clear
Sunday February 14th, 2016 12:55AM
5:24PM ( 7 hours ago ) Weather Alert

SEC shocker: Missouri and Auburn to battle for conference crown

By The Associated Press
ATLANTA -- Talk about an SEC surprise.

Just a year ago, the Auburn Tigers won all of three games and fired their coach. Just a year ago, the Missouri Tigers looked very much like a school that had no business joining the mighty Southeastern Conference.

Well, look at the matchup for Saturday's championship game.

Tigers vs. Tigers.

"We're playing a very good Missouri team that's very similar to us," Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. "I think about both teams being very hungry. We were both kind of down at the bottom at the start of the year. But we've improved. I feel like we've improved each game. They would probably say the same thing."

Indeed, that's exactly what Missouri coach Gary Pinkel says.

"We just kept getting better," he said Sunday. "Our kids played hard every single game at a very high level. I've been around a lot of good football teams, but I've rarely been around a team like that, playing at the level they did on a consistent basis."

No. 3 Auburn (11-1, 7-1 SEC) earned its trip to Atlanta with one of the most remarkable victories in college football history, returning a missed field goal 109 yards for the winning touchdown on the final play to beat two-time defending national champion Alabama 34-28. (Somehow, these Tigers managed to surpass their previous Miracle on the Plains, the 2-week-old "Immaculate Deflection" victory over Georgia.)

Meanwhile, fifth-ranked Missouri (11-1, 7-1) locked up the SEC East by holding off Texas A&M and reigning Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel 28-21 on Saturday night, showing off a stout defense that helped push those Tigers to the top of the division in a year when traditional powerhouses Georgia and Florida were plagued by injuries and failed to meet expectations.

What a change from Missouri's debut season in the SEC, when Pinkel's team went 5-7 and won just two conference games after moving over from the Big 12.

"I thought we would have a very good football team," he insisted. "But we could have been a very good football team and not be sitting here 11-1, either."

For all the giddiness in Auburn and Missouri, their remarkable turnarounds could actually work against the SEC extending its already unprecedented streak of seven straight national titles. Formerly top-ranked Alabama slipped to fourth in all three of the major polls, replaced at the top by Florida State. The only other unbeaten team from a major conference, Ohio State, moved up to second.

If the Seminoles defeat surprising Duke in the Atlantic Coast Conference title game, as expected, and Ohio States stays perfect with a victory over Michigan State in the Big Ten championship game, those teams would likely meet for the BCS title.

Auburn isn't giving up, though, already lobbying for a spot in Pasadena if it knocks off Missouri at the Georgia Dome.

"I feel like we are destined to finish very strong," safety Jermaine Whitehead said.

Missouri believe it deserves a shot at the national title if it beats Auburn.

"Any one-loss team in the SEC (should be considered) just because of the strength of schedule," Pinkel said. "Hopefully that will be taken into consideration."

Alabama's only hope of getting to the BCS title game is Florida State and Ohio State both losing next weekend, though Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban made a pitch for the school that has claimed three of the last four championships.

"I still think we have one of the best teams in the country," Saban said. "I am very, very proud of this team."

But it's Auburn moving on to the SEC championship game, one year after the Tigers went 3-9 season and coach Gene Chizik was fired two years after winning a national championship.

Enter Malzahn, a former assistant at Auburn.

"I knew we had some talent, but they had been through a storm the year before," he said. "I was really just focused on getting our edge back, playing good Auburn football. I didn't have any expectations as far as number of wins. It was actually real simple: Get our edge back, play together and improve each week. By the end of the year, the goal was to be a pretty good football team."

That they are, though it took plenty of good fortune to win the SEC West. There was a deflected 73-yard touchdown pass on fourth-and-18 to beat Georgia in the final minute. Then came a play that put that one to shame - Davis' touchdown return from the back of the end zone, after Alabama's attempt at a game-winning 57-yard field goal came up a few yards short.

A day later, it was still the talk of the sports world.

"I just want to start out by saying, `War Eagle,'" former Auburn quarterback Cam Newton said, shortly after leading Carolina to an NFL victory over Tampa Bay.

Malzahn said it's imperative that Auburn forget about the remarkable victory as quickly as possible. They've got to play another team known as the Tigers, a team that also feels like it's got destiny on its side.

To show where his mind is, Malzahn hung around the office late Saturday watching some Missouri film.

"It was a great night, a great win for us as a program and all that," Malzahn said. "But we've got to put it behind us now and move forward."
© Copyright 2016 AccessWDUN.com
All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without permission.
Bartus, Icemen shuts out Gwinnett
Garrett Bartus pitched a 42 save shutout, as the Evansville IceMen topped the Gwinnett Gladiators on a New year
10:23PM ( 2 years ago )
Gator Bowl Preview Capsule
A rematch of last year's Capital One Bowl, which Georgia won 45-31 in Orlando.
8:52PM ( 2 years ago )
Millsap's 34 leads Hawks past Celtics
Paul Millsap had season highs with 34 points and 15 rebounds as the Hawks rallied from an 18-point deficit for a 92-91 win over the Boston Celtics on Tuesday afternoon.
7:44PM ( 2 years ago )
Sports
No. 19 Georgia blows past Illinois
Shacobia Barbee had 17 points, eight rebounds and six assists to lead No. 19 Georgia over Illinois 82-60 on Saturday.
10:42PM ( 2 years ago )
Dogs will face Nebraska without standout DE Moss
Nebraska defensive end Avery Moss returned to his home in Arizona to attend to a personal issue and won't play in the Gator Bowl against No. 23 Georgia next week.
10:16PM ( 2 years ago )
Georgia Southern coach Monken headed for Army
Desperate to snap its long losing streak against its archrival, Army has hired former Navy assistant Jeff Monken as its 37th football coach.
1:04PM ( 2 years ago )
College Sports
7-AAA Tournament: Lady Spartans seal magical run; Vikings go back to the top
One was relentless, the other resilient. One has been there before -- numerous times -- the other a novice.
10:09AM ( 9 hours from now )
8-AAAAA Tournament: Lady Falcons capture first-ever region crown; GHS boys fall to Cedar Shoals in title game
So far, the Flowery Branch girls basketball team is 4-for-4 on the season...
9:59AM ( 9 hours from now )
8-A Tournament: Lakeview boys and girls surge to region championships
Four months ago Todd Cottrell and John Carrick knew they had plenty of potential on their hands.
9:59AM ( 9 hours from now )
STATE CHAMPS: Commerce, Jefferson continue title runs at Traditional tourney; North Hall 2nd
Commerce and Jefferson continued their dominating ways in Class A and Class AAA, respectively, at the 2016 GHSA Treaditional wrestling tournament Saturday at the Infinite Energy Arena. North Hall took an impressive second place in Class AAAA.
By AccessWDUN Staff
9:40AM ( 8 hours from now )
8-AAAA Tournament: Buford boys push past North Hall; Lady Wolves stunned in championship
The Buford girls basketball team cruised through the Region 8-AAAA regular season schedule...
By AccessWDUN Staff
9:26AM ( 8 hours from now )