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.