Missouri, Auburn unlikely SEC title opponents

Missouri head coach Gary Pinkel has led an impressive turnaround.

Missouri head coach Gary Pinkel has led an impressive turnaround. Photo by The Associated Press.

COLUMBIA — Raise your hand if you picked this Southeastern Conference title matchup before the season began.

If you raised your hand, please take a lie-detector test.

It’s a championship game that pits two teams nobody could have predicted to reach this point. As bad as Missouri’s inaugural SEC season turned out to be, Auburn’s was worse.

Missouri limped to a 5-7 overall record, including 2-6 in league play, due to a rash of injuries that decimated the offensive line and forced the Tigers to go with second-stringers at quarterback and running back.

Auburn failed to win a league game and finished 3-9 on the season.

Missouri was picked to finish sixth in the SEC East Division heading into 2013, while Auburn was selected to place fifth in the SEC West.

Now the pair of Tigers prepare to do battle at 3 p.m. Saturday (KRCG-TV) at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta. It’s No. 3 Auburn (11-1, 7-1 SEC) against No. 5 Missouri (11-1, 7-1 SEC) for a guaranteed BCS bowl and possibly a shot at the national championship.

“The programs are a lot different,” Missouri head coach Gary Pinkel said. “But we still had poor years a year ago and now we’ve come back and we’re playing for the SEC championship. So we parallel each other in that way.”

Added Missouri defensive end Shane Ray: “You can see that both of our teams are hungry with having losing seasons last year. That’s tough on a program. Of course as a player you don’t want to be that team any more. I have a lot of respect for Auburn and what they’re trying to do this year, because essentially we’re doing the same thing here at Mizzou. I think it’s going to be a great game and I’m going to enjoy the experience.”

As great as the two turnaround stories are, two tales that have captured the nation’s attention and stolen the spotlight from the dynastic Alabama Crimson Tide, the enigmatic Johnny Football and the Texas A&M Aggies, and other SEC powerhouses such as LSU, Georgia and South Carolina, are these dueling renaissances all that surprising?

Auburn and Missouri are a pair of programs that boast a bevy of recent success.

Auburn owns four seasons with at least 11 victories in the past decade. The Tigers won the national championship in the 2010-11 season and went undefeated in 2004 before being left out of the national title game.

Missouri can brag about four season of 10-plus wins since 2007. The Tigers were ranked No. 1 in 2007 before falling to Oklahoma in the Big 12 title game, thus falling short of a national championship berth. Missouri will be playing in its sixth bowl game in seven years this season.

So it’s not like we’re talking about a pair of perennial cellar-dwellers here. We’re talking about two extremely successful football programs.

“I think I’m playing for an SEC title every year,” Pinkel said. “You don’t do this to have a good showing and see how good we can be. You always build up to win a championship. This isn’t the first time we’ve been in this position, and hopefully it won’t be the last time.”

But if you’re talking turnarounds from one year to the next, Missouri and Auburn take the cake.

“We want to be the team that somebody talks about forever,” Missouri running back Henry Josey said. “That’s what we’re doing.”

The resurgence of both programs has Pinkel and Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn on the short list for national coach of the year. That’s a long way from where the two coaches were last season. Malzahn was the head coach at Arkansas State out of the Sun Belt, while Missouri fans are well aware of where Pinkel stood.

“Me on the hot seat? Are you kidding me? Was that out there? I didn’t know that,” Pinkel quipped Monday. “I’ve never ever worried about that. … I focus on doing my job, and that’s what I do.”

And that’s led Missouri to places nobody saw coming.

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