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.”