Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall, right, leads his team into today’s SEC championship game against the Missouri Tigers and quarterback James Franklin, left. The teams were a combined 2-14 in conference play last season and weren’t predicted to make much noise this year either. (Reuters)
ATLANTA — The final weekend of the SEC’s regular-season produced one of the most unlikely match-ups for the conference title game since the league split into two divisions and began deciding its champion in a one-game, winner-take-all affair in 1992.
Eastern Division champ Missouri and Western winner Auburn were a combined 2-14 in SEC play just a year ago with Mizzou accounting for both of the victories.
Six of Auburn’s eight conference losses in 2012 were by double digits, and it didn’t score a point in its last two SEC defeats, losing 38-0 to Georgia and 49-0 to Alabama.
Mizzou’s two wins came in four overtimes against Tennessee and against Kentucky, which was in the midst of a winless conference season.
But the two teams of Tigers — both go by the same nickname — roared through 2013 with only one conference loss each and earned their ticket to Atlanta for today’s game with dramatic wins on Thanksgiving weekend.
Auburn, of course, stunned No. 1 Alabama 34-28 when senior Chris Davis returned Bama’s missed field goal attempt from deep in his own end zone to the other end of the field after time had run out. With the two teams both finishing 7-1 in league play, Auburn won the tiebreaker for the title game berth.
Mizzou capped the evening by rallying past Texas A&M 28-21, scoring the decisive touchdown on junior Henry Josey’s 57-yard burst up the middle with 3:34 remaining in the game. That kept Missouri at 7-1 in front of 6-2 South Carolina, which held the tiebreaker between the two.
“How about those Tigers?” Mizzou coach Gary Pinkel said. “I am so proud of our team and coaches. It was not going to be easy. We played a great second half. We held them to 21 points, which is impossible.
“We scored 21 points in the second half. We did a lot of great things in the fourth quarter.”
His counterpart at Auburn, Gus Malzahn, said he didn’t really think about the title game berth until after he shook Alabama coach Nick Saban’s hand.
“It’s what you coach for,” he said. “It’s what these kids play for, to get a chance to win the SEC championship.”
The wins also put both teams in the national championship picture. Both teams are 11-1 headed into their meeting with Auburn’s loss by two touchdowns at LSU back in late September and Missouri’s in double overtime to South Carolina in late October.
But getting a berth in the BCS title game might be difficult even for a one-loss SEC champion if both Florida State and Ohio State win their conference championship games in the ACC and Big Ten, respectively, to remain unbeaten.
As last weekend showed, however, one can’t take anything for granted when it comes to college football.