The Auburn Tigers are back in Atlanta this year!
(Photo by Acid Reign)
War Eagle, everybody! Wow, has this been a surreal week? I don’t know about you, but I’ve been absolutely basking in the this Auburn season all week long! Normally this week after Thanksgiving, I’m recapping what went wrong during the season, speculating on coaching changes, or just reminiscing about happier times. Not this year! Auburn is the SEC Western Division Champion, and I don’t think any of us saw this coming.
So, what does Auburn have to do to advance from here? The next step is taking on the Missouri Tigers. Like Auburn, Missouri did almost nothing last season. They finished 1-7 in their first year in the league, their lone win coming against a Tennessee team that had a defense about as strong as a wet paper bag. Normally, what you’d do to start comparing these teams is to look at common opponents.
I’ll say right off the bat that the common opponent approach won’t work, in this matchup. Neither team is the same bunch that started playing Labor Day weekend. Both teams have grown tremendously during the course of the fall, and have survived some incredible adversity. Amazingly, since the two teams play in the same conference, there have been only three common SEC opponents.
Missouri played Georgia in Athens on October 12th, and dominated the Bulldogs to the tune of 41-26. Much as was the case against Auburn, Georgia could not slow the Missouri Tigers down, and there were no Aaron Murray late game heroics in this one. The Tigers of Columbia showed that they could shut a contender down with the game on the line, and took control of the SEC East with this victory.
A week ago in Oxford, Missouri shut Ole Miss down 24-10, allowing not even a single offensive touchdown by Bo Wallace and crew. I’d argue that Auburn did a similar job at home against the Rebels, but Wallace kept hitting his guys down the field and kept drives alive back on October 5th. Against Missouri, Wallace was harrassed into probably his worst game of the season.
This past weekend, while Auburn was turning the tables on a Bama field goal try, Missouri was holding down Johnny Football, beating the Texas A&M Aggies 28-21 in Columbia. Most stunningly, Johnny Manziel was held to just 21 rushing yards on 11 carries, and 195 passing yards. What Missouri did to the Aggies was hold onto the ball, and win the time of possession battle, while holding the Aggies to a season-low 379 yards. Much like Auburn did in College Station on October 19th, Missouri trailed much of the game, but battled to a draw late, pulled ahead on a big play in the 4th, and a deep defensive line denied Johnny Football late in the game.
Out of conference, both teams played Arkansas State in successive weeks back in September. Neither game was close, with Auburn winning 38-9, and Missouri pasting the Red Wolves 41-19 a week later. The real question in Atlanta will be how these teams match up in early December.
Unit Matchups, after the jump!
Auburn defensive line vs. Missouri offensive line: Auburn uses a deep and talented defensive line rotation, and thus has fresh linemen on the field all the time. It’s not unusual for ten or more guys to post defensive stats here. The ringleader is senior defensive end Dee Ford, who leads the team with 12 tackles for loss, and 8 sacks. Missouri counters with a strong offensive line anchored by senior tackle Justin Britt and junior Mitch Morse. Missouri is second in the SEC in rushing, behind Auburn, and is 4th in total offense. If there’s a concern here, it is that Missouri gave up 22 sacks on the season, compared to Auburn giving up just 15. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn linebackers vs. Missouri backs: Auburn’s top linebackers are senior Jake Holland and sophomore Cassanova McKinzy, and the Tigers liberally substitute in sophomores Kris Frost Anthony Swain. This group was not very good early in the season, but has come on strong as the season has progressed. They are asked to stop the run sideline to sideline, with only two guys on the field, so a lot of tackles have to be made by members of the secondary. As Auburn essentially runs a nickel defense al the time, linebacker numbers are misleading. Missouri has a trio of tailbacks who all average 6 yards per carry or more. The ringleader is junior Henry Josey, but sophomore Russell Hansbrough and junior Marcus Murphy have contributed also. If there’s an issue here, it’s that none of these backs weighs more than 190 pounds, and that might be a concern on short yardage situations. However, these guys seriously outmatch Auburn in the speed department, and that’s a big concern on the fast track in the Georgia Dome. Advantage: Missouri.
Auburn corners vs. Missouri receivers: It could be said that no one matches up with Missouri’s receivers, but I think Auburn has as good a chance as anyone in this department. Both Chris Davis and Jonathan Mincy have made a living this fall making plays against bigger, taller and faster receivers. Ryan White and Jonathan Jones provide quality depth off the bench. You’d expect from all the hype that Missouri would be leading the league in pass efficiency, but curiously, they are behind LSU, Texas A&M, Alabama, Georgia, and even South Carolina. I think Auburn will be able to contain these guys. Missouri is led by towering sophomore Dorial Green-Beckham, but it’s worth noting that Marcus Lucas and L’Damian Washington all have 44 or more catches. Auburn won’t be able to key on one guy down the field. Advantage: Even.
Auburn safeties vs. Missouri secondary receivers and quarterback: Auburn goes here with junior Jermaine Whitehead and senior Ryan Smith, with spot duty from utility man Ryan White. The hybrid star position is manned by junior Robensen Therezie, who combines great speed with hitting power. Curiously, Missouri is not known for dumping the ball to tight ends or backs. Eric Waters leads the tight ends with 8 catches, and Henry Josey leads the backs with 9. Where Missouri makes their living passing the ball is with combination routes by the wide receivers. Both Missouri quarterbacks, senior James Franklin and freshman Maty Mauk are a problem to hem up in the running game. I’d expect to see Auburn utilize contain strategies like they have against other mobile quarterbacks such as Johnny Manziel and Bo Wallace. For the most part, Auburn’s safeties provide deep help and are the last option on tackles, and that will continue against Missouri. Advantage: Missouri.
Punting: Auburn senior Steven Clark has had a tremendous season. While his average distance of 42.7 yards is only 8th in the SEC, it’s near impossible to return his punts. Auburn has only covered 5 punt returns on 47 punts, for just 35 yards. Missouri junior Christian Brinser averages 40.7 yards per punt, and the team gives up 7.9 yards per return. Auburn’s Chris Davis is the ace in the hole here, as he has two returns for touchdowns this season. Missouri’s Marcus Murphy has a long return of 31 yards. Advantage: Auburn.
Kickoffs: Both kickers in this department can, and likely will plant most of their kickoffs in the end zone in this indoor game. Cody Parkey has hit 59 touchbacks out of 83 kickoffs, while Missouri’s Andrew Baggett has hit 51 of 85. The concern for Missouri is if they don’t hit touchbacks. Both Tre Mason and Corey Grant have returned kickoffs for touchdowns this season for Auburn, while Missouri has none.
Place kicking: Auburn senior Cody Parkey has hit 13 of 17 field goal attempts, while Andrew Baggett has hit 14 of 21. On extra points, it’s 54 of 55 for Parkey, and only 57 of 60 for Baggett. Slight advantage: Auburn.
Auburn offensive line vs. Missouri defensive line: The offensive line is probably Auburn’s strongest and most complete unit this season. Led by junior center Reese Dismukes, this team has crushed one defensive line after another this season. Even the vaunted Alabama defense gave up 296 rushing yards to this bunch. Missouri counters with a strong defensive line. Junior tackles Lucas Vincent and Matt Hoch are strong in the middle, but it is the Missouri defensive ends that give SEC offensive coordinators nightmares. Senior Michael Sam and junior Kony Ealy are tremendously athletic, dangerous pass rushers. The pair have combined for 27.5 tackles for loss this season, and sophomore Shane Ray adds in 9 more off the bench. Still, there hasn’t been a team in the SEC this season that has handled Auburn’s line, and I don’t think Missouri will, either. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn backs vs. Missouri linebackers: Auburn has a trio of dangerous runners, featuring the SEC’s leading rusher, junior Tre Mason. Mason is a complete back, with speed, agility, and power. Corey Grant gives Auburn great speed on the outside, and Cameron Artis-Payne adds to the inside power game. Auburn also has the league’s best blocking back in senior Jay Prosch. Senior linebacker Andrew Wilson leads Missouri with 87 tackles, and he’s joined by senior Donovan Bonner and sophomore Kentrell Brothers. The trio has combined for 194 tackles, but I don’t think they’ve seen anything quite like the Auburn attack, this season. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn receivers vs. Missouri corners: Auburn sophomores Sammie Coates and Ricardo Louis have established themselves as speedy, tall, big play men for Auburn, but it’s a rotating cast of brutal blockers that’s the real story for Auburn on offense this season. All of Auburn’s guys come off the line looking to hit someone in the secondary, and they really put cornerbacks in a bind. If the corner fights off the block, these guys can score touchdowns off play action. Try to keep them in front, and you’ll give up 300+ rushing yards. Senior corners Randy Ponder and E. J. Gaines have an unenviable task ahead this week. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn secondary receivers and quarterback vs. Missouri safeties: Auburn’s most dangerous secondary receiver is easily junior tight end C. J. Uzomah. Much like the receivers mentioned above, he is a load blocking, has a big height advantage on most SEC secondary players, and has speed to burn. Quan Bray is also trouble to defense, with 20 catches on mostly quick screens. When Auburn gets the quick-paced running game going, you’ll often see tight end Brandon Fulse in the game. When Auburn has Uzomah, Fulse and Prosch in the game at the same time, the defense essentially has to deal with 8 offensive linemen. Folks nationally are still saying that Auburn has a defensive back that can’t pass at quarterback. Auburn’s Nick Marshall is dangerous, and he’s at his best at crunch time in football games. Marshall has 922 rushing yards this season, most of any SEC quarterback, and he’s thrown only 5 interceptions. At safety, Missouri has senior Matt White and junior Braylon Webb. The pair has combined for 125 tackles and 14 passes defended. Advantage: Auburn.
The key story in this game will be whether the Missouri defensive ends can disrupt Auburn’s offense at the point of attack. If Auburn’s Greg Robinson and Avery Young can keep Ealy and Sam out of the backfield, it will likely be a long day for the Missouri defense. No one since the first half of the Auburn-LSU game has stopped this offense for long, and I don’t think it will happen in Atlanta.
The Missouri offense is dangerous, and will move the ball and score points. Everyone else has against Auburn, and this week will be no different. I expect that Auburn will focus on stopping the run, and playing a lot of cover-one-robber on the big receivers. Auburn has been clutch in the red zone on defense, and Missouri usually has a period or two during most games where the offense is out of sync. I don’t think the black and gold Tigers can afford to fall too far behind in this game.
For those who like to watch offensive football, the SEC Title game should be a treat. We are certainly looking forward to it! Saturday morning, we’ll have our usual open thread up here at trackemtigers.com. I’m attending the game, so there won’t be my usual keyboard histrionics. War Eagle, folks! This magnificent Auburn season continues, in Atlanta! I predict that Auburn will take this game, 48-38.
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