As recently as two weeks ago, the smart money was on Alabama facing South Carolina in the SEC Championship, with the Crimson Tide looking to secure their second straight conference title and a shot at their third straight national title.
Considering these teams were picked to finish fifth (Auburn) and sixth (Missouri) in their respective divisions, you could say this is one of the least-expected SEC title games ever. It is also now a battle for Top Alternate, with the winner needing help from either Michigan State (against Ohio State) or Duke (against Florida State) to advance to the BCS National Championship. (Yes, SEC fans, this is completely and totally fair and not in any way un-American. Deal with it.)
The SEC Championship is always fascinating thanks to the pomp, circumstance, and guaranteed high quality of the teams on the field. This game might have been unexpected, but the matchups and questions will make for must-see football regardless. Here are the things to watch.
1. Room between the tackles.
Both of these offenses employ systems that include the word "spread." But these are spread offenses that even CBS' finesse-hating Gary Danielson can appreciate. Neither team is going to pass 50 times, and really, despite the alignment, there is nothing more important for either offense than success between the tackles.
For Auburn, a good portion of running back Tre Mason's nearly 20 carries per game are more vertical than horizontal. Against Alabama last week, 18 of Mason's 29 carries, and 109 of his 164 yards, came up the middle. When he is able to soften up the interior of a defense, everything else clicks. The linebackers are more likely to get caught on the wrong foot, giving quarterback Nick Marshall more alleys on the outside; jet sweeps and other quick strikes to the outside are more likely to work, too. Plus, safeties are less likely to be well-positioned to shut down deeper play-action strikes.
Meanwhile, Missouri's offense is equally committed to the trenches. The Tigers maintained their spread alignment in their second season in the SEC, but first-year offensive coordinator Josh Henson did make some adjustments. The line splits are a little tighter, the tight end is used as a blocker far more often than not, and in obvious run situations, big wideout Jimmie Hunt (I guess "big wideout" is redundant when talking about Missouri; they're all big, but we'll get to that) is frequently used as a second tight end. His block of Texas A&M lineman Jay Arnold (No. 88 in motion here) was instrumental in Henry Josey's East-clinching touchdown Saturday in Columbia. For Missouri, success on the interior both opens up some speed-option looks to the corner and gives Mizzou better odds of creating numbers advantages for bubble screens and other quick passes on the perimeter.
Key stats: Auburn's offensive line ranks third in Adj. Line Yards (an opponent-adjusted measure focusing on line blocking), while Mizzou's defensive line ranks 12th. Both of these units thrive on the interior. Meanwhile, Missouri's offense ranks 10th in the same stat, while Auburn's defense ranks 29th. Both offenses appear to have slight advantages, but only slight.
2. Count the big plays.
Sustaining long, plodding drives is the modus operandi for neither offense. Despite reasonable efficiency numbers, when both Auburn and Missouri score, it's likely to be in pretty quick fashion. Big plays are the key to just about any game, obviously, but both offenses are reliant on them, and Missouri's defense in particular is reliant on stopping them.
There are a lot of ways to document big plays. Maybe it's just gains of 10 yards or more. Maybe it's 15 or 20. Some look at rushes of 12 yards and passes of 20. Whichever method you choose, the offense that logs more big plays probably wins.
And good luck figuring out who that might be. Auburn's top three running backs average 6.4 yards per carry; not including sacks, Nick Marshall averages 8.3. Plus, leading receiver Sammie Coates averages a devastating 23.3 yards per catch (albeit with an all-or-nothing 50 percent catch rate). And when Missouri has the ball, Auburn will have to cope with a multitude of weapons -- Mizzou's top three running backs also average 6.4 yards per carry, and the receiving duo of Dorial Green-Beckham and L'Damian Washington have combined to average 16.2 yards per catch on 7.8 catches per game.
Key stats: Auburn's offense ranks 14th in PPP+ (an opponent-adjusted explosiveness measure), while Mizzou's defense ranks seventh. On the other side, Missouri's offense ranks 19th, and Auburn's defense ranks 38th. Missouri might have an advantage here.
3. Count the TFLs.
Denny Medley, USA Today
While Missouri's defense takes a bend-don't-break approach for the most part, playing a safe zone and relying on steady tackling up front before dialing up the aggressiveness when the opponent reaches its own side of the field, Auburn pins its ears back whenever it has the chance. (It also plays things pretty safe against the pass on early downs.) Despite slightly different approaches, however, the teams have combined for 175 tackles for loss this year. And the bend-don't-break team has a few more; Missouri has 95, Auburn 80.
Staying on schedule is going to be key in this game; Auburn's offense is run-heavy and not meant for converting third-and-10s (even with a couple of big plays last week, Auburn still had only a 27 percent success rate on passing downs), and while Missouri is pretty adept at moving the ball on passing downs, Auburn's defense is really, really good on such downs. The ability to move forward on first and second down will be huge (as it is in every game, yes), and whichever defense is able to create more havoc in the backfield will have given its team a significant advantage.
Key stats: Auburn's defense is 14th in Stuff Rate (run stops behind the line), while Missouri's offense is 16th. Irresistible force, unmovable object, etc. On the other side of the ball, Auburn's offense is second and Missouri's defense is 34th. In terms of sacks, Missouri's defense is 63rd in passing-downs sack rate (Auburn's offense is 91st), while Auburn's defense is 14th in the same measure (Missouri's offense is 92nd).
4. The counterpunch.
Missouri's defensive line has gotten a lot of attention this year, and justifiably so. Michael Sam made waves with three three-sack games, but he's one of four talented aggressive ends; Sam, Kony Ealy, Markus Golden, and Shane Ray have combined for 49.5 tackles for loss and 28 sacks, more than 82 teams managed with their entire rosters. Plus, a rotation of four tackles has shown disruptive ability as well. Mizzou gets a lovely push on passing downs, but it has left itself vulnerable to screen passes at times. (Case in point: South Carolina running back Mike Davis caught 10 passes for 99 yards in Missouri's only loss of the season. Toledo's David Fluellen, meanwhile, caught 10 for 100.)
Missouri's defensive line will be a point of interest for a couple of different reasons on Saturday. First, Auburn runs 39 percent of the time on passing downs; even when you think you have forced Auburn to pass, that doesn't necessarily mean you have forced them to pass. Auburn's commitment to the run makes play-action a viable weapon even on second- or third-and-long, and that could hinder Mizzou's willingness to pin its ears back and go kamikaze at the quarterback. The same could be said for Auburn's passing downs pass rush and the fact that Missouri runs even MORE frequently, 41 percent, on passing downs. Third-and-5 is a running down for both of these teams.
How these defenses choose to attack, and how these offenses choose to counter, will be perhaps the most interesting tactical piece of this game. We know how important staying on schedule is, but both teams will fall behind schedule at times; how will they try to catch up?
5. Mizzou vs. injuries, Auburn vs. experience.
Remember Adj. Score? It's a measure I lean on pretty heavily in my season preview series; it takes a team's performance in a given game and tells you how that team would have done against a perfectly average opponent, with a perfectly average number of breaks, in a given game. It's good for trend-spotting, but it's also good for gauging the effect of injuries.
A good portion of the Missouri narrative this year has been how it's managed to face a series of conference opponents that were without key pieces. Georgia was missing skill position stars Todd Gurley, Keith Marshall, and Michael Bennett. Florida was without quarterback Jeff Driskel. South Carolina was without quarterback Connor Shaw for 2.5 quarters. Tennessee was without quarterback Justin Worley.
So how did Missouri fare against full strength offenses? Let's look at Adj. Scores.
|Adj. Scoring Margin|
|11/23||at Ole Miss||35.6||23.1||+12.5|
Against the four injured opponents above (in bold), Missouri allowed an average of 21.2 Adj. Points per game. Against the rest: 24.3. So if you wanted, you could estimate that Missouri benefited by about three points or so from afflicted opponents.
At the same time, however, James Franklin also missed most of four games with a shoulder injury. He suffered the injury late in the Georgia game and was replaced by Maty Mauk in the starting lineup. Mauk fared well, going 3-1 and showing a penchant for making big plays downfield. But if you isolate Franklin's starts and Mauk's starts (in italics), you see that Missouri averaged 35.5 Adj. Points per game with Franklin, 31.6 with Mauk. While Missouri's defensive numbers might be a little plumped up by opponent injuries, the offense's full-season numbers were impacted a similar (and negative) amount by its own injury.
Using Adj. Scores, by the way, we can also ascertain that Auburn has improved pretty significantly over the course of the season.
|Adj. Scoring Margin|
|10/19||at Texas A&M||35.7||28.7||+7.0|
Adj. Points Per Game (first 4 games): Auburn 32.9, Opponent 26.5 (plus-6.4)
Adj. Points Per Game (next 4 games): Auburn 43.1, Opponent 21.7 (plus-21.4)
Adj. Points Per Game (last 4 games): Auburn 42.6, Opponent 29.0 (plus-13.6)
The offense has begun to hum, though the defense has proven quite a bit more mortal of late.
6. The big boys out wide.
John Reed, USA Today
Both teams are dependent on a solid running game, but the implementation of the pass couldn't be more different. Auburn loves to stretch the field vertically with Sammie Coates and poke holes underneath with Ricardo Louis, Marcus Davis, and Quan Bray (combined yards per catch: 10.0, even with Louis' miraculous 73-yarder against Georgia). Average size of these four receivers: 6'0, 195.
On the other side of the ball, every Missouri receiver is used in both short and long routes. DGB and L'Damian Washington are particularly effective downfield, but Marcus Lucas, Bud Sasser, and Jimmie Hunt work the slots pretty well and occasionally strike deep (combined yards per catch: 12.5). Average size of these five receivers: 6'3, 215. Auburn is a little more physical in the run, and Missouri is more physical in the pass. Both offenses create unique, interesting matchups for which defense struggle to account. How do these defenses handle it?
7. Score when you have the chance, kids.
Trips inside 40: Alabama 9, Auburn 4 (not inc. FG return)
Points Per Trip: Auburn 7.0, Alabama 3.1
Score when you have the chance, kids.
Auburn's offense is suited for finishing drives with only minimal adaptation in the red zone, and Missouri has shown willing to either plow in between the tackles (Henry Josey, Russell Hansbrough, and Marcus Murphy have combined for 26 touchdowns) or post up with DGB and company. These offenses finish, but these defenses also specialize in preventing opponents from finishing.
Key stats: Missouri is scoring touchdowns on 71 percent of its red zone trips, while Auburn is scoring TDs on 70 percent. Meanwhile, Auburn opponents are scoring TDs on just 48 percent of trips, Missouri opponents 51. Who's scoring touchdowns, and who's settling for field goals (or nothing)?
8. Prosch vs. Wilson.
You like collisions, right? Then you'll love the endless number of times that Auburn blocking back Jay Prosch and Missouri middle linebacker Andrew Wilson meet at the point of attack. Wilson more than held his own against Georgia fullback Quayvon Hicks, Florida fullback Hunter Joyer, and others; he's the primary reason why power offenses haven't had much success against Mizzou this year. But Prosch might be the best blocker of the bunch. This will be fun.
9. Special teams advantage.
First things first: Auburn's special teams unit doesn't always have as big an advantage as it did last week against Alabama, when the Crimson Tide missed four field goals, Auburn pinned Alabama at its one with punts twice, and, of course, Auburn returned a missed field goal 108 yards for the win. Still, the Auburn special teams unit has been more consistent than Missouri's.
Using Brian Fremeau's special teams efficiency ratings, we see that AU ranks in the top 30 in punt return efficiency, kick return efficiency, and punt efficiency; meanwhile, Missouri is lower than 50th in four of five categories. Missouri's Andrew Baggett has been hit-or-miss -- he has made two-thirds of his field goals greater than 40 yards … and only two-thirds of his kicks under 40 yards, including a short miss in overtime against South Carolina. And while Mizzou's Marcus Murphy has proven stellar in the return game over the last couple of years, Auburn doesn't allow returns of any kind: Their kickoffs are touchbacks, and their punts are high and fair-caught.
Special teams don't always have an impact on games, but if they do in this one, it's probably to Auburn's benefit.
10. The intangibles.
We spend a lot of time and energy thinking about intangibles: motivation, hangovers, etc. But like special teams, these concepts are only sometimes a factor in a game, and they are terribly unpredictable. One could argue that, following two consecutive miraculous finishes -- Ricardo Louis' 73-yard touchdown off of a deflected heave, then Chris Davis' aforementioned return of Alabama's missed field goal -- Auburn could be spent. These chaotic finishes were of the caliber of the greatest March Madness finishes, but the team that wins with the miracle bucket usually gets throttled in the next round, right? The team-of-destiny string doesn't usually last for game after game.
At the same time, Missouri came out pretty tight and cautious, at least on offense, against Texas A&M in last week's must-win game; it's fair to think they could do so again, with deadly consequences, in Atlanta. We can talk about these games all we want from a matchups perspective, but if one team or the other comes out flat, or wears down in the second half thanks to recent drama, it will obviously make a huge impact on this game. And there's really no way of knowing in advance which team that might be.