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December 5, 2013

SEC Matchups: When Auburn throws

Missouri and Auburn will face off in the SEC Championship Game on Saturday afternoon at 3 p.m. Central. Throughout the week, PowerMizzou.com publisher Gabe DeArmond and AuburnSports.com publisher Jay G. Tate will break down the matchups, looking at a different aspect of the game each day of the week.

Gabe DeArmond,
Jay G. Tate, AuburnSports.com
Missouri's pass defense is one of the great paradoxes in college football. The Tigers give up 266 yards per game, which ranks last in the league. However, Mizzou's 6.4 yards per attempt is tied for second with Alabama and the Tigers rank third in the league in pass efficiency defense. That has a lot to do with the fact Missouri played from ahead almost all season long and faced 77 more passing attempts from opponents than anyone else in the SEC.

E.J. Gaines is playing at an all-SEC level and coming off a game in which he held A&M star Mike Evans to a career-low eight yards on four catches. Randy Ponder has been solid on the other side and youngsters Aarion Penton and John Gibson have given the Tigers depth, each contributing an interception to Mizzou's league-high 18 picks. At safety Braylon Webb and Matt White bring experience and both had their best seasons in Columbia.

Missouri is opportunistic in the passing game, causing plenty of problems with an SEC-high 37 sacks. Led by Michael Sam and Markus Golden, both in the top three in the SEC in tackles for loss, the Tigers can harass opposing quarterbacks and force them into mistakes. However, with Nick Marshall's mobility, I expect the game plan to be closer to what Missouri did against the Aggies: Focus less on pressuring the quarterback and more on covering downfield.

Auburn doesn't feature an overpowering air attack, but that's more about preference than it being a weakness. Quarterback Nick Marshall has a very strong arm. What he lacks is refinement in the pocket. The junior signed with Georgia in 2011 as a defensive back and didn't play quarterback until the 2012 junior college season. His footwork certainly isn't textbook at this stage, but Marshall has good awareness and has completed 59 percent of his passes this season.

Auburn is tied for second among SEC teams in yards per completion, showing how the Tigers use the passing game. Gus Malzahn likes to take deep shots once the defense begins allocating eight or nine defenders to run defense. Sammie Coates is the big-play receiver (at 23.3 yards per catch) while tight end C.J. Uzomah made game-changing touchdown catches against Alabama and Mississippi State.

Gabe DeArmond,
Jay G. Tate, AuburnSports.com
Mizzou has the reputation of a fling-it-all-over-the-field, pass-happy spread offense, but the Tigers were second in the SEC behind only Auburn running the ball this year. Mizzou averaged 236.9 yards per game and a healthy 5.6 per carry.

The Tigers' top back is Henry Josey, who is closing in on his second 1,000-yard season, but Marcus Murphy and Russell Hansbrough give Mizzou three backs with at least 560 yards. All three average better than six yards per carry and all have the ability to go for 100 on any given night. The Tigers run game really gets going when James Franklin pulls it and takes off. He had 412 yards and three scores on the ground as Missouri tied for third in the league with 31 rushing touchdowns.

In the past, Missouri has used a lot of parallel-to-the-line runs, but this year, it's a much more straight-ahead attack. The Tigers will rotate backs by the series, but in the second half, they'll ride the hot hand hand among the trio of tailbacks. Mizzou ran it 507 times this season. The only SEC team with more attempts? Auburn.

Auburn's run defense was atrocious in 2012, but took an important step forward this fall under the direction of assistant coach Rodney Garner. He was unwilling to accept any excuses regarding lack of production and made some major changes to his group as the season progressed. He eventually settled on junior Gabe Wright at nose and senior Nosa Eguae, who weighs just 275 pounds, at tackle. That's an inside staffing choice that was nearly unthinkable in August, but the Tigers have shaved 40 rushing yards per game off their 2012 total. That's progress.

Missouri has a strong ground attack led by Henry Josey. An important component of their attack is depth; the Tigers rotate three backs and quarterback James Franklin also is a gifted runner. Auburn, though, has unusual depth up front and can substitute as frequently as needed. If the linebackers play like they did against Alabama -- easily their best game of the season -- Auburn may end up having an edge here. Still, the Western Division Tigers always are suspect outside the redzone.

Gabe DeArmond,
Jay G. Tate, AuburnSports.com
Perhaps the most underrated aspect of Missouri's season has been the run defense. The Tigers are 14th in the country, giving up just 119.1 yards per game on the ground. That figure, as well as 3.6 yards per carry allowed, is second in the SEC to Alabama. However, last week, Texas A&M ran for 184 yards. If you take out 21 yards on 11 carries by Johnny Manziel, the Aggie running backs averaged more than six yards per carry against the previously stout Tiger defense.

Auburn, obviously, has the best running game Missouri has faced. As good as the Tigers' statistics look, Alabama's were better and the Crimson Tide gave up 296 yards on the ground in the Iron Bowl. If Missouri manages to get the upper hand in this matchup, it's hard not seeing Mizzou win the game. But that is far, far, far more easily said than done.

Auburn emerged as one of the nation's top rushing teams this season with a combination of quarterback Nick Marshall, tailback Tre Mason and revamped offensive line. Auburn uses only a handful of plays, but creates myriad looks through shifts, formations and personnel variances. The most important plays are the inside zone and what I'd call a weakside read option. Mason is a grinder who always pushes for an extra yard, but has enough speed to pull away from many defenders.

Marshall has excellent straight-line speed for a quarterback and rarely makes mistakes with his reads. He's averaging 7.8 yards per carry during the past five conference games, so he must be respected as a runner. Also, Auburn loves to operate at pace and often calls two plays at a time after gaining a first down. The Tigers endure their fair share of short-gaining plays, but they never get away from what they want to do. They'll keep plugging away until they get the desired result.

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