I-A College Football
         === Missouri and Auburn do battle in SEC Championship Game ===
 Atlanta, GA (SportsNetwork.com) - In a matchup few people could have predicted
 at the start of the season, the fifth-ranked Missouri Tigers and third-ranked
 Auburn Tigers will square off in the SEC Championship Game at the Georgia Dome
 with a potential bid in the BCS National Championship Game at stake.
 In Missouri's first season in the SEC in 2012, it finished just 5-7 overall
 and 2-6 in conference, but just a year later it has returned to prominence
 with an 11-1 mark, its fourth double-digit win campaign in the last seven
 years under head coach Gary Pinkel. Since suffering its only loss of the
 season on Oct. 26 to a very good South Carolina team in double-overtime
 (27-24), Mizzou has ripped off four straight wins, including a 28-21 triumph
 over Texas A&M last week to secure a spot in this championship bout. Even with
 a win in this game, the team would likely need Florida State or Ohio State to
 lose in its respective league championship tilt to have a chance to play for
 the national title, but Pinkel doesn't like to look that far ahead.
 "The beauty of it is that you just got to go and play," Pinkel said. "We can't
 do any more than that. You got to play and take care of your own business. The
 main difference is all those other teams have won national championships and
 we haven't. We are the new kid on the block. That doesn't phase us. I just
 want to win our game."
 Even more improbable than Missouri's season has been Auburn's, which is just a
 year removed from a winless campaign in the SEC. Under first-year head coach
 Gus Malzahn, Auburn has defied the odds week after week on its way to an 11-1
 ledger. After keeping its championship hopes alive on Nov. 16 when a late Hail
 Mary was answered versus Georgia (43-38), the squad pulled out the theatrics
 once again last week against No. 1 Alabama in perhaps the greatest college
 football finish in recent memory. After tying the game on a 39-yard touchdown
 pass from Nick Marshall to Sammie Coates with less than a minute remaining,
 Alabama put itself in position for a long field goal attempt as time expired
 in regulation, but after it fell short, the kick was caught by Chris Davis and
 returned the other way more than 100 yards for a touchdown for another
 miraculous finish.
 "It's hard to find ways to win like that when the pressure is on," Malzahn
 said. "There was unbelievable pressure to win and nobody understands that,
 especially with how much this game means. Our guys find a way."
 In the only previous meeting between these two teams, Missouri captured a
 34-17 triumph in the 1973 Sun Bowl.
 Even without the services of its starting quarterback for more than a month,
 Missouri's offense has been outstanding in scoring 38.8 points per game, and
 the unit is one of the most balanced in the nation in posting 236.9 rushing
 and 252.6 passing yards per game.
 In his second game back since returning from a shoulder injury, James Franklin
 carved up the Texas A&M defense to the tune of 233 passing yards, 80 rushing
 yards, two touchdowns and zero turnovers. Franklin's numbers are outstanding
 despite missing four games (.669 completions, 1,952 passing yards, 16 TDs,
 four INTs, 412 rushing yards, three TDS).
 "I think James is pretty good," Pinkel said. "We were out of sync a little in
 the first half of the game last week, but we settled down and had a pretty
 good second half. I'm proud of him on how he competed and all of the things he
 has done to get back 100 percent. He's been excited to get back and have the
 ability to play."
 Of the stable of tailbacks Missouri boasts, Henry Josey (951 yards, 13 TDs)
 has emerged the most in recent weeks, as he ripped off the game-winning 57-
 yard touchdown versus Texas A&M to secure a berth in this game. Not to be lost
 in the shuffle are Russell Hansbrough (624 yards, four TDs) and Marcus Murphy
 (561 yards, nine TDs), both of whom average greater than six yards per touch.
 The talent at receiver is deep as well. Marcus Lucas (596 yards, two TDs)
 leads the way with 50 receptions, while Dorial Green-Beckham (686 yards) and
 L'Damian Washington (824 yards) have 10 touchdowns apiece. Green-Beckham has
 been especially impressive of late with five scores in the last three games.
 Defensively, Missouri is more than capable of supporting its potent offense,
 as it allows just 19.4 points per game. The unit was outstanding last week
 against the Johnny Manziel-led Aggies, holding them to 379 total yards.
 Michael Sam is one of the nation's elite pass-rushers as he has 18.0 TFL and
 10.5 sacks, and his presence has elevated the play of Markus Golden (13.0 TFL,
 6.5 sacks). Andrew Wilson has a team-high 87 tackles, while E.J. Gaines,
 Kentrell Brothers, Randy Ponder and Braylon Webb all have multiple
 Auburn's offense has been just as efficient as Missouri's this season in
 scoring 38.6 points per game, and the majority of its success has come thanks
 to the nation's fifth-ranked rushing attack (318.3 ypg), which carved up the
 stout Alabama front last week to the tune of 296 yards.
 Orchestrating the offense is the signal caller Nick Marshall, who, in addition
 to completing nearly 60 percent of his throws for 1,627 yards, 11 touchdowns
 and five interceptions, is one of the country's most elusive running
 quarterbacks with 922 yards and 10 touchdowns. With several Heisman Trophy
 candidates losing steam in recent weeks, Malzahn believes that Marshall
 deserves as much of a shot as anyone considering his play of late.
 "He should be in the mix, no doubt," Malzahn said. "We are a quarterback-
 oriented offense. If our quarterback plays well, we play well, and if he
 doesn't, we don't. We put a lot of pressure on the guy as far as not just when
 the ball is snapped, but before the ball is snapped, after the ball is snapped
 and we rely on him a lot. I think it is a tribute to Nick."
 Adding to the potent ground game is Tre Mason, who has been a true workhorse
 with 237 carries for 1,317 yards and 18 touchdowns (tied for fourth-most
 nationally). Corey Grant (585 yards, five TDs) and Cameron Artis-Payne (573
 yards, five TDs) also see plenty of action.
 Sammie Coates (32 receptions, 747 yards, six TDs) is an outstanding deep
 threat, as he showed with last week's game-tying touchdown. His 23.3 yards per
 catch ranks second in the country.
 In an league chock full of outstanding defenses, Auburn fits right in, as it
 allows just 22.5 points per game while holding opponents to just a 35 percent
 conversion rate on third down.
 Last week's hero, Chris Davis has a team-high 65 tackles and 12 pass break-
 ups. Dee Ford (12.0 TFL, 8.0 TFL) anchors an impressive defensive line.
 Robenson Therezie has picked off four passes, while Ryan Smith is also active
 in the turnover battle with three interceptions, a forced fumble and a blocked
 12/04 10:53:55 ET

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