5 points per game) after finishing 10th a year ago (28.5 points per game). They’re also second in the league in red zone defense and came up with one of the biggest defensive plays of the season last week in stopping Alabama on fourth-and-1 from the Auburn 13 in the fourth quarter.

“We’ve given up too much trash yardage on defense and way too many big plays, but we’ve gotten better,” Johnson said. “We’re playing a lot of young kids, and one of the things that’s so encouraging is that we’ve come up with a lot of big plays in the second half. We’re not where Auburn should be or will be on defense by any stretch, but we’ll get there.”

This will be Johnson’s fifth SEC championship game appearance with his third different team. He also went with Alabama and South Carolina.

The fact he’s even here still seems a bit surreal given how painful last season was. But after 38 years of coaching, Johnson isn’t surprised by much.

“When you’re in this business, you get so caught up in the day-to-day grind,” Johnson said. “The fun is in the winning and seeing the kids improve and having success. That’s what is so rewarding.

“The rest of it, when it doesn’t go the way you want it to, you just learn to live with it and know a lot of things you can’t control. But, yes, this sure has been a lot of fun.”
Auburn fullback Jay Prosch respects Missouri's defensive line and its rush defense, but he also loves what his own team's offense can do.

"We're really good at what we do offensively," Prosch said. "I think no matter what, whoever we play, we're going to find a way to move the ball no matter what, where their strengths are. … Missouri has a very good defensive line and a very good defense, but overall I think that we're going to find a way to move the ball no matter how we have to do it."

You can't knock his confidence. The Tigers finished the regular season with the SEC's No. 1 rushing attack, averaging 318.25 yards per game. They average 6.3 yards per carry and have 39 rushing touchdowns on the season.

What's more is that Auburn averaged 286.3 rushing yards in eight conference games. In those games, the Tigers failed to rush for 200 yards just once (120 against Mississippi State). They rushed for 323 yards against Georgia, 379 against Texas A&M and 444 against Tennessee. In last week's epic win over Alabama, Auburn rushed for 296 yards on a defense allowing just 91 rushing yards per game before the Iron Bowl.

While Auburn runs a variation of the spread offense, its running game is very multiple with some power, read-option and triple-option.

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Nelson Chenault/USA TODAY SportsNick Marshall and Tre Mason put stress on a defense on every play.
"We're going to have to draw from some experience of other running teams, some of the running philosophies that they have that maybe some other teams had that didn't run the ball as much, be able to apply those lessons to this," Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said of defending Auburn's running game.

But Missouri shouldn't feel overwhelmed by what those other Tigers can do on the ground. They have their own stout rush defense.

Mizzou is allowing just 119.1 rushing yards per game, 3.6 yards per carry and has given up 11 rushing touchdowns. Mizzou allowed a league-low 120.8 rushing yards per game in SEC games.

Mizzou linebacker Donovan Bonner has been proud of his defense's production, but he understands the major challenge Auburn's running game presents. After all, this is the same running game that dominated Alabama a week ago. The SEC's best rush defense was pounded and pounded again, allowing a season-high 5.7 yards per carry.

Bonner said stopping Auburn's run game takes discipline and filling gaps. It also means everyone has to be spot-on with their assignments for every player who could run the ball while on the field.

"If you mess up one gap, you go for a big run," Bonner said.

"It's not an easy offense to stop. They do a lot of motion.

"They can pull it out and run with the quarterback. Sometimes they can raise up and pass it. It's really a triplethreat offense, man. You just have to be conscious of what's going on around you and not get caught up in all the other stuff and just focus on what's in front of you. You have to trust your keys as a linebacker and also the safeties, too. So if they scream downhill, and it's play-action, that could be a pass also. So we're just going to focus on trusting our eyes."

Auburn has four players with more than 500 rushing yards, but the stars of the show are Tre Mason and quarterback Nick Marshall, who have combined to rush for 2,239 yards and 28 touchdowns.

Mason is a home run threat and a bruiser. Marshall is slippery, fast and deceptive with the read-option. Twice this season, both rushed for at least 100 yards in the same game, and in the last three games they have combined to run for 798 yards and 10 touchdowns.

You know you're going to take one on the chin when Mason has the ball, but watching Marshall's movements is a little tougher to read.

"You have to stay with the quarterback," Bonner said.

"Marshall is obviously a great runner, probably the best runner other than [Johnny] Manziel that we faced this year. "

But has Auburn faced a defensive line like this? This team hasn't seen a Michael Sam (10.5 sacks, 18 tackles for loss), and fellow Mizzou ends Kony Ealy and Markus Golden have combined for 13 sacks and 22.5 tackles for loss.

Auburn's running game likes to test players on the edge, but Bonner thinks Mizzou's ends have the ability to contain runs to the outside.

"It can kind of neutralize that, but our defensive ends are pretty athletic, physical guys," Bonner said. "They can get to the ball also I mean, really, if they keep doing what they've been doing all year, we should be fine."

It should be a fun matchup between Auburn's running game and Mizzou's defense. Neither unit has faced the kind of consistency and talent they'll see Saturday, but that hasn't hindered one side's confident nature.

"Offensively, from what we do, I think it will work in our favor," Auburn running back Corey Grant said.

"With us running the ball, we'll find a way to move the ball and get out on the edge and run our zone reads and things like that. So either way, our offense, we've gotten better each week throughout the season. I believe we'll find a way."

Kickoff Live

December, 5, 2013
To watch on you smart phone click here.

SEC reporter Chris Low, Big Ten reporter Brian Bennett and ACC reporter Andrea Adelson join host Chantel Jennings to discuss Championship Saturday.

When Auburn coach Gus Malzahn talks about the 2012 Tigers going through a storm, he might as well include Missouri quarterback James Franklin.

[+] EnlargeJames Franklin
AP Photo/L.G. PattersonA healthy James Franklin gets his shot at the SEC title on Saturday against Auburn.
The senior went through a hurricane in Columbia, Mo., last year, but managed to find the strength to stand again in 2013. A year removed from an injury-plagued SEC debut, Franklin is a little more than a day away from playing for his school's first SEC title.

It's a fitting last stand for a player who has given so much to his program and who went from being a breakout player in 2011 to injured in 2012.

"It's pretty exciting to me to be able to be at this point and be able to come back this season and to have some success," Franklin said. "I'm just really thankful for it. I'm glad that I did go through the things that I did, and it's helped me out a lot with my perspective and perception on some things. I'm just thankful that I've gotten to come back after this year of getting hurt and my teammates have welcomed me back."

And they should have with open arms. Franklin has been one of the most selfless players around since arriving at Missouri. He's taken heat for not being "tough enough," as if his laundry list of injuries were simply overlooked, but didn't publicly pout. He supported his team when he couldn't be on the field and led them valiantly on the field (mostly in pain).

Last year, Franklin, who was coming off a 2011 season in which he threw for 2,865 yards, rushed for 981 and had 36 total touchdowns, suffered multiple shoulder injuries (starting in spring practice), a knee injury and a concussion. He played in just nine games and totaled 1,684 yards and 10 scores.

With a young, talented Maty Mauk waiting in the wings, many wondered if Franklin's days as the Tigers' quarterback were coming to an end. Those thoughts only intensified when coach Gary Pinkel opened the quarterback competition this spring.

Despite a very strong push from Mauk, Franklin won the starting job before the season and immediately went back to being his old self, passing for 1,577 yards with 14 touchdowns and rushing for 290 yards and three touchdowns before suffering yet another shoulder injury against Georgia on Oct. 12.

Franklin was sidelined for a month and had to hear about and watch Mauk perform masterfully in his place.

"It was definitely frustrating having to watch on the sidelines because I wanted to be out there and playing to help my team win," Franklin said. "At the same time, it was good to see them winning and knowing that they could still go in there and make plays, especially on the opposite side of the ball, put up points and do a good job and be successful with Maty in there."

While receiver L'Damian Washington stood strong behind starting Mauk, it was hard for him to see Franklin on the sideline.

"It's tough because that's my brother," Washington said. "You always feel for your brother whenever they're going through a trying time in their lives."

Two drives into Franklin's return to the football field on Nov. 23, he felt the sting of college football wash over him when he was stopped for no gain on a scamper and then sacked by Ole Miss linebacker Mike Marry.

Having James [Franklin] back there at quarterback, I think it adds a little more confidence to our offense and defense as a whole. I think it basically does something to our team. We know how relentless he is. We know the fighter he is.

-- Missouri WR L'Damian Washington

Because of his past, the sight of Franklin being hit was cringe-worthy. But he didn't fret. He didn't hesitate, and he didn't linger on the turf inside Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. He popped up and kept playing. His nerves weren't shot, as pain finally wasn't shooting through a shoulder that had been to hell and back since the spring of 2012.

"It felt good [to take contact]," Franklin said after Missouri's 24-10 win over the Rebels. "Thankfully, I didn't take too many hits. When I did, I wasn't really thinking about it. To be able to come out and pass and run, it felt good."

Franklin finished that game with 142 passing yards and 42 rushing yards. Nothing flashy on paper, but mentally, it was a major step forward for a quarterback who has been so banged up in his two seasons in the SEC.

In last week's SEC East-clinching win over Texas A&M, Franklin threw for 233 yards and two touchdowns while rushing for another 80 yards. The hits have kept coming, but Franklin has kept chugging.

In two seasons, Franklin has seen his game, body and image take hits. In 2012, he dealt with the controversy surrounding his decision to refuse to take a cortisone shot in his shoulder. He heard grumblings from fans about his toughness and no one was quite sure how he'd handle his 2013 return.

Some weren't even sure if he'd be the starter, but the return of Franklin has clearly made this team better. He's blocked out pain and distractions to lead this team through a special season. Mizzou won with Mauk, but it's 11-1 record (9-0 with Franklin as the starter), No. 5 BCS ranking and East crown were earned in large part by what Franklin has done.

"Having James back there at quarterback, I think it adds a little more confidence to our offense and defense as a whole," Washington said. "I think it basically does something to our team. We know how relentless he is. We know the fighter he is.

"He's going to lead this team, and right now we wouldn't have gotten this far without James. He's definitely our hero, our team leader right now. We're just going to follow him and continue to follow his lead."

What to watch in the SEC: Week 15

December, 5, 2013
Almost nobody thought these two teams -- neither of which even reached bowl eligibility a season ago after going a combined 2-14 in SEC play -- would be here when the season started, but here we are. No. 3 Auburn (11-1) and No. 5 Missouri (11-1) will meet in Atlanta on Saturday with an SEC championship, a BCS bowl berth and maybe a spot in the national championship game at stake.

Let's take a look at five things to watch in Saturday's showdown at the Georgia Dome:

Possible hangovers: One could hardly blame Auburn if it entered this game a bit flat. Gus Malzahn's Tigers are coming off consecutive miracle wins against their biggest rivals: Georgia and Alabama. Chris Davis' missed field goal return for a touchdown against the top-ranked Crimson Tide resonated outside the sports world, considering that it was a subject on conversation on “The View” and the “Today” show and not just on sports highlight shows. Likewise, an emotional win against Texas A&M prompted the home fans to empty onto the field after Missouri clinched the SEC East title last Saturday. If one of these teams starts slowly Saturday, it could easily find itself facing a big deficit early in the game.

Defending the run: If Missouri is able to slow down Auburn's powerful running game (No. 5 nationally at 318.2 YPG), it will be in a small group of defenses that has been successful in that endeavor this season. Alabama -- which entered last week's game ranked fourth nationally against the run -- couldn't do it, as Auburn ran 52 times for 296 yards. In fact, Auburn has run for at least 200 yards in all but one game this season. Tre Mason (237 carries, 1,317 yards, 18 TDs) is the league's top rusher at 109.8 yards per game and quarterback Nick Marshall (140-922, 10 TDs) is eighth at 83.8 YPG. Meanwhile, Missouri -- which is 14th nationally against the run (119.1 YPG) has yet to allow 200 yards in any game. Let's not forget about the other side of this token, however. Missouri's offense performs with more balance than Auburn's, but its running game has been extremely productive, as well. Missouri ranks second in the league in rushing offense (236.2 YPG) with Henry Josey (153-951, 13 TDs) leading the way and ranking ninth in the league with 79.2 yards per game.

Auburn secondary against Missouri's big wideouts: Auburn has done a good job of pressuring opposing quarterbacks, but its secondary has been erratic at best. The Tigers surrendered 277 passing yards and three touchdowns to Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron last week -- including a 99-yard touchdown pass to Amari Cooper -- and gave up 415 yards to Georgia's Aaron Murray in the previous game. Overall, Auburn ranks second-to-last in the SEC against the pass (256.7 YPG), which is a scary sign with Missouri's big, talented receiving corps on deck. The Tigers have the No. 5 passing offense in the league (252.6 YPG), featuring L'Damian Washington (44 catches, 824 yards, 10 TDs) and Dorial Green-Beckham (49-686, 10 TDs), who rank seventh and 12th, respectively, in the SEC in receiving yards per game. Senior Marcus Lucas (50-596, 2 TDs) ranks 10th with 4.17 catches per game.

[+] EnlargeMichael Sam
Zumapress/Icon SMIMichael Sam and Missouri's defensive front will be tested by Auburn's powerful run game.
Containing quarterbacks: Marshall's emergence has been one of the leading factors in Auburn's revival after last season's dismal results. Not only is he poised to become a 1,000-yard rusher, but he has made some enormous plays in the passing game -- and not just the miracle pass for the game-winning, 73-yard touchdown to Ricardo Louis against Georgia. He hit Sammie Coates with a crucial game-tying touchdown pass in the final minute against Alabama, went for 339 yards -- including the game-winning touchdown pass to C.J. Uzomah with 10 seconds remaining -- against Mississippi State and made some huge throws in the road win against Texas A&M. He has fumbled 11 times this season (and only lost four), however, so Missouri's turnover-happy defense (SEC-high 27 takeaways) will most certainly look to generate some momentum off Marshall turnovers. On the other hand, Mizzou's James Franklin creates major matchup issues of his own. The 6-foot-2, 230-pound quarterback earned the nickname “Frank the Tank” with his physical running style, although it would be understandable if he hesitated to put his shoulder down Saturday after missing four games with a shoulder injury suffered against Georgia. Franklin was a combined 30-for-47 for 375 yards, two touchdowns and one interception against Ole Miss and Texas A&M since returning from the injury and also rushed 26 times for 122 yards in those two games, so he appears to be back to the form that makes him so difficult to corral.

Defensive playmakers: Few defensive players, if any, have made a bigger impact around the SEC this season than Mizzou defensive end Michael Sam. He leads the league with 10.5 sacks and 18 tackles for a loss, while fellow defensive lineman Markus Golden is fourth with 13 TFLs and Kony Ealy (9.5) and Shane Ray (9.0) aren't far outside the top 10. If Auburn's typical form holds, Mizzou won't have much of a chance to add to its SEC-leading sack total, but its defensive front will be the determining factor in whether it can handle Auburn's running game. Aside from defensive end Dee Ford (eight sacks, 12 TFLs), Auburn doesn't have many defensive players whose individual stats jump off the page. But a deep defensive line and playmakers like Robenson Therezie, Ryan Smith and Davis have combined to deliver some clutch plays when the Tigers needed a boost the most.

Franklin, Marshall emerge in Year of QBs

December, 5, 2013
In a season in which the quarterback play in this league was as good across the board as it’s ever been, a funny thing happened on the way to Saturday’s SEC championship game.

The marquee names, at least the marquee names when the season began, will be watching from home.

Reigning Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel won’t be in Atlanta and neither will the SEC quarterback with the gaudiest collection of rings, Alabama’s AJ McCarron.

Georgia’s Aaron Murray and LSU’s Zach Mettenberger combined to throw 48 touchdown passes this season, but their college careers are over. Sadly, they both suffered ACL tears and won’t be able to play in their teams’ bowl games.

South Carolina’s Connor Shaw was easily the most underrated quarterback in the SEC this season after throwing 21 touchdown passes and just one interception. But he, too, won’t be a part of the championship game festivities.

[+] EnlargeNick Marshall
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesNick Marshall easily has been one of the most improved players in the SEC.
Nope, that distinction belongs to Auburn’s Nick Marshall, who began his SEC career as a cornerback at Georgia, and Missouri’s James Franklin, who absorbed a wicked beating a year ago in his first season in the SEC and had to win back his starting job this preseason in an open competition with redshirt freshman Maty Mauk.

As unlikely an SEC championship game pairing as Auburn and Missouri might have been back in the summer, it would have been just as much of a stretch to predict this kind of success for Franklin and Marshall.

In Franklin’s case, it had very little to do with his talent or experience. But the wear and tear of last season would have taken its toll on any quarterback, and then Franklin was dealt yet another injury during the Georgia game this season when he separated his throwing shoulder and missed most of the next four games.

The frustrating thing for Franklin and the Tigers was that he was playing perhaps the best football of his career when he was hurt.

[+] EnlargeJames Franklin
Stacy Revere/Getty ImagesJames Franklin has returned to the lineup after being injured.
“If you want to play at a high level, your quarterback has to play at a high level,” Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said. “I certainly thought he was capable after coming off the most injuries I’ve ever had a quarterback have the year before, and he did.

“His numbers were as good as anybody’s in the country.”

Even more importantly for the Tigers, their play at quarterback didn’t drop off dramatically while Franklin was out. Mauk came in and finished the Georgia win on the road and went 3-1 in the next four games while Franklin recovered.

“Honestly, for [Mauk] to be able to come in and play at that level, to keep our team going, our offense playing at a consistently high level -- not a great level, but a high level -- I think that was critical for us,” said Pinkel, whose two quarterbacks have combined to account for 26 touchdown passes and just six interceptions.

“We didn’t have our starting quarterback for one-third of the season. I think for [Mauk] to go in and play, to maintain some degree of consistency, was really, really important for us.”

In returning to the starting lineup, Franklin was better last week against Texas A&M than he was the week before against Ole Miss and should be even better on Saturday. He had 313 yards of total offense and threw two touchdown passes in the 28-21 win over the Aggies and has turned it over only once since his return.

“Having James back there at quarterback, I think it adds a little more confidence to our offense and defense as a whole,” Missouri senior receiver L’Damian Washington said. “I think it basically does something to our team. We know how relentless he is. We know the fighter he is. It’s not taking anything away from Maty Mauk. Maty came in and did tremendous things. But just having James there … I know it does a lot for our team.”

Marshall, who was at junior college this time a year ago and didn’t even go through spring practice at Auburn, has easily been one of the most improved players in the SEC from the beginning of the season until now.

As an athlete, he’s every bit as explosive as Manziel (probably even more so) and has improved weekly as a quarterback. He’s made big throws when he’s had to and has carved teams apart in the zone-read part of Auburn’s package.

Marshall has passed for 11 touchdowns and run for 10 touchdowns. He enters the SEC championship game with 922 rushing yards and is averaging 6.6 yards per carry.

But where Marshall has really sparkled is in pressure situations. His 32-yard touchdown pass to Sammie Coates tied the Alabama game with 32 seconds left last weekend. In the Tigers’ SEC opener back in September, Marshall led Auburn down the field on the game-winning drive against Mississippi State and won it with an 11-yard touchdown pass to C.J. Uzomah with 10 seconds to play.

There was also the game-winning, 75-yard touchdown drive to beat Texas A&M on the road and, of course, the Hail Mary to beat Georgia.

Something says Marshall won’t be fazed much by the bright lights of the SEC championship game stage. He’s delivered all season long for the Tigers.

“Without all those plays he’s made, I don’t think we’d be in the position we are,” Auburn running back Corey Grant said.

It’s a position all quarterbacks want to be in, playing for a championship, and nothing shapes a quarterback’s legacy quite like winning a championship.

They’ll remember this season as the Year of the Quarterback in the SEC, and it’s probably fitting that the two still standing weren’t on a lot of people’s radar when the season began.

SEC championship game predictions

December, 5, 2013
Well, we're finally here. I'm sure we all got this SEC championship game right.

(Don't even try it, Auburn and Missouri fans!)

This might not be the matchup everyone saw coming, but it's going to be great when Auburn and Missouri get together in the Georgia Dome. I'm not sure if Atlanta is ready for an invasion of Tigers.

You know who else wasn't ready? Our buddy Chris Low. He tried valiantly to make a strong comeback this season in the picks but made a critical error last week. The veteran, the pro, the certified man picked against Mizzou at home against a struggling Texas A&M team. I learned from my mistakes, but Chris showed just how stubborn he is.

Last week, we both went 7-2 and missed on Auburn's thrilling 34-28 win over No. 1 Alabama. I slipped up and picked Ole Miss over Mississippi State but picked Mizzou in order to keep my two-game lead over Chris. Heading into Saturday's SEC championship game, I'm sitting pretty at 96-17 (.850), while Chris is 94-19 (.832).

Now is the time for Chris to make up some ground before bowl season, which will decide his fate. If he takes a three-game deficit into the most wonderful time of the year, he's toast.

Chris will be in Atlanta this weekend, which means he'll be hanging with his buddy Oscar and checking in on his favorite cat, Meeko. Distractions galore reside in the ATL … and Chris can only stay away from Buckhead for so long.

Here are our picks for the SEC title game:


Chris Low: Between them, Auburn and Missouri won two SEC games last season, and eight of their combined 14 losses in the league were by 21 points or more. So if anybody says they had these two teams in the SEC championship game back in August, I’m not buying it. In retrospect, though, both teams were far more talented than they played a season ago. Missouri didn’t endure nearly as many injuries as it did last season -- particularly in the offensive line -- and first-year Auburn coach Gus Malzahn was able to come in and help that program regain its edge. Both teams are capable of lighting it up offensively, but Missouri has proven to be a little bit better on defense. Combine that with it being next to impossible for Auburn to come back down from the emotional high of upsetting Alabama last week, and it all adds up to an SEC championship for Mizzou in only its second season in the league. … Missouri 31, Auburn 27

Edward Aschoff: I'm going to go out on a limb here and take the Tigers this weekend. Pretty easy one for me. OK, in all seriousness, this is a really tough pick this week. We have two high-powered offenses and two improved defenses. After AJ McCarron hit his 99-yard touchdown pass to Amari Cooper early in the fourth quarter, Auburn allowed just 53 yards and blocked a field goal before Chris Davis' magical return. As for Mizzou, these Tigers lead the SEC in sacks (37) and tackles for loss (95). We know both teams can move the ball and put points on the board, as they both rank in the top four in the SEC in total offense and scoring. The difference will be the play up front, and Auburn's running game has been ridiculous. I love what Mizzou has done up front, but Auburn can run power, triple option, read-option and loves to fool teams with formation deception. I think this one will be close, but Tre Mason, Nick Marshall and Auburn's running game will grind out another win. … Auburn 31, Missouri 27

AUBURN, Ala. -- On Tuesday, less than 72 hours after his game-winning field goal return to beat Alabama, Chris Davis tweeted: “When something is taken from your grasps, it's not punishment, but opportunity for your hands to receive something better.”

He could be referring to his own missed opportunity at the 2010 BCS national championship game or the multiple injuries he’s battled during his time at Auburn. But maybe it goes deeper. Maybe Saturday’s incredible field goal return was part of the reward for everything he has been through. For his youth in a tough neighborhood, his trials at Auburn and devotion to a family that has become his center point.

[+] EnlargeChris Davis
AP Photo/Dave MartinChris Davis has made an impact on special teams, but is also Auburn's leading tackler and top defensive back.
“Chris is a champion,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said after the game. “He’s one of our seniors, and he’s had his ups and downs."

Davis grew up in inner city Birmingham and attended Woodlawn High School, a school not known for producing Division-I athletes. Sure, its alumni include legendary coach Bobby Bowden and David Langner, the hero from the 1972 Iron Bowl, but the demographics have changed significantly since those days.

The school no longer offers the same opportunities it once did, and according to former coach Bruce Breland, it was easy to get caught up in the wrong crowd. But Davis was different.

“He stayed to himself as far as not allowing any of the outside distractions that could’ve pulled him away,” Breland said. “He stayed focused on his grades. He carried himself well. He dressed nice. You never saw him hanging around any of the bad kids.

“In fact, you’d see him sometimes maybe talking to someone else about being disappointed in them and about them not going to class.”

Davis’ wisdom did not belie his gifts on the football field. He did a little bit of everything for Woodlawn. He played quarterback, running back and wide receiver. He even played defense in critical situations when the team needed a stop. But above all else, he was most dangerous in the return game.

From Recruiting Nation’s scouting report: “A gifted and talented return specialist that fields the football and darts north and south, often jetting by the coverage units; makes sharp cuts without losing speed. Shows the talents to take the ball back the distance for six points.”

But even with his skill set, things didn’t come easy once he enrolled at Auburn in 2010.

As a freshman, he played sparingly on defense and special teams, yet he found a way to make an impact in every game along the way. Every game except for the BCS national championship. He dressed out against Oregon and rolled his ankle on the opening kickoff, missing the rest of the game. The Tigers won, but it was painful having to watch from the sideline.

“He was disappointed that he hurt his ankle, but he was still thrilled to death for the team,” Breland said. “He wasn’t selfish about it.”

Davis started 11 games at cornerback as a sophomore. He finished with 60 tackles, four pass breakups and a forced fumble. However, much like what happened to the rest of the program at Auburn, he went through a difficult 2012 campaign, riddled with injuries, and only started six games. Gene Chizik and most of the coaching staff was fired after the worst finish since the Tigers went 0-10 in 1950.

It didn’t faze Davis, though. He was determined to return to form as a senior under Malzahn, a fresh start proving to be just the thing the team needed.

Not only has Davis been able to stay healthy, he’s exceeded expectations in his final season. He currently leads Auburn with 65 tackles and 12 pass breakups. He’s developed into the team’s most dependable cornerback and arguably the most important player on the defense.

“He's a very physical corner,” Malzahn said. “He's a very good tackler. He's meant a lot to our defense this year.”

But after Saturday’s game, he’ll be remembered more for his iconic play on special teams. It has made him a rock star on campus. On Monday, he received a standing ovation from his geology class. He might not ever have to buy a drink on campus again. He’ll go down in history for his return that beat Alabama.

“He’s a hero around here right now,” said fellow defensive back Ryan Smith. “He’s on top of the world.”

To Smith, there's no one more deserving of the fame and recognition than his roommate and the team's senior captain.

“We didn’t know each other before we came here, but now we’re just like brothers,” Smith said. “I love him like a brother. He’s a great role model on and off the field. He tries to do the right things. It’s paying off for him because everything he’s getting, he deserves.”

For Davis, that sense of family rings true. He stuck out tough times with his teammates and came through for them as he has done all season. As for the play that will have Davis in Auburn lore forever? Davis’ penultimate moment came in front of his 3-year-old son and could provide both with something better.

"You know, I play for a whole lot of people instead of me,” Davis said. “I've got to provide for my family, and through this game, I've got a good chance of doing that. That's why I go out every Saturday and play like I do."

Mizzou's success should be no surprise

December, 4, 2013
COLUMBIA, Mo. -- Missouri's ascent in the SEC has come as a bit of a shock to many observers around the college football world.

Coming off a rough 5-7 debut season in the league, while dealing with a rash of injuries, the No. 5 Tigers have been one of the surprise stories of the year, not just because they've gone 11-1, but because it only took them two seasons to claim a division title in what is widely considered the nation's premier football conference.

[+] EnlargeGary Pinkel
Jamie Squire/Getty ImagesDivision titles and winning aren't new to Gary Pinkel and Missouri.
When Missouri and Texas A&M first entered the league in 2012, there were many proclamations about how difficult the conference is and how long it might take for either to make a serious impact.

But when you take a look at the Tigers' recent past prior to joining the conference, this season -- or rather, their ability to compete for a divisional championship -- shouldn't come as a surprise at all.

That's what the Tigers have been doing on a regular basis in the Big 12 under coach Gary Pinkel.

"We did in '07, '08," Pinkel said after his team beat Texas A&M on Saturday to secure the SEC East Division title. "[In] 2010 Nebraska had to lose in the end [for us to go to the Big 12 championship game]. This is another shot here. We've had shots at it four of the last seven years. We didn't play as well and lost the two that we played in. This is awesome. This is great."

Pinkel was referring to Missouri's success in the Big 12 North Division. The Tigers won the division in 2007 and 2008 and they were co-champions with Nebraska in 2010, but Nebraska went to the Big 12 title game, not Missouri. Still, this season's SEC East title is the Tigers' fourth division championship or co-championship in seven seasons. The standard for success exists at Missouri, as evidenced by the Tigers' 48-19 record in the five seasons prior to joining the SEC.

Those three Big 12 seasons in particular, the Tigers reached lofty heights. In 2007, when they went 12-2 and won the Big 12 North, the Tigers reached No. 1 in the Associated Press poll and BCS standings at one point. The Tigers achieved top-10 rankings in 2008 and 2010 also and were ranked in the Top 25 at some point in every season dating back to 2006 prior to their entry into the SEC.

The 2012 season was the year that the ranking streak ended. But the Tigers were no strangers to winning.

I think we came in as seniors, we established our goals. We said a national championship, let's aim high and get an SEC championship. The guys in the locker room believed in that once the leaders did, and that kind of trickled down.

-- Missouri WR L'Damian Washington

"It's always in our program, as a goal just like it was in the Big 12," Pinkel said Monday of the goal of winning the division. "First of all, to win a national championship, it starts out with winning your division. If you can't win your division, then you can't get to your championship game."

Pinkel is especially thankful for his group of 18 seniors, who played their last game at Faurot Field on Saturday, for setting the standard coming into this season. After the rough 2012 campaign, Pinkel said they came in and discussed raising the expectation level for 2013. That has had a profound impact on the team.

"I think we came in as seniors, we established our goals," senior receiver L'Damian Washington said. "We said a national championship, let's aim high and get an SEC championship. The guys in the locker room believed in that once the leaders did, and that kind of trickled down."

Pinkel said so far, the Tigers have hit on every big-picture goal they set before the season.

"It's amazing," he said. "Kind of created a vision for the team.....With kids like that, they do so much, you can't even begin to explain to them the appreciation for the kind of impact they make on the University of Missouri football."

It's easy for observers to qualify Missouri's ascent by citing the struggles of other teams in the SEC East this season (Georgia and Florida in particular), but the truth of the matter is that this is a senior-laden, talented team with playmakers on both sides of the football, strong leadership on and off the field and, with the exception of one bad fourth quarter against South Carolina, the Tigers have answered the call at every turn. That's why they are here. Considering where they have been, it shouldn't be a major surprise.

"We've been doubted," junior running back Henry Josey said. "We've been an underdog, and we've done what nobody thought we could do. We've just showed up and earned everything we wanted this year, and that's something that's very important."