SEC: Missouri Tigers

No. 16 Missouri evened the playing field in a best-of-three showdown between the SEC and the Big Ten on New Year’s Day. The Tigers outran No. 25 Minnesota in a 33-17 victory at the Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl in Orlando, Florida.

Missouri beat the Gophers at their own game by running for 337 yards and winning the turnover battle. Minnesota fumbled five times and the Tigers recovered three of them. Running backs Marcus Murphy and Russell Hansbrough broke off several long runs late in the game that helped boost Mizzou’s average to 7.5 yards per carry and helped close out the win.

The victory ended a three-bowl losing streak for the SEC after a rough day for Mississippi State and Ole Miss on Dec. 31. Wisconsin also knocked off Auburn in overtime less than an hour before the Citrus Bowl ended. The rubber match between the two conferences on Thursday will take place in the Allstate Sugar Bowl between conference champions Alabama and Ohio State.

Game ball goes to: Murphy finished his college career with 157 rushing yards on 12 carries. His biggest run of the day was a 69-yard dagger that set up the Tigers for a game-clinching score in the fourth quarter. He also returned a punt to the end zone before that play was called back because of an illegal block.

What it means: The victory gives Mizzou its best two-year victory total in program history. The back-to-back SEC East winners have won 23 games during the last two seasons and the Tigers have their first three-game bowl winning streak since 1979. The Gophers drop to 8-5 with their third bowl loss in the last three seasons. Despite taking positive steps this season, Minnesota finished with an identical record to a year ago.

Best play: Minnesota’s final lead of the day came on a 54-yard touchdown reception by all-Big Ten tight end Maxx Williams. The 6-foot-4, 250-pound Williams went airborne to get to the end zone. He hurdled one defender in stride at the 15-yard line and launched himself over another to get across the goal line. The score gave the Gophers a 14-13 lead early in the third quarter.
video What’s next: Missouri will gear up for a third unexpected SEC East championship next season without Murphy. The Tigers also could be losing redshirt junior Shane Ray, the SEC’s most productive pass-rusher, to the NFL draft. Minnesota heads to the offseason with a degree of optimism after playing in its first New Year’s Day bowl in more than 50 years.
The New Year's Day meeting (1 p.m. ET, ABC) between No. 16 Missouri (10-3) and No. 25 Minnesota (8-4) will mark a rare occasion for both teams.

The Tigers, who also won the Cotton Bowl on Jan. 1 a year ago, are making back-to-back appearances in a January bowl for the first time 1961. Minnesota hasn’t played a bowl game on the first day of the year since 1962. Both teams pounded their way to unexpected success in the regular season and are looking to spin that momentum into 2015 with a win in the Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl. Here are a few things to watch in Thursday’s game.

You shall not pass: Neither Missouri nor Minnesota topped 200 passing yards per game this season. They combined to pick up 327.6 yards per game through the air, which is less than the top six passing offenses in the FBS averaged on their own. That didn’t stop them from putting together competent offenses this season, though. The Gophers rode senior running back David Cobb to eight wins. Only three backs in the country averaged more carries per game that Cobb. Tailbacks Russell Hansbrough and Marcus Murphy did most of the heavy lifting for the Tigers this year. Murphy scored three touchdowns in the return game to go with his output on offense. Don’t expect to see either team turn this game in Orlando, Florida, into a shootout.

Avoiding mistakes: Without the ability to strike in a hurry, both teams rely on good field position and steady ball control to win games. Turnovers and other field-flipping mistakes could have a big impact on the outcome. Minnesota tied for the eighth-best turnover margin in the country this year with 28 takeaways and 17 turnovers. Missouri wasn’t far behind in 25th. The Tigers lost only 14 turnovers this year.

Two players who could affect field position with big plays are Missouri’s Shane Ray and Minnesota’s Briean Boddy-Calhoun. Ray led all SEC pass-rushers with 14 sacks this year and could force Minnesota quarterback Mitch Leidner into some bad decisions. Boddy-Calhoun was an All-Big Ten pick after picking up a team-high four interceptions. When the Gophers needed a big play on defense, it was usually Boddy-Calhoun who delivered.

Steckel’s farewell: Missouri defensive coordinator Dave Steckel will be coaching in his final game for the Tigers. After the Citrus Bowl, Steckel will take over as head coach at Missouri State and former Mizzou assistant Barry Odom will take over as coordinator. Odom’s familiarity with the program should make for an easy transition, but Steckel’s players -- especially the linebackers he coaches -- will have trouble saying goodbye to Steckel and said they plan to send him out on a high note.

On the rise: Both programs exceeded expectations this season, remaining in the hunt for a conference title until at least November. The Gophers dropped after losses to Wisconsin and Ohio State. Missouri made it out of the SEC East before falling flat against Alabama in the league championship game. Although neither has the brand name of some of the more traditional powers in the teams' respective conferences, each has a sturdy foundation and a respected coaching staff. A win in the Citrus Bowl would provide either team with good momentum moving into the offseason.

Watch: Gary Pinkel is all about that swag

December, 22, 2014
Missouri football has a fun little tradition called "NFL Day" in which players are allowed to wear what they want and celebrate how they want during the season's final practice on campus.

How do the players know this for sure?

Because their head coach leads the way.

That's right: 62-year-old Gary Pinkel went all out to make sure his players knew this was a "serious" tradition, wearing sunglasses, a hoodie and all gold, including some truly spectacular shoes. Judging by the reaction during this video, his players loved it.

Our favorite reaction is easy. Check out the face on No. 97, defensive lineman Josh Augusta as he catches a first glance of Pinkel's gold shoes.

Gary PinkelInstagram/mizzoufootballJosh Augusta's reaction to his coach's shoes was priceless.

Top stats to know: Alabama beats Missouri

December, 6, 2014
The Alabama Crimson Tide held the Missouri Tigers to their second-lowest point total of the season Saturday in the SEC Championship Game, but the Crimson Tide’s offense might have turned in the best performance of any Alabama unit. The two most statistically dominant players were quarterback Blake Sims and receiver Amari Cooper.

Sims prolific, precise
En route to setting a school record for passing yards in a season (3,250), Sims kept the chains moving for Alabama:
  • On passes thrown 5 yards or shorter, he completed 20-of-21 attempts for 155 yards and a touchdown. Those were the most completions and yards on such throws in a game in his career.

  • On third down, Sims was 6-of-6 passing and was sacked twice. Entering the game, he had converted an FBS-best 52 percent of his third-down passing plays.

  • On play action, Sims completed 10-of-11 passes for 132 yards and a touchdown for an average of 12.0 yards per pass. Without play action, Sims averaged 8.1 yards per attempt.
Alabama converted 9 of 13 third downs (62 percent), even better than its pregame mark of 53 percent, which ranked fourth in the FBS.

Sims was 23-of-27 passing, setting a record for the SEC Championship Game for completion percentage (85.2 percent). The record was 77.1, set in 2004 by Auburn’s Jason Campbell.

Cooper delivers
Sims’ favorite target, as usual, was Amari Cooper. He had 12 catches after hauling in 13 passes in the Iron Bowl last week. Saturday’s game marked the second time this season that Cooper has had at least 12 catches in consecutive games. One other player in the FBS has had as many as one: Colorado's Nelson Spruce in September.

Cooper has the SEC single-season record for receptions (115).

Alabama's SEC dominance
The victory gave Alabama its 24th SEC title, 11 more than any other team. (Those totals include shared titles.) It was Alabama’s fifth SEC Championship Game win. That's second to Florida, which has had seven victories in a game instituted in 1992.

On the other side of Alabama’s success was Missouri’s struggles. The Tigers are 0-4 in conference championship games, the worst record in FBS history.

Potential spoiler matchups for Alabama, Oregon 

November, 19, 2014
The near upsets that TCU and Florida State went through in Week 12 show that no matter how strong College Football Playoff title contenders are, they always have to be on the lookout for spoiler teams that could end their championship dreams.

The bad news for the top two teams in the College Football Playoff rankings -- Alabama and Oregon -- is that both have a potential spoiler matchup that just might be an unfavorable one. Here's a look at games that could prevent both teams from making the playoff. (Note: Unless otherwise specified, all of the statistical totals below are in Power 5 games.)

Alabama Crimson Tide
Florida playing in the SEC title game? This year? This Gators team? Don't laugh. It's not implausible. Not even close.

Hear us out. This utterly forgettable season for the Gators -- in which coach Will Muschamp has been essentially fired in the court of public opinion -- took an unexpected turn Saturday with a 38-20 thrashing of No. 11 Georgia.

[+] EnlargeWill Muschamp
Rob Foldy/Getty ImagesWill Muschamp coaching in the SEC Championship Game? It could happen.
Florida now stands at 3-3, and its two remaining SEC games are very winnable (at Vanderbilt, versus South Carolina). Let's say UF wins those two and finishes 5-3. From there, the Gators' improbable path to Atlanta isn't complicated.

They would not win a head-to-head tiebreaker with Missouri if both finish 5-3, so Florida needs to finish in a three-way tie with Mizzou and Georgia. For that to happen, UGA would need to split its final two league games (at Kentucky, versus Auburn), and Missouri would need to lose at Tennessee and against either Arkansas or at Texas A&M (or both). Does any of that seem crazy? Not really. Not at all, in fact.

That would be enough for Florida to head to the SEC Championship Game. How? Let's consult the three-team tiebreaker in the SEC:

If three teams (or more) are tied for a division title, the following procedure will be used in the following order ...
A. Combined head-to-head record among the tied teams. (All would be 1-1 against each other in the UF-UGA-MU scenario)
B. Record of the tied teams within the division. (In the above scenario, Florida would be 5-1 in the division and both UGA and Mizzou would have at least two losses against the East.)

Yes, that means Gator fans are going to have to root for rival Tennessee. Florida needs one of Mizzou's two remaining losses to be against East member UT. If the Tigers were to lose to Texas A&M and Arkansas but beat Tennessee, they would win the three-way tiebreaker because they would also only have one East loss and will have the head-to-head tiebreak when it comes down to just UF and Mizzou.

Got all of that? It's actually fairly simple. If all three teams finish 5-3 and one of Missouri's losses is at Tennessee, then the Gators -- given up on by pretty much everyone, with what many assume to be a lameduck coach -- would head to the SEC Championship Game.

How wild is that?

Why Missouri is SEC East favorite 

October, 7, 2014
Russell HansbroughScott Clarke/ESPN ImagesRunning back Russell Hansbrough leads the Tigers' strong ground game.
The SEC has had more than its share of surprises through Week 6, including Ole Miss pulling off the upset over Alabama, Mississippi State becoming a top-5 program and South Carolina having more conference losses by the first weekend in October than it had in the entire 2013 season.

This amazing turn of events has made this a campaign to remember, but it's also masked another potentially surprising development in the SEC East.

The Missouri Tigers are the defending division champions, but the loss of 13 starters made this team a long shot to defend its title.

That underdog status has now changed.

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Watch: 335-pound nose tackle snares INT

September, 13, 2014
His teammates call him "The Big Bear," which seems like an appropriate nickname for a 300-plus-pound nose tackle.

So when Missouri's Josh Augusta made a leap and a pick in the Tigers' game against UCF on Saturday, it was a big deal for The Big Bear. Take a look:


Position U: Tight ends

June, 17, 2014

Who really deserves to claim the title of “Tight End U” for the 2000s?

1. Miami (84 points): While it has been relatively quiet since its positional heyday early in the 2000s, Miami still easily tops this list. With seven tight ends drafted, including first-round picks Jeremy Shockey, Kellen Winslow and Greg Olsen, the Hurricanes far surpassed the next closest programs at the position. They don’t get extra points for this, but they also produced arguably the top tight end in the NFL today in 2010 third-round pick Jimmy Graham, who's now starring for the New Orleans Saints.

Award winners: Kellen Winslow, Mackey (2003).
Consensus All-Americans: Kellen Winslow (2003).
First-team all-conference: Jeremy Shockey (2000, 2001), Kellen Winslow (2002, 2003), Greg Olsen (2006).
NFL first-round draft picks: Jeremy Shockey (2002), Kellen Winslow (2004), Greg Olsen (2007).
NFL draft picks, Rounds 2-4: Kevin Everett (Round 3, 2005), Jimmy Graham (Round 3, 2010).
NFL draft picks, Rounds 5-7: Dedrick Epps (Round 7, 2010), Richard Gordon (Round 6, 2011).

2. Iowa (66 points): Dallas Clark leads the way thanks to a 2002 season after which he won the John Mackey Award and was a consensus All-American. But Iowa had a consistent run of tight ends in the 2000s, with first-round pick Clark and five others getting drafted -- most recently third-round pick C.J. Fiedorowicz, who was the fifth tight end selected this year.

Award winners: Dallas Clark, Mackey (2002).
Consensus All-Americans: Dallas Clark (2002).
First-team all-conference: Dallas Clark (2002), Brandon Myers (2008), Tony Moeaki (2009), C.J. Fiedorowicz (2013).
NFL first-round draft picks: Dallas Clark (2003).
NFL draft picks, Rounds 2-4: Scott Chandler (Round 4, 2007), Tony Moeaki (Round 3, 2010), C.J. Fiedorowicz (Round 3, 2014).
NFL draft picks, Rounds 5-7: Erik Jensen (Round 7, 2004), Brandon Myers (Round 6, 2009).

3. Missouri (64 points): Missouri hasn’t had as much success placing tight ends in the pros as some of the other top programs on this list, but the Tigers have an award winner (Chase Coffman won the 2008 Mackey Award) and three consensus All-American tight ends (Coffman, Martin Rucker and Michael Egnew) since 2000. Not too shabby.

Award winners: Chase Coffman, Mackey (2008).
Consensus All-Americans: Martin Rucker (2007), Chase Coffman (2008), Michael Egnew (2010).
First-team all-conference: Martin Rucker (2006), Michael Egnew (2010, 2011).
NFL first-round draft picks: None.
NFL draft picks, Rounds 2-4: Martin Rucker (Round 4, 2008), Chase Coffman (Round 3, 2009), Michael Egnew (Round 3, 2012).
NFL draft picks, Rounds 5-7: None.

4. Wisconsin (64 points): One All-American (Lance Kendricks in 2010, when he led the team in catches, receiving yards and touchdown catches), six first-team All-Big Ten picks (Kendricks, Garrett Graham twice, Mark Anelli, Travis Beckum and Jacob Pedersen) and six drafted players helped Wisconsin nearly earn the runner-up spot in the tight end rankings.

Award winners: None.
Consensus All-Americans: Lance Kendricks (2010).
First-team all-conference: Mark Anelli (2001), Travis Beckum (2007), Garrett Graham (2008, 2009), Lance Kendricks (2010), Jacob Pedersen (2012).
NFL first-round draft picks: None.
NFL draft picks, Rounds 2-4: Owen Daniels (Round 4, 2006), Travis Beckum (Round 3, 2009), Garrett Graham (Round 4, 2010), Lance Kendricks (Round 2, 2011).
NFL draft picks, Rounds 5-7: Mark Anelli (Round 6, 2002), Jason Pociask (Round 5, 2006).

5. Georgia (62 points): It doesn’t have the national awards to show for it, but Georgia seems to boast an outstanding tight end nearly every season. The best example of that is how the Bulldogs keep placing tight ends in the pros – starting with Randy McMichael, Ben Watson and Leonard Pope and leading all the way up to Arthur Lynch, who just went to the Miami Dolphins in the most recent draft. The Bulldogs have built an impressive legacy at the position that looks to continue.

Award winners: None.
Consensus All-Americans: None.
First-team all-conference: Randy McMichael (2001), Leonard Pope (2004, 2005), Martrez Milner (2006), Orson Charles (2011), Arthur Lynch (2013).
NFL first-round draft picks: Ben Watson (2004).
NFL draft picks, Rounds 2-4: Randy McMichael (Round 4, 2002), Leonard Pope (Round 3, 2006), Martrez Milner (Round 4, 2007), Orson Charles (Round 4, 2012).
NFL draft picks, Rounds 5-7: Arthur Lynch (Round 5, 2014).

6. BYU (56 points): Independents Notre Dame and BYU are hurt in these position rankings by not being members of a conference -- thus they couldn’t earn points for all-conference selections, although BYU did as a member of the Mountain West up through 2010. In fact, the Cougars earned 36 of their 56 points by having six tight ends named to the All-MWC team between 2001 and 2009. Notre Dame certainly belongs higher on the list, considering that it has had nine tight ends drafted, including first-round pick and 2012 Mackey Award winner Tyler Eifert.

Award winners: None.
Consensus All-Americans: Dennis Pitta (2009).
First-team all-conference: Doug Jolley (2001), Jonny Harline (2005, 2006), Dennis Pitta (2007, 2008, 2009).
NFL first-round draft picks: None.
NFL draft picks, Rounds 2-4: Doug Jolley (Round 2, 2002), Dennis Pitta (Round 4, 2010).
NFL draft picks, Rounds 5-7: Tevita Ofahengaue (Round 7, 2001), Spencer Nead (Round 7, 2003).

7. Virginia (54 points): Heath Miller is a one-man wrecking crew here, single-handedly accounting for 38 of Virginia’s 54 points thanks to a Mackey Award-winning season in 2004 when he was a consensus All-American and went on to become a first-round draft pick. Miller also won All-ACC honors in 2003.

Award winners: Heath Miller, Mackey (2004).
Consensus All-Americans: Heath Miller (2004).
First-team all-conference: Heath Miller (2003, 2004), John Phillips (2008).
NFL first-round draft picks: Heath Miller (2005).
NFL draft picks, Rounds 2-4: Chris Luzar (Round 4, 2002).
NFL draft picks, Rounds 5-7: Billy Baber (Round 5, 2001), Tom Santi (Round 6, 2008), John Phillips (Round 6, 2009).

8. Stanford (48 points): Stanford is arguably the top program for tight ends right now, but that’s a fairly recent development. Of the six Cardinal tight ends drafted since 2001, four have been since 2010, led by second-round picks Coby Fleener and 2012 All-American Zach Ertz. Stanford posted a rare double in 2013 when Ertz and Levine Toilolo were both picked in the draft’s first four rounds.

Award winners: None.
Consensus All-Americans: Zach Ertz (2012).
First-team all-conference: Alex Smith (2004), Coby Fleener (2011), Zach Ertz (2012).
NFL first-round draft picks: None.
NFL draft picks, Rounds 2-4: Teyo Johnson (Round 2, 2003), Alex Smith (Round 3, 2005), Coby Fleener (Round 2, 2012), Zach Ertz (Round 2, 2013), Levine Toilolo (Round 4, 2013).
NFL draft picks, Rounds 5-7: Jim Dray (Round 7, 2010),

9. Colorado (46 points): Colorado hasn’t had much to brag about on the football field over the last several years, but the Buffaloes are still hanging on in the tight end rankings. Daniel Graham’s outstanding 2001 season (including a Mackey Award and a consensus All-America designation prior to becoming a first-round draft pick) is a big reason why Colorado makes the top 10.

Award winners: Daniel Graham, Mackey (2001).
Consensus All-Americans: Daniel Graham (2001).
First-team all-conference: Daniel Graham (2001), Joe Klopfenstein (2005).
NFL first-round draft picks: Daniel Graham (2002).
NFL draft picks, Rounds 2-4: Joe Klopfenstein (Round 2, 2006).
NFL draft picks, Rounds 5-7: Quinn Sypniewski (Round 5, 2006), Nick Kasa, Round 6, 2013).

10. UCLA (46 points): As with its fellow No. 9 on the list, Colorado, UCLA can thank a single player for its spot in the top 10. Marcedes Lewis accumulated 32 of the Bruins’ 46 points with a 2005 season when he won the Mackey Award, was a consensus All-American and first-team All-Pac-10 pick and then went on to become a 2006 first-round draft selection.

Award winners: Marcedes Lewis, Mackey (2005).
Consensus All-Americans: Marcedes Lewis (2005).
First-team all-conference: Mike Seidman (2002), Marcedes Lewis (2005).
NFL first-round draft picks: Marcedes Lewis (2006).
NFL draft picks, Rounds 2-4: Mike Seidman (Round 3, 2003).
NFL draft picks, Rounds 5-7: Jeff Grau (Round 7, 2002), Bryan Fletcher (Round 6, 2002).

44 – Notre Dame; 40 – Clemson; 38 – Arizona State, Florida, Louisville; 34 – Oregon, USC; 32 – Minnesota, North Carolina, Purdue, Rutgers; 28 – Tennessee; 26 – Oklahoma; 24 – N.C. State; 22 – Kentucky, Washington; 20 – Arkansas, Maryland; 18 – Penn State, Pittsburgh, Texas Tech; 16 – Kansas State, Oklahoma State, Texas; 14 – Arizona, Michigan, Nebraska, Ohio State; 12 – South Carolina; 10 – California, LSU, Michigan State, Oregon State; 8 – Boston College, Northwestern; 6 – TCU, Utah, Duke, Syracuse; 4 – Alabama, Kansas, Texas A&M, Virginia Tech; 2 – Illinois, Indiana, Iowa State, Mississippi State; 0 – Auburn, Baylor, Florida State, Georgia Tech, Ole Miss, Vanderbilt, Wake Forest, Washington State, West Virginia

What2Watch4: Missouri's inside runs

December, 6, 2013

USA TODAY Sports, Getty ImagesQuarterbacks Nick Marshall (left) and James Franklin will help decide the SEC title on the ground.

The two best rushing teams in the SEC square off Saturday in the SEC Championship as Missouri faces Auburn. Both teams average more than 235 yards per game on the ground.

Auburn runs for most of its yards outside the tackle box but Missouri prefers to pound the ball up the middle. That bodes well against an Auburn defense that has struggled to stop inside runs all season.

On rushes between the tackles, Missouri leads the SEC averaging 144 yards per game and 6.1 yards per rush. Henry Josey, Russell Hansbrough, Marcus Murphy and James Franklin have each rushed for more than 200 yards between the tackles this season, and each averages at least six yards per carry.

Against SEC opponents, Auburn has allowed 134 yards per game between the tackles on 5.3 yards per carry, both worst among SEC teams. That weakness is the primary reason why Auburn is not undefeated.

In its only loss this season, it allowed LSU to run for 212 yards up the middle despite averaging nearly eight defenders in the box.

Auburn has allowed conference opponents to rush for almost three yards per carry before contact, second-worst in the conference. Its primary issue has been its consistency.

In SEC play, Auburn has hit opponents in the backfield on 23 percent of carries, the second-highest percentage in the SEC. On the other hand, it has allowed rushers to run at least five yards before being touched on 24 percent of their carries, the third-highest percentage in the conference.

Missouri has been held to fewer than 100 yards between the tackles three times this season, including in its only loss. The common thread between those defenses was limiting Missouri’s yards before contact.

In those three games, Missouri averaged just 1.1 yards before contact on inside runs. Overall, the Tigers averaged 3.8 yards before contact per carry on such runs, second among BCS-automatic-qualifying (AQ) teams.

If Missouri can get running room, it can break long runs. Missouri has 13 rushes up the middle of at least 20 yards, tied for most in the SEC. Auburn has allowed 10 runs of at least 20 yards between the tackles, also tied for the most in the SEC.

Auburn has also struggled to slow down mobile quarterbacks, having allowed 426 rushing yards to quarterbacks, the third-highest total in the SEC.

Missouri’s James Franklin is one of four SEC quarterbacks to average 50 rushing yards per game. The other two that have faced Auburn this season, Dak Prescott and Johnny Manziel, ran for a combined 224 yards against the Tigers (excluding sack yards), with 200 of those yards (89 percent) coming between the tackles.

Missouri brings a streak of note into this game. Over the past two seasons, it is 11-0 when rushing for at least 200 yards.

Key matchup: Auburn line vs. Missouri 'D'

December, 6, 2013
The matchup to watch in the SEC Championship Game is the battle in the trenches when Auburn has the football.

Auburn’s offensive line is among the nation’s best at opening holes for its runners and protecting its quarterback. Conversely, Missouri has one of the top defensive lines in the nation at stopping the run and getting after the quarterback.

Auburn’s offensive line
Auburn averages 318.3 rushing yards per game and 6.3 yards per carry, both of which rankfifth in the FBS. Its success is predicated on its offensive line’s ability to open holes for quarterback Nick Marshall and the running backs.

On designed runs, Auburn averages an AQ-high 210.3 yards per game before first contact. That is 108.5 more than the AQ average. Auburn gained 189 such yards against Alabama, 95 more than any other team has gained against the Tide in the last two seasons.

Auburn averages an SEC-high 4.5 yards before contact per rush and makes it at least 5 yards past the line of scrimmage before contact on 31 percent of its rushes.

The key has been Auburn’s ability to set the edge. Gus Malzahn’s team leads all schools from AQ (automatic-qualifyin)g conferences in rushing yards (2,584) and touchdowns (26) outside the tackles, and ranks second in yards per carry (8.3) on such plays behind Wisconsin.

How Missouri’s defense can stop Auburn’s run?

Missouri is allowing 119.1 rushing yards per game, second fewest in the SEC behind Alabama, and has held all 12 of its opponents below their season average in rushing yards. These Tigers have held opponents to zero or negative yards on 29 percent of their rush attempts, the highest percentage in the SEC.

The key for Missouri will be containing Nick Marshall and Auburn’s zone read. Zone reads have accounted for 42 percent of Auburn’s carries. On such plays, Auburn is averaging 7.2 yards per rush and has an SEC-high 16 runs of 20 yards or longer.

Missouri has struggled to stop these plays this season, allowing 4.9 yards per rush, including 6.1 when the opposing quarterback keeps the ball. If they can stop them Saturday and force Auburn to throw the ball, Gary Pinkel’s team will be able to do what it does best, rush the passer.

Missouri’s defensive line
Missouri lead the SEC with 37 sacks, 74 knockdowns and 116 total pressures (hurries, knockdowns and sacks).

Yet, Missouri does not have to send extra pass rushers to get after the quarterback. Missouri sends four or fewer pass rushers on 89 percent of its opponents’ dropbacks, the highest percentage of any AQ defense. When sending such pressure, the Tigers have an AQ-high 32 sacks and 97 total pressures.

Defensive ends Michael Sam and Kony Ealy are among the nation’s best defensive linemen. Sam leads the SEC with 10.5 sacks and 18 tackles for loss. Ealy leads the SEC with 30 total pressures and 14 quarterback hits.

How Auburn’s offense stops Missouri’s pass rush?
Auburn must keep its run game going to limit Missouri’s pass rush. Auburn runs on 69 percent of its plays, the highest percentage of any non-triple option offense. If they can run the ball with success, there will be no need for them to pass.

Something has to give
Missouri is one of seven teams that has not allowed 200 yards rushing in any of its games this season, and Auburn has rushed for more than 200 yards in 11 of its 12 games.

Conversely, Auburn is one of 26 FBS teams that has not allowed more than three sacks in any of its games, while Missouri is averaging an SEC-high 3.1 sacks per game.

Both teams are in the midst of magical, turnaround seasons. For both teams, winning an SEC Championship would be the final piece to validate those turnarounds. Whichever team can impose its will in the trenches when Auburn has the football will be one step closer to achieving its goals.

The Return of James Franklin

November, 22, 2013
After missing the last four games with a shoulder injury, James Franklin returns to Missouri’s starting lineup this Saturday at Ole Miss (7:45 ET on ESPN). While Maty Mauk was very effective in his place, Franklin’s ability to keep the offense in manageable down-and-distances could be vital in keeping Missouri on the path to the SEC championship game.

Keeping Missouri on schedule
Franklin has been very good on early downs, posting an 82 Total QBR on first and second downs, best among qualified SEC quarterbacks.

In six games this season, Franklin completed 69 percent of his passes on first and second down, tending to throw shorter passes that kept Missouri’s offense out of third-and-long situations.

Without Franklin, Missouri faced more difficult third downs. Despite playing in 15 percent more plays, Franklin had just 13 dropbacks on third downs needing eight yards or more. Mauk had 21 dropbacks in those situations.

In Missouri’s only loss against South Carolina, the Tigers faced an average third-down distance of 9.1 yards, a season high.

On pass plays (including sacks), Ole Miss allows opponents to convert 45 percent of third downs of seven yards or fewer, fourth-worst in the SEC. On third downs of eight yards or more, opponents convert just 16 percent of third downs on dropbacks, second-best in the SEC.

Struggling under pressure
Franklin has struggled to deal with pressure on third-and-long situations. When needing at least six yards, he has more sacks (seven) than first downs (six).

Overall on third down, he has been sacked eight times in 40 dropbacks. His 20 percent sack rate is third-worst among qualified FBS quarterbacks.

He has not converted on third down all season when under duress. In 13 dropbacks when hurried or knocked down, he has completed one pass while being sacked eight times. He is the only quarterback in the SEC not to convert a single first down in such situations (minimum 10 dropbacks).

In two SEC games while Franklin was healthy, he was sacked on six of 10 dropbacks when pressured, including three of four times on third down.

When Franklin has not been under duress, he has converted 48 percent of his third-down dropbacks into first downs, tied for third-best in the conference.

First real test
Ole Miss will be Franklin's first real test of the season. In Franklin’s previous starts he faced one FCS team (Murray State) and five FBS teams that had an average defensive FPI rank of 78.

In Mauk’s four starts, he faced teams with an average defensive FPI rank of 44.
1. The last unbeaten team in the SEC East is Missouri, and who saw that coming? As much as I have made of head coach Gary Pinkel revamping his team’s practice and training methods, I missed another big reason for the Tigers’ success. In its 41-26 victory at No. 7 Georgia, Missouri started 11 seniors, eight of them fifth-years. That’s how Auburn won the BCS in 2010. It’s a simple plan for success. The hard part is signing the right guys, developing them, keeping them healthy and contributing, and not losing them to the NFL.

2. Think about the most recent round of realignment. In most cases, conferences took teams that, based on history, would struggle to compete against their new opponents. Utah and Colorado in the Pac-12? Missouri and Texas A&M in the SEC? But look at what has happened. Utah just beat No. 5 Stanford. Missouri and Texas A&M have played better in the SEC than they did in the Big 12. No, it’s not because the Big 12 is tougher. Those programs, infused with new income and a new incentive to compete, have stepped up their games. Sue me -- even Colorado is better.

3. We pointed out last week that as well as Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota has played, he hasn’t played with a game on the line, because the No. 2 Ducks have been too dominant. Through five games, Mariota hadn’t even thrown a pass in the fourth quarter. At No. 16 Washington on Saturday, Oregon began the fourth quarter with a 31-24 lead. From that point on, Mariota went 5-for-6 for 75 yards and a touchdown, and rushed five times for 33 yards and a score. Oregon won, 45-24. He has been the best player in college football over the first half of the season.
1. No. 7 Georgia lost two receivers and a tailback to knee injuries Saturday, which is something to which the Dawgs’ next opponent, Missouri, can relate. The Tigers had so many injuries during last season’s 5-7 SEC debut that head coach Gary Pinkel revamped his entire practice and training regimen, eliminating two-a-days and reducing contact drills. Missouri is 5-0, ranked No. 25 and its starters have a missed a total of three games because of injury.

2. Here’s what I noticed about the 13 names reported to be on the College Football Playoff Selection Committee. Three people have won a national championship (Pat Haden as a player, Tom Osborne as a coach and Barry Alvarez as an assistant). There are more former quarterbacks (four) than former head coaches (three, and Ty Willingham is on both lists). If Stanford comes up for discussion, Willingham and Condoleezza Rice would have to leave the room, but what would West Virginia athletic director Oliver Luck do?

3. No. 11 UCLA should move to 5-0 this week by defeating a Cal team that is 0-4 against FBS opponents. That would set up not only a showdown the following week at No. 4 Stanford but it would put the Bruins on the cusp of returning to the top 10 for the first time in eight seasons. Since the glory days under Bob Toledo, when the Bruins appeared in the top 10 in four of five years from 1997-2001, UCLA has appeared in the top 10 for a total of three weeks. A long drought appears to have ended in Westwood.
LSU coach Les Miles doesn't have a problem playing eight SEC opponents every season.

Miles also realizes the Tigers could play nine SEC games in the very near future.

Miles just doesn't think it's fair that LSU has to play Florida every season, while other teams in the SEC West don't.

[+] EnlargeLes Miles
Derick E. Hingle/US PresswireUnder the current SEC scheduling format, Les Miles and LSU play Florida every season.
As SEC presidents, athletics directors and coaches convene this week for the league's annual spring meetings in Destin, Fla., long-term scheduling has become the hot-button issue.

The league is expected to vote whether to change its current 6-1-1 format, in which teams play each opponent from their respective division, along with one rotating foe and one permanent opponent from the opposite division. SEC officials could vote this week to add a ninth conference game or at least eliminate permanent crossover opponents.

The SEC adopted its current scheduling format to ensure that longstanding rivalries like Alabama-Tennessee and Georgia-Auburn would survive expansion.

By drawing the Gators as a permanent crossover opponent, Miles believes the Tigers drew the short end of the stick.

Miles won't complain about the scheduling format publicly, but he knows LSU is at a disadvantage.

And Miles is probably right.

"When they give us our schedule, I'm looking forward to having a great competition," Miles said.

Since 2000, LSU has played Florida and Georgia -- two of the SEC East's best programs -- a total of 17 times. Auburn is the only SEC West team which has faced those teams more often, playing them 19 times. Arkansas, Mississippi State and Ole Miss have faced them a total of 10 times each, while Alabama has played them only eight times.

While it's not fair that LSU has faced the Bulldogs and Gators nearly twice as often as Alabama has played them since 2000, Miles' argument might fall on deaf ears. Auburn and Georgia aren't going to surrender the longtime series -- the Deep South's Oldest Rivalry has been played 116 times since 1892. Likewise, Alabama and Tennessee have played 95 times since 1901, a game so revered it's named for its traditional place on the calendar, the Third Saturday in October.

And Ole Miss would probably rather play Vanderbilt every season instead of Florida, Georgia or South Carolina, and Mississippi State isn't going pass up a chance to play Kentucky every year.

"There's never going to be a fair way," said Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin, whose Aggies drew Missouri as a permanent crossover opponent. "If you look back seven or eight years ago, you would have said the SEC East was the strongest division. You can't say what's fair, because things change in this league. You can't look at tradition. Ten years ago, you might have wanted to play South Carolina. Now you don't want anything to do with them. You don't know what Tennessee is going to do with a new coach. I know Butch Jones is going to do a great job."

Florida-LSU has become one of the league's most anticipated games every season. They've been two of the league's most dominant teams over the past decade. They've combined to appear in seven SEC championship games since 2003, and they've combined to play in nine BCS bowl games, including five BCS national championship games. In their past 10 meetings, LSU and Florida were both ranked in the top 25 of the coaches' poll nine times. Conversely, Alabama and Tennessee were both ranked only once in their past 10 meetings.

The loser of the Florida-LSU regular-season game has paid dearly over the past 10 seasons. LSU's 23-10 loss at Florida in 2006 knocked the Tigers out of the SEC championship game (the Gators defeated Arkansas 38-28 and then blasted Ohio State 41-14 to win the BCS title). Last year, LSU's 14-6 loss at Florida probably cost it a spot in the AT&T Cotton Bowl, if not another trip to a BCS bowl game.

Florida's losses to LSU in 2002, '05 and '07 kept them out of the SEC championship game and potentially BCS bowl games.