COLUMBIA - E.J. Gaines knows what Missouri needs to accomplish to win the Southeastern Conference title.
"Stopping the run," the senior cornerback said. "That's the main thing that we have to do. If we do it I think we'll come away with the "W.'"
That's easier said than done. No. 3 Auburn ranks fifth in the nation - and first in the SEC - with 318.3 rushing yards per game. Those Tigers boast two players who rank in the top-10 in the SEC in yards per game, something no other school in the league can say.
Running back Tre Mason tops the conference with 1,317 rushing yards, good for 109.8 per contest. He's found the end zone 18 times on the ground this season on 237 carries. Quarterback Nick Marshall is eighth in the league with 922 rushing yards, which equals 83.8 yards per game. He's found the end zone 10 times on the ground in 140 carries.
No. 5 Missouri (11-1, 7-1 SEC) will have quite the challenge on its hands when it faces Auburn's (11-1, 7-1 SEC) vaunted ground attack in the SEC title game at 3 p.m. Saturday (KRCG-TV) inside the Georgia Dome in Atlanta.
"It creates so many problems," Missouri head coach Gary Pinkel said of Auburn's rushing game. "... They have great blocking schemes that they use. Then they have a talented quarterback. He's got the ball in his hands all the time. Any play he can change the game. That's scary. They're really good and their statistics are great."
It's not just the simple fact Auburn can run the football. It's how it does it. Pinkel likens it to a triple option, something Navy employed in the 2009 Texas Bowl, a 35-13 win for the Midshipmen thanks to 385 rushing yards.
"You have to contain it the best you can," Pinkel said. "They make a lot of big plays, they fast-pace it, too. They just do a really good job of system and scheme. Everybody's had problems with the offense. It's a lot of assignment football. Who's got the quarterback, who's got the dive, who's got the pitch? Those are things you have to have answers for. That presents a real challenge for us."
There is some good news for Missouri. It comes in ranked 14th in the country - and second in the SEC - in rushing defense, allowing just 119.1 yards per game.
So don't expect Missouri to be scared of Mason, Marshall and company.
"They have scholarships just like we do," Missouri defensive end Shane Ray said. "They have great football players. It's never been focusing on a particular guy, it's focusing on minimizing our mistakes as a team, making sure that we do our things right, staying disciplined, staying in our gaps, and that's been the key to our success. So veering away from that, I don't think that's going to happen."
Auburn doesn't throw a whole lot, going for just 172.8 yards per game, 11th in the SEC. Still, with Marshall's ability to run the ball, that certainly opens up the passing game.
"You have a quarterback, a (former Missouri quarterback) Brad Smith-type athlete back there," Pinkel said. "It starts with that quarterback. He's a great player. You're not going to stop him, you have to contain him the best you can."
Saturday's championship game also features a pair of quintessential SEC defenses. Missouri is second in the league, allowing just 19.4 points per game (14th in the nation). Auburn isn't far behind, giving up 22.5 points (fifth in the SEC, 31st in the nation).
"They're playing pretty good defense," Pinkel said. "Obviously we have to score points. When you get to this game, you're going to play somebody that's really, really good. That's the way it is. That's what it's supposed to be, that's why you go play."
Missouri and Auburn are just about as even as can be on offense, scoring 38.8 and 38.6 points per game, respectively.
As wild of a ride as it's been for Auburn this season, going from 3-9 and winless in the league to now playing for a conference title, it's been just as crazy for head coach Gus Malzahn.
Malzahn coached high-school football from 1991-2005 before earning a shot as offensive coordinator at Arkansas. He stayed with the Razorbacks until 2007, then accepting a position at Tulsa in the same role. Malzahn became the offensive coordinator at Auburn in 2009 (winning the national title during the 2010-11 season) before accepting a head-coaching position at Arkansas State. Malzahn led the team to a 9-3 record in 2012 in his only year as head coach before heading back to Auburn to replace Gene Chizik as the man in charge.
"It's just very difficult to get the shot, get the opportunity," Pinkel said of Malzahn's journey from high-school coach to the NCAA Division I ranks. "There are plenty of high-school coaches that are good enough to be standing up here where I'm at. He's a guy that did it his way and made the sacrifices to do it. Certainly he's done a great job. Look what he's doing."
Note: Missouri junior defensive lineman Matt Hoch was named a 2013 Capital One Academic All-American, selected to the second team by compiling a 3.96 GPA in the middle school education major.