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 and Missouri
Rushing This Season
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).
Missouri Sending Four or Fewer Pass Rushers This Season
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.