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December 6, 2013
Championship Game Notebook
ATLANTA, GA--Leading into the SEC Championship Game, the national debate has raged: Does a one-loss SEC champion deserve a spot in the BCS National Championship game, even if that would involve leapfrogging unbeaten Ohio State?
It seems everyone has an opinion. Everyone, that is, except the two guys hoping to raise the conference champion's trophy in the Georgia Dome tomorrow.
"I'm going to focus on the game tomorrow," Gary Pinkel said. "That's where all my focus should be, that's where my team's focus should be and that's where it's going to be."
"All I know is we got the best league in college football," Gus Malzahn said. "I'm focused on the Missouri Tigers. We'll worry about that after the game."
Both have their own challenges this week, but at the core of it, the task is the same for both: Bring their teams down from the highest of highs to win a game against a top five football team.
Missouri beat Texas A&M, its fourth straight must-win victory, to clinch the East division title. Auburn took down top-ranked Alabama on a 100-yard return of a missed field goal by Chris Davis with just one second to play.
"The challenge on emotional wins like that is you've got to put it behind you. You've got to move on to the next week," Malzahn said. "Our guys showed up for their Sunday practice, they went about their business like normal. I thought that was a very good sign. Had a very good week of practice."
"That's the challenge," Pinkel said. "The challenge of any coach and the leadership of the team and coaching staff and everybody is can you stay focused to do what you do day by day and play your best? I would like to think we're doing all the right things. We've done it all year long."
KEEPING AN EVEN KEEL: Pinkel has preached to his team all week the importance of handling the emotion and not approaching this game any differently than the first 12.
"I want it to feel like every other week," Pinkel said. "If I objectively look at it, I think that it was. I meet with the seniors every Monday at 4:30 and the rallying cry is just 'Do what we do.'"
Of course, that requires the same approach by the coaching staff.
"One thing that I wanted to make sure with our staff is that we're not acting any different around our players," Pinkel said. "We're sitting there saying to our players, 'You've got to make sure you stay at this level' and then the intensity level, the coaches are wound so tight. I think we've done a real good job with our staff saying consistent. That's what kids look at, they feel all those things."
That doesn't mean there is no intensity. On the defensive side, especially.
"Dave Steckel's our defensive coordinator. He's an ex-Marine. Well, I can't say ex-Marine or was a Marine. He is a Marine. You've got to watch what you say. I said that to my brother-in-law once, almost got hit," Pinkel said. "Intensity's not one of his problems. He's a great coach and does a great job. Also, that's part of his personality. That's what makes him who he is."
SINGLETON IS CLEARED: The narrative of Missouri's season--all season--has revolved around health. Pinkel said that reserve nickel back Duron Singleton is available to play on Saturday.
"He will play. He's fine," Pinkel said. "Had a good week of practice and I don't know how much he'll play, but he can play, so that's good for us."
With Singleton cleared to play, defensive tackle Marvin Foster, out with a torn biceps, is the only player on the Tigers' two-deep who will not be available against Auburn.
Quarterback Comparison: Pinkel has long been hesitant to compare current players to those he has coached in the past. That changed when he talked about Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall.
"Their tailback's a great player, the offensive line is good, but I think the offense is at a whole different level when you have Nick Marshall in there," Pinkel said. "He's a playmaker. We had a guy named Brad Smith...He's athletic like Brad is."
Respect from Malzahn: Missouri fans have crowed all week long that they are getting the short end of the respect stick from the national media. Asked about that, Auburn's boss certainly wasn't short of praise for the Tigers.
"I'll just say this: Missouri's one of the better teams in college football. Anytime you win eleven games in this conference," Malzahn said. "I think they're very similar to us. you're talking about a team that's gotten better each week. They've risen to the occasion. They've won under extreme pressure situations the last couple weeks. They're one of the best teams in college football, bottom line.
"I think our guys understand, you turn the film on of Missouri, we've got to play our best game. We've got to play better than we did last week to win this game."
TWO TIGERS, ONE STORY: Friday's question-and-answer sessions illuminated one point above all others -- Auburn and Missouri have much more in common than simply a mascot.
(Well, their main mascot, anyway.)
It may as well have been a game of "Who Said It Better?" The answers to most questions, the how and the why of this unlikely championship-game matchup, could have been said by either coach.
Take your guess at which coach gave these uncited answers:
"We were a work in progress earlier in the year."
"Our defense has really complimented our offense. They came through, time and time again, when our offense was struggling or needed a lift. You think about last week, in the fourth quarter, with the big stops. We've been one of the best teams in the red zone. Our defense deserves a lot of the credit for why we're here."
"Our guys showed up for their Sunday practice. They went about their business like normal. I thought that was a very good sign. We had a very good week of practice."
"We were really worried about ourselves and we took it one game at a time. We didn't look ahead about this and that. Our goal was to get better each week. I know that sounds like coach-speak, but that's all we thought about. We didn't think about anything else, and what do you know -- we're here. We need to improve again this week."
"I think they're very similar to us. You're talking about a team that's gotten better each week. They've risen to the occasion. They've won under extreme pressure situations the last couple of weeks. They're one of the best teams in college football. Bottom line."
Trick question -- all are Malzahn quotes.
But it proves a point, beyond the fact that coach-speak is an endemic without a cure. Missouri and Auburn are similar on the field, on the stat sheet and on the podium. Malzahn and Pinkel, while overcoming different types of adversity, each brought the same tactic to their teams prior to this season.
They focused on what they could control and what their team could control, going game-by-game-by-game until the sum total of those parts added up to 11-1 records.
So it's the same philosophy that brought the Tigers and the Tigers to Atlanta. And, again, it's business as usual.
Most likely, Auburn has more emotions to overcome than Missouri. The Columbia Tigers have played this season even-keeled, save for the fourth-quarter letdown against South Carolina. Their closest game was their most emotional, a win-for-respect match-up against Texas A&M that was won in the fourth quarter by seven points, the only win on the season by fewer than two touchdowns.
The Tigers of the Plains, however, have had a roller coaster season, and are coming off unbelievable emotional highs in last-second wins over Georgia and Alabama, a span of three weeks separated by a bye.
"The challenge in emotional wins like that is you've gotta put it behind you, you've got to move on to the next week," Malzahn said. "Against Georgia, we had a week off so it made it a little easier. Alabama, we haven't had but a week."
That's the challenge, it seems, for both teams. In a battle of Tiger Twins, whichever team can go about "business as usual" will likely come out as SEC Championship.
Whoever follows the same season-long blueprint could be playing for even more in early January.