When the Missouri Tigers joined the SEC, media and fans around the league scoffed at the notion that they would be able to jump right in and compete at a high level.
This sentiment may have rung true for the Tigers’ first year in the conference, but in the second year, they’ve earned the respect of the entire league.
If No. 5 Missouri (11-1) can get past No. 3 Auburn (11-1) on Saturday in the Georgia Dome, the Tigers will have more than respect; they’ll have an SEC Championship trophy.
Following are five keys to a Missouri win in Atlanta.
1. Protect quarterback James Franklin
Franklin is the key cog in the Missouri offense. Freshman quarterback Maty Mauk performed well in Franklin’s month-long absence, but Franklin returned to lead the Tigers over Ole Miss and Texas A&M to close out the season.
The formidable Auburn defensive line will come after the Missouri signal caller with heavy pressure, and the Tigers’ offensive line and backfield will have to do its part to protect him. Their championship hopes depend on it.
2. Utilize size advantage at wide receiver
At 6’6 and 6’4, Missouri wide receivers Dorial Green-Beckham and L’Damian Washington could easily be mistaken for members of the Missouri basketball team. The towering duo combined for 93 catches and 20 touchdowns on the season, and Franklin would be wise to look their way often on Saturday.
Auburn’s pass defense ranks near the bottom of the league, and can be exploited in a big way if Missouri utilizes its receivers’ distinct size advantage on the outside.
3. Force Auburn into third-and-long situations
Auburn running back Tre Mason spearheads a powerful ground attack with quarterback Nick Marshall. In fact, the two combined for a whopping 2,200+ yards this season.
Missouri’s defensive front must control the line of scrimmage on first and second down, and not allow Auburn’s running game to pick up steam. This is easier said than done, but it’s certainly possible, as Missouri has been quite successful against strong running teams all season.
If the Tigers can put Marshall in obvious passing situations on third down, they can take Auburn’s offense out of its comfort zone.
4. Win the battle for the edges on defense
The Missouri defense features two of the conference’s top defensive ends in Michael Sam and Kona Ealy. The two have been fixtures in opposing backfields all season.
Auburn’s ball carriers, while not averse to pounding the ball up the middle, are most dangerous when hitting the edges and turning upfield on opposing defenses. Sam and Ealy must win most of their battles with Auburn’s offensive tackles and tight ends, and contain the outside.
5. Manage the Crowd
This is a neutral site game in name only. Columbia, Missouri is located approximately 675 miles from Atlanta, which makes for a 10-hour drive. Auburn, meanwhile, is a short hour-and-a-half drive away. It won’t quite be like playing in Jordan-Hare Stadium on The Plains, but Auburn will hold a distinct crowd advantage on Saturday.
Missouri – in particular Franklin and the offense – must manage the boisterous crowd, and execute like it has all season.
Auburn is only favored by a slight margin, but an overwhelming majority of the national media are calling for Gus Malzahn’s Tigers to pull out the win. Of course, Missouri has been defying the odds all season.
If the Gary Pinkel’s squad can win the key battles discussed above, they can prove the naysayers wrong once again, and return to Columbia as SEC Champions.