Joe Medley: SEC final will come down to which team’s head most right
by Joe Medley
Dec 06, 2013 | 1548 views |  0 comments | 30 30 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn, left, shakes hands with Missouri head coach Gary Pinkel during Friday's news conference in Atlanta. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn, left, shakes hands with Missouri head coach Gary Pinkel during Friday's news conference in Atlanta. (AP Photo/David Goldman)
ATLANTA -- Name any relevant matchup from today’s SEC Championship Game you want.

It’s Auburn’s stalwart offensive line, trying to once again assert the running game against Missouri’s stunting, twisting, attacking defensive line.

It’s mobile Missouri quarterback James Franklin, and all the extra time he can buy to make Auburn’s iffy secondary cover the X-Y-Zs of tall, prototypical receivers.

Break it down right to the SEC’s best rushing offense (Auburn) and second-best rushing defense (Missouri). All of that stuff will matter.

It just won’t matter as much as two teams new to the moment trying to master the moment, and both here a week removed from the emotional, high-stakes victories that clinched their right to be here.

The stakes don’t get much bigger than Saturday’s game in the Georgia Dome. The winner can benefit if either Florida State or Ohio State, Nos. 1 and 2 in the Bowl Championship Series standings, suffers and upset in other conference finals.

Some think the winner should go to the BCS final regardless. Auburn athletics director Jay Jacobs said anything less is “un-American”.

But don’t expect to hear that from either coach.

“All I know is we’ve got the best league in college football,” Auburn’s Gus Malzahn said during Friday’s coaches news conferences. “I’m focused on the Missouri Tigers. We’ll worry about that after the game.”

Missouri’s Gary Pinkel wouldn’t bite, either.

“I’m going to focus on the game tomorrow,” he said. “That's where my focus should be, my team's focus should be. That’s where it’s going to be.”

Both coaches passed the test, but both have experienced the test. Malzahn was Auburn’s offensive coordinator in 2010, when the Tigers won this game en route to a national championship. Pinkel had Missouri a win away from a national-title shot in 2007, but the Tigers lost to Oklahoma in the Big 12 final and suffered the double indignity of seeing rival Kansas get an at-large BCS bowl berth after Mizzou had beaten Kansas in the regular-season finale.

Malzahn and Pinkel know the drill. Their players are the question, and whether they can come down from sweet Saturdays and play up on Championship Saturday is the question that of the weekend in Atlanta.

Mizzou’s 2007 roster, led by quarterback Chase Daniel, is gone. Auburn’s current depth chart has six players whose names appeared on the same chart in 2010, and none started.

Both teams suffered through miserable 2012s, Missouri unable to overcome injuries en route to a 5-7 first run through the SEC and Auburn unable to overcome itself on the way to a 3-9 meltdown.

Neither team so much as sniffed the postseason a year ago, but the smell of it jumped up their noses a week ago.

BCS No. 3 Auburn (11-1) won one the most nationally relevant Iron Bowl in decades, beating then-top-ranked rival Alabama in the game that determined the SEC West Division champion and representative in Atlanta.

A year after avoiding eye contact on campus, the Tigers live like celebrities outside the athletics complex. Cornerback Chris Davis got an ovation in his geology class Monday, two days after returning Adam Griffith’s 57-yard field goal attempt from one end line to the other on the game’s dramatic and decisive final play.

BCS No. 5 Missouri (11-1) came into the SEC mocking talk that the Tigers would feel shock and Gaw! in their first run against SEC competition. Who can forget wide receiver T.J. Moe’s stand-up act at SEC Media Days?

Then injuries doomed Mizzou to a season of literally getting body-slammed by the likes of eventual national champion Alabama.

On Saturday, Missouri beat Texas A&M to clinch this season’s SEC East title, which had to feel good in the “Show Me State.” Texas A&M, which joined the SEC with Missouri, made the Tigers look even worse by comparison in 2012, going 11-2 and beating Alabama in the Aggies’ first SEC season.

From humble beginnings to emotional endings to the regular season, 2013 has been much different for Auburn and Missouri. Now, both coaches are mugging with the SEC championship trophy, and their teams have a big game to play today.

Both coaches say they like what they’ve seen in their teams’ preparation. Pinkel said he wanted this week to feel like a normal game week.

“If I objectively look at it, I think it was,” he said. “I meet with the seniors every Monday at 4:30. The rallying cry is, ‘Do what we do, this is what we do.’ … We can talk about the stadium, we can talk about the SEC all we want to talk about it.

"Bottom line is we have to be able to go out and play our best game. Hopefully, we’ve learned how to do that. Thus far, we’ve done a pretty good job of that as a football team.”

Malzahn said Auburn has played itself into emotional maturity.

Since the opener against Washington State, he said, “we were just worried about ourselves. We were worried about how we would handle adversity, would we play together, play with that winning attitude.

“We found a way to win the first game. Each game they improved. That’s how we’re here.”

Sports columnist Joe Medley: 256-235-3576, On Twitter @jmedley_star.

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