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SEC Championship Game Preview – 12/6/13

mrsec game previewCan you believe the SEC football season ends tomorrow?  This season whizzed by like none before.  That or this writer is just getting old.

With only one contest remaining — a surprise Tiger on Tiger battle in Atlanta — we’re going to go a little deeper with our game preview today.  The SEC Championship Game deserves a little something extra… especially since it doesn’t look like the game will produce a BCS title game participant for the first time in eight years.  We’ll show both AU and MU some love today.

So here goes, Auburn versus Missouri in an up-tempo clash in what will be Saturday’s highest-rated football game.  Best of luck to both teams and both sets of fans.  Your official SEC title game preview begins now…


#3 Auburn (11-1) vs #5 Missouri (11-1) in Atlanta

TV:  4:00pm ET on CBS

Opening Line:  MU -2

Current Line:  AU -1.5

Common Opponents:  Arkansas State (Missouri 41-19 win, Auburn 38-9 win), Georgia (Missouri 41-26 win, Auburn 43-38 win), Tennessee (Missouri 31-3 win, Auburn 55-23 win), Ole Miss (Missouri 24-10 win, Auburn 30-22 win), Texas A&M (Missouri 28-21 win, Auburn 45-41 win).

Average Score Vs Common Opponents:  Missouri 33-16 average win, Auburn 42-27 average win

One To Watch:  Missouri’s pass rush versus Nick Marshall.  Auburn allowed just 15 sacks all season.  That’s the third best number in the SEC.  But Saturday they’ll face the league’s best unit at getting to the quarterback.  Mizzou has wrung up 37 sacks on the season (about three per game).  Michael Sam has 10.5 sacks by his lonesome while fellow D-linemen Markus Golden, Kony Ealy, and Shane Ray all have 4.5 or more.  The black and gold Tigers can flat get after opposing signal-callers.  But here’s the rub: Auburn’s quarterback ranks eighth in the SEC in rushing yards this season (922 yards on 140 carries).  Gus Malzahn’s squad doesn’t throw the ball much, but when they do, MU’s pass rush will have to be controlled.  The ends will have to be careful not to get too far upfield.  The last thing Mizzou needs to do is create escape routes and running lanes for Marshall on those rare occasions when he is asked to put the ball in the air.

This And That:

1.  Speaking of Auburn’s passing game, the Tigers are nowhere near balanced on offense.  On the season they had what amounted to a 2-to-1 rush-to-pass ratio (3,819 yards on the ground versus 2,073 through the air).  Ironically, the navy and orange Tigers’ most balanced performance (213 rushing yards versus 224 passing yards) came in their lone loss to LSU.  Missouri, on the other hand, is the SEC’s most balanced offense.  In 2013, Gary Pinkel’s Tigers have rushed for 2,843 yards and passed for 3,031.  Being one-dimensional hasn’t hurt Auburn yet, but we’ll still give a slight edge to Mizzou for having two proven means of moving the football.

2.  Which team is facing the bigger distraction this week?  Pinkel had to come out on Thursday and shoot down rumors that he might leave Missouri for Washington.  Meanwhile, Auburn’s players have been glad-handed and back-patted all week down on the Plains.  Chris Davis — who won the Iron Bowl for AU with his last-second touchdown return — was given an ovation when he entered one of his classes this week.  Missouri had the Pinkel thing, but the possible letdown for Auburn would seem to be a bigger factor on the ol’ psyche.  Malzahn will have needed to do a great job of keeping his team focused after they won the state of Alabama’s own version of the Super Bowl.

3.  Auburn has been on big stages before.  Just three years ago this week the Cam Newton-led Tigers were whipping South Carolina for the SEC title and setting up a trip to Glendale, Arizona and a BCS title clash with Oregon.  There are still some Tiger players — along with support staff, coaches, broadcasters, etc — that remember what it’s like to play in an SEC title game and in a national championship game.  This is new stuff for Missouri.  Pinkel took two previous teams to the Big 12 Championship Game, but his current squad wasn’t part of that show.  And everyone involved in Mizzou’s traveling party will be experiencing the magnitude of an SEC title game for the first time.  Auburn knows the Georgia Dome.  Missouri does not.  If one team has the jitters early on, it figures to be the Tigers from Columbia, not the ones from Auburn.

4.  Don’t forget about the backup quarterbacks going into this one.  As we showed you earlier this week, 11 of the SEC’s 14 schools have had to change starters due to injury at least once this season.  James Franklin missed the better part of four games with a shoulder injury.  Marshall missed Auburn’s game with Western Carolina and then played only briefly against Florida Atlantic as he nursed a pair of different injuries.  With Franklin and Marshall both sure to run tomorrow afternoon, both teams are just one hit away from needing to call on their second-stringers.  In Mizzou’s case that’s Maty Mauk who started against Florida, South Carolina, Tennessee and Kentucky.  He’s a dual-threat QB just like Franklin.  Auburn backup Jeremy Johnson is a 6-5 pass-first kind of player.  His experience came against those aforementioned creampuffs — WCU and FAU.  In those two games Johnson attempted 41 passes while rushing just seven times.  If both quarterbacks go out on Saturday, Missouri should be able to run their standard offense with Mauk.  Auburn would likely dial back on the quarterback runs and pump up the aerial assault.

5.  This week, we examined the speed of each SEC offense.  Auburn and Missouri rank fourth and fifth, respectively, when it comes to going up-tempo.  The three fastest offenses in the league — Texas A&M, Ole Miss and Georgia — all played both AU and MU this season.  So which defense did the best job of surviving those no-huddle attacks?  Mizzou gave up 1,211 yards and 57 points to that triumvirate.  But Auburn yielded a mind-blowing 1,598 yards and 101 points to A&M, UM and UGA.  In terms of defending fast offenses like the two that will be on display tomorrow, the advantage goes to Missouri in a big way.  That doesn’t mean Auburn won’t be able to move the ball at all.  Malzahn’s offense involves more motion than anything Dave Steckel’s defense has seen this season.  Missouri’s D is physical, but they’ll also need to play smart tomorrow.

6.  Kick off a big SEC football game and those of us at start counting turnovers.  Our own six-season research project showed that turning the ball over just once in an SEC-versus-SEC matchup drops a team’s chances of winning from 72.5% (with zero turnovers) to 61.6% (with one giveaway).  Looking at it from another angle, teams that finished an SEC contest plus-two in turnover margin won 80% of the time between 2007 and 2012.  So who’s done a better job of protecting the ball this season?  Missouri.  By a country mile.  In SEC games, Pinkel’s squad was plus-11 in turnovers.  They were plus-14 overall.  Malzahn’s team, however, was minus-one in league play and just plus-one overall.  In another SEC-versus-SEC turnover study we posted this week, we showed you that MU forces a takeaway on defense once every 34.9 snaps.  Auburn takes the ball away from a foe once every 53.2 plays.  More impressive is the fact that Missouri turned the ball over just six times in eight conference game this season — just once every 94.3 snaps.  Auburn had 12 turnovers in SEC action (one giveaway every 47.7 snaps).  That’s yet another advantage for the East Division champs.

7.  In several statistical categories, these squads are almost dead even.  Scoring offense: MU 38.8 points per game, AU 38.6 points per game.  Total offense in SEC games: AU 461.3 yards per game, MU 459.8 yards per game.  Even red zone defense in conference play (allowing touchdowns from inside the 20), Auburn is second best in the conference (51.4% TDs) and Missouri is third best (52.1% TDs).  But when it comes to other defensive stats, the advantage clearly goes to Pinkel’s team.  Scoring defense in conference games: MU allowed 18.6 points per game, AU allowed 28.0.  Rushing defense in league play: MU allowed just 120.7 yards per game (best in the SEC), while AU gave up 183.7 (9th in the SEC).  Total defense in SEC play: MU allowed 378.9 yards per game while AU surrendered 458.1 yards per game.

Missouri’s Gotta Defend:  Auburn’s special teams units.  Davis beat Alabama with a 109-yard return.  And that run wasn’t even part of AU’s regular special teams repertoire.  The Tigers have four punt returns of 20+ yards (best in the SEC).  They also have eight kickoff returns of 30+ yards.  Mizzou can’t afford to let AU win the game with a big special teams play.

Auburn’s Gotta Defend:  Missouri’s tall receivers.  Auburn’s secondary has been scorched on occasion this year.  They’ve allowed 44 passes of 20 or more yards, the worst mark in the SEC.  They’re also worst in terms of  30+ yarders allowed (with 24) and 40+ yarders allowed (with 12).  Now Ellis Johnson’s defense will have to cover L’Damian Washington (6-4, 205), Dorial Green-Beckham (6-6, 225) and Marcus Lucas (6-5, 220).

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SEC Championship Game Preview 2012: Alabama Holds Off Georgia

The national semifinal game, er, SEC Championship Game is upon us and we’ve put together our final game preview of the year.  Below you’ll find our take on college football’s biggest game this weekend.

Good luck to all you Alabama and Georgia fans out there…


#2 Alabama (11-1) vs #3 Georgia (11-1) at Atlanta


4:00pm ET on CBS

Opening Line:  UA -7.5

Current Line:  UA -7.5

Storylines:  To paraphrase a line from “Deliverance,” it ain’t nothin’ but the biggest frickin’ game in football.  The winner grabs the SEC title and a shot at undefeated Notre Dame in the BCS Championship Game, January 7th in Miami.  Another national crown would be the seventh in a row for the SEC.  This is Georgia’s second appearance in the SEC title game in two years.  It’s Alabama’s first trip back to the Atlanta game since 2009.  Mark Richt has won two SEC titles in four previous trips to the Georgia Dome.  Nick Saban is 3-1 in four previous SEC Championship Games with LSU and Alabama.

Common Opponents:

Alabama 33-14 over Ole Miss; Georgia 37-10 over Ole Miss

Alabama 42-10 over Missouri; Georgia 41-20 over Missouri

Alabama 44-13 over Tennessee; Georgia 51-44 over Tennessee

Alabama 49-0 over Auburn; Georgia 38-0 over Auburn

Opponents’ SEC Wins:  Alabama finished 7-1 in the SEC and its seven wins came over teams with a combined 18-38 SEC record.  Georgia finished 7-1 in the SEC and its seven wins came over teams with a combined 18-38 SEC record.

Only Defeats:  Alabama lost to 6-2 Texas A&M 29-24 in Tuscaloosa on November 10th.  Georgia lost to 6-2 South Carolina 35-7 in Columbia on October 6th.

Keys for Alabama:  Shore up the pass defense and win the special teams battle.  As we showed you earlier today, Alabama is second in the SEC defensive pass efficiency, a very important statistic when it comes to winning football games.  But the Tide hasn’t been perfect.  Over a four-week span covering games with Tennessee, Mississippi State, LSU and Texas A&M, Bama allowed 203, 209, 296 and 253 yards passing.  Against LSU, the Tide needed a last-minute touchdown to squeak out a win.  The next week against A&M, a late interception ended another comeback attempt in UA’s only loss of the season.  Georgia QB Aaron Murray has taken some guff in his career for not playing his best in “big” games, but his team has gone 21-5 over the last two seasons.  There were a few big games among those 21 wins.  UGA is without WR Michael Bennett and WR Marlon Brown and their absence will likely be felt tomorrow.  But the Tide can’t afford to let Murray and the Dawgs start moving the ball through the air.  As for our second key, Bama holds an advantage in the punt return battle, but Georgia has the edge in terms of kickoff returns.  Bama has allowed seven kickoffs of 30 or more yards this season (10th in the SEC).  The Dawgs are fourth in the SEC with six kickoffs returned of 30 or more yards.  The Crimson Tide has slight advantages just about everywhere else statistically, so as long as they don’t give up anything cheap in the kicking game.

Keys for Georgia:  Be stout against the run and play for 60 minutes.  Alabama ranks #1 in the SEC in rush defense (82.8 yards allowed vs SEC foes).  Georgia ranks #5 in the league (127.38 yards allowed vs SEC foes).  That’s a pretty sizable gap.  Add to that the fact that UA averaged 209.8 yards on the ground versus SEC opponents while Georgia averaged “just” 180.2 and you have a distinct advantage for Bama.  But Georgia played a different brand of defense down the stretch following a mid-season call out by safety Shawn Williams.  Todd Grantham’s D allowed just 1.88 yards per carry against Florida (the Gators averaged 4.33 yards per carry against the SEC), just 1.59 yards per carry against Ole Miss (3.08 yards per carry vs the SEC), and 2.11 yards per carry against Auburn (2.59 yards per carry vs the SEC).  Georgia will need for its defenders to wear their big boy pants tomorrow.  Tide QB AJ McCarron is second only to Murray in the SEC in passer rating.  Give him a running game and he becomes very, very difficult to stop.  The second key is a simple one — play a full 60-minute game.  LSU had Alabama on the ropes before allowing a five-play drive to cover 72 yards over a 43-second span in that game’s final two minutes.  The result was a 21-17 Tide victory.  The next week, Texas A&M raced out to a 20-0 first quarter lead and then watched the Tide gradually creep back into the game.  Nick Saban’s team got all the way to the Aggie two-yard-line before McCarron was picked off on fourth-down pass at the goal line with 1:36 to play.  You can’t play Alabama for 58 or 59 minutes.  Georgia will need to play its best 60 minutes of the year tomorrow in the Georgia Dome.

Extra Key for Both Teams:  Protect the football.  On the season — all games included — Alabama is plus-14 in turnover margin.  Georgia is plus-9.  In championship games, turnovers are killers.  UGA is the underdog in this one.  They have to win the turnover battle.  And Alabama can’t afford to get loose with the football and allow Georgia to hang around.

Pick:  Alabama 28, Georgia 20

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