ATLANTA - Auburn coach Gus Malzahn swears that while the rest of War Eagle Nation loudly celebrated last Saturday evening's stunning win over archrival Alabama, he hunkered down in his office to begin watching tape of Missouri, this afternoon's opponent in the Southeastern Conference championship game.
"Well, they're pretty good, you know," he said with a slight smile Friday afternoon.
We'll all know pretty soon whether the Show Me State Tigers are good enough to show Malzahn's Tigers a thing or two about championship football. After all, bad as Mizzou was a year ago (5-7 overall and 2-6 in the SEC), Auburn was worse (3-9, 0-8).
But it's what they've done most other recent years that probably has kept Malzahn up late.
"This is the fourth time in seven years we've won 10 or more games," Mizzou coach Gary Pinkel said. "When I came to Missouri, they'd had two winning seasons in I don't know how many years -- 15, 18. I just wanted the University of Missouri to be respected."
While 2012 Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel made sure Texas A&M earned instant respect a year ago, Pinkel's Tigers struggled, mostly due to injury. Befitting a coach seeking to win his first SEC title in just his second year in the league, Pinkel made dramatic changes in the offseason.
"We made a lot of adjustments to keep our players fresh," he said of his 11-1 team. "We didn't have any two-a-days. Did everything we could to keep our players healthy."
The result was a Mizzou squad that was almost injury free except for quarterback James Franklin, who handed over the starting job to Maty Mauk for four games after getting hurt against Georgia but still wound up with 16 touchdown passes to just four interceptions.
"Before he got hurt, James was playing as well as any quarterback in the country," Pinkel said. "And he's 100 percent healthy now."
Some would say Franklin is an older, more refined version of Auburn QB Nick Marshall, who has accounted for 17 touchdowns and just three turnovers during 11-1 AU's eight-game winning streak.
"It's really been amazing to watch his progress," Malzahn said Friday of Marshall. "You're talking about a guy, the very first game he knew 25 percent of our offense. He got better each week. He's very unique. He's at his best when the game is on the line. When the pressure is the most, he finds a way to get it done."
No kidding. Marshall not only has engineered four fourth-quarter comebacks -- including tying last week's win over Bama -- with 79 seconds or less on the clock.
There was the 11-yard TD he threw against Mississippi State with 10 seconds to go. The 73-yard "Immaculate Deflection" score against Georgia with 25 seconds left. The 39-yard TD pass against Alabama with 32 seconds to play.
Said Pinkel of Auburn in general and Marshall in particular: "Their tailbacks are great players; their offensive line is good; then you've got a great quarterback running the whole thing. The offense is at a whole different level when you have Nick Marshall in there."
Yet as good as Marshall, a former University of Georgia defensive back, has been, Malzahn promises he didn't know he had Cam Newton II at the start of preseason practice.
"We had four quarterbacks to open up [camp]," the coach said. "Three weeks before the season we actually went live (which means they can be hit), which is very unusual. Nick won the job."
While the job of stopping Marshall certainly appears daunting for Mizzou, the Midwest Tigers' tall receiving corps is no picnic for AU's Tigers.
Dorial Green-Beckham stands 6-for 6, while L'Damian Washington and Jaleel Clark check in at 6-4 and Bud Sasser is the shrimp at 6-2.
"They look good walking off the bus," Pinkel said with a grin.
Added Malzahn: "I'll agree with that."
What conspiracy theorists may not agree with is the message behind Malzahn's all-orange tie at Friday's coaches luncheon. While Pinkel's tie was Missouri black and gold, Malsahn's choice of neckwear might cause some to wonder if that was a Texas burnt orange he was wearing.
But most everyone agrees this has the potential to be a terrific title game, given that AU's Tigers are third in the latest BCS standings while Missouri's Tigers stand fifth. Let either Ohio State or Florida, or both, fall in their conference title games, and the winner of this game could play for the national championship.
Nor is there any argument anywhere that the Tigers will win and the Tigers will lose.
But just in case anyone within the SEC's old guard questions whether Mizzou yet falls into the league's football-first-last-and-only mentality among its supporters, one line from Pinkel put that to rest.
Asked if his fans were surprised he was able to guide his Tigers to the league championship game in just his second SEC season, the coach said, "They want to know why we didn't do this our first year."
Contact Mark Wiedmer at firstname.lastname@example.org