The most improbable SEC title game ever - Missouri and Auburn were picked before the season to finish 10th and 11th in the league - has to feature a bevy of things that could surprise. Has to, when you consider the miracles and the shockers these two have authored. So let's reach beyond our skis and try to reach this puppy in 2. Or 5. Two or five ... "pond" would be good for you.
1. Which QB runs the best
Notice I did not say the fastest. Whichever quarterback runs -- Auburn's Nick Marshall or Missouri's James Franklin -- will have a huge edge. Each set of Tigers thrives at getting after the quarterback. Marshall and Franklin are mobile enough to make plays with their feet and extend passing attempts that lead to big plays. Marshall will get more chances to run, but on the fast Georgia Dome turf, those chances could equal points.
2. Missouri receivers may be the SEC's best
Led by former super-recruit Dorial Green-Beckham, the Show-Me Tigers are long and talented on the perimeter. How Auburn matches up is its biggest defensive hurdle. And since Alabama hit on two monster pass plays to Amari Cooper last week -- both coming from deep in Tide territory and the second going for a 99-yard TD -- it's clear Auburn has been susceptible to big passing plays.
3. World, meet Tre Mason
Mason, Auburn's battering ram who anchors the SEC's best rushing attack, went for 164 yards on 29 carries against Alabama and did not get stopped behind the line of scrimmage. Missouri's defensive front is tough, but it's not better than Alabama's, and Auburn ran for right at 300 yards against a Tide defense that had averaged allowing a little more than 90 a game going in. Mason was the key to that performance, and he could well be again.
4. Which team is willing to risk it all
Expect someone to come up with an onside kick. Or a fake punt. Neither team was expected to be here, and each arrived by pushing its chips in and taking swings. The team that can continue to play that loose and that free will have a huge edge -- especially early -- as the stakes have skyrocketed and a BCS bowl bid hangs in the balance.
5. Does Auburn have another miracle?
The biggest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn't exist. The biggest trick Gus Malzahn pulled with these Auburn Tigers is convincing them they can't lose. Do they carry that belief against a team that has been dominated except for one fourth quarter and overtime against South Carolina? We'll see.
Fab 4-plus-1 picks
Gang, the pickings are slim and we need to close quickly after a less-than-entertaining 4-6 mark with our online picks last week. We're 48-37-1 against the number so far this year. Now as we all know, these picks are for entertainment only, but let's assume you invested 100 entertainment vouchers on each pick, you'd be 720 entertainment vouchers to the good (including the entertainment commission for your local entertainment brokers; and with most things, we encourage buying local when possible. Remember, gang, piracy is not a victimless crime).
So it goes, and in truth it should be a lot better. We got too cute after a fast start. We abandon two primary rules too frequently: We ignored the fundamental creed that lines that look too good to be true normally are, and we did not ride hot horses to the finish. If you had bet on Auburn (10-2 vs. the spread), Missouri (11-1 vs. the spread), Duke (9-2-1 vs. the spread), Florida State (10-2 vs. the spread) and Wisconsin (9-2-1 vs. the spread after starting 9-0-1) all year, that quintet went 49-9-2 against the line this year. That's enough entertainment to handle Christmas -- through like 2016.
That said, four of those covering machines face off this weekend, and we can see reasons to support each side. So we're not going to support any. (Of those, Duke catching 29 points caught our eye, but the number-crunching does not compute.
Check this: The line has gone FSU minus-27 to FSU minus-29 despite almost 70 percent of the action being on Duke. So the guys who make their living doing this want the action on Duke -- if 70 percent of the action is on the underdog, the line should get smaller not bigger. So Vegas wants the public's entertainment on Duke, and when Vegas wants your money on one team it's because they want your money.)
Auburn-Missouri over 58: Fast turf. Big-play offenses and defenses. High stakes for each, so the playbook has been flipped from "wide open" straight to "ludicrous speed." We expect each to play fast, and we expect each offense to play well. That means points. Lots and lots of points.
Ohio State minus-5 over Michigan State: Strength on strength when THE Ohio State offense plays the Michigan State defense. Blah on blah when the Spartans' offense goes against the Buckeyes' D. It's the strengths that will decide it, because in truth, the Spartans can't get much beyond 24 points without freaky scores. So ask yourself, will the Buckeyes and that juggernaut offense get four TDs? We say yes, since their lowest output of the season was 31 against Wisconsin.
Central Florida minus-10 over SMU: The Knights are talented and tough -- and quarterback Blake Bortles has emerged as a potential first-round NFL pick according to ESPN draft guru Todd McShay. With a BCS bowl on the line for UCF -- and George O'Leary would have been a coach of the year contender without the extraordinary runs by the winning firm of Malzahn, Pinkel and Cutcliffe -- here's saying the Knights handle their BID-ness quickly and efficiently.
Fresno State minus-3 over Utah State: Utah State has four losses, but those are to two Pac-12 teams and Boise State and BYU, so it is better than its record. Fresno State is coming off its worst performance of the season. In the 1+1+1=14 world of betting, that means Fresno State rolls.
Montana minus-5 over Coastal Carolina: This is a shoutout for the FCS fans out there -- and Maximus, we'll have more on the playoffs in Sunday's TFP. And did you notice that the last Southern Conference team alive gets the treat of traveling to North Dakota State for a JMC dream shot against the Alabama of the FCS. As for this pick, not all local entertainment brokers have numbers on the FCS games, so there's that. There's also the trip to Montana, the weather, the crowd and the fact that the Grizzlies are extremely comfortable in the playoffs. The Chanticleers, not so much.