Unlikely pairing: Auburn, Missouri vie in unexpected SEC title pairing

photo Auburn cornerback Chris Davis (11) reacts after returning a missed field goal attempt 109 yards to score the game-winning touchdown as time expired in the fourth quarter of an NCAA college football game against No. 1 Alabama in Auburn on Saturday. Auburn won 34-28.
photo Auburn cornerback Chris Davis (11) returns a missed field goal attempt 100-plus yards to score the game-winning touchdown as time expired in the fourth quarter of his NCAA college football game against No. 1 Alabama in Auburn, Ala., Nov. 30, 2013. Auburn won 34-28.
photo SEC Southeastern Conference

BCS STANDINGS1. Florida State2. Ohio State3. Auburn4. Alabama5. Missouri6. Oklahoma State7. Stanford8. South Carolina9. Baylor10. Michigan State

Surprise, surprise.

Saturday's Southeastern Conference football championship between Auburn and Missouri will be the most improbable pairing in the event's 22-year history. The two Tigers were a combined 2-14 in league play last season, and Auburn was picked fifth in the West Division balloting this summer, while Missouri was picked sixth in the East.

Auburn and Missouri will each enter the Georgia Dome 11-1 overall after going 7-1 within the league.

"There are a lot of different ways of looking at it, I guess, but I think it's just being part of the SEC," Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said Sunday afternoon. "There are a lot of great teams, and the competition is at its highest level. You can be a good football team and not be sitting here 11-1 either, but we're excited about being in it.

"It was one of our goals, and we're going to work really hard to play our best game."

Missouri will be making its first SEC title-game appearance in just its second season in the league. Pinkel's Tigers were ravaged by injuries during a 5-7 debut season but have continually proven the doubters wrong this year, winning six league games by at least 15 points and losing only to South Carolina, when Missouri lost a 17-0 lead and fell 27-24 in double overtime.

They clinched the East with a 28-21 win over Texas A&M on Saturday night.

"Last year was our first losing season in the last nine years, and all of a sudden we were not going to be very good," Pinkel said. "This is the fourth time in the last seven years where we've won 10 or more games, so we've had some consistency in our program. I thought coming out of spring football that we were going to be good."

There is no doubting Missouri's excitement about Saturday's game, as the school sold out its allotted 16,000 tickets early Sunday morning.

Auburn went 3-9 last season, its worst record in 60 years, and entered this season with new coach Gus Malzahn but having lost 10 SEC games in a row. Malzahn's Tigers defeated Mississippi State in the final seconds before losing to LSU, but they strengthened each week and registered victories over Texas A&M, Georgia and Alabama.

Saturday night's 34-28 upset of the top-ranked Crimson Tide ended Alabama's streak of 18 consecutive wins away from Bryant-Denny Stadium.

"When we first got here, we knew we had some talent," Malzahn said. "They had been through a storm the year before, and we were really just focusing on us and getting our edge back and playing good Auburn football. We didn't have any expectations as far as numbers of wins and all that."

Auburn trailed Alabama 28-21 with less than 40 seconds remaining but scored two touchdowns, including a 100-yard return by Chris Davis after Alabama's Adam Griffith came up short on a 57-yard field-goal attempt. It was the most remarkable Iron Bowl ever, but Malzahn's challenge now is to put it in the past.

"It was probably the most physical game we've had all year," he said. "We need to heal up in a hurry, and we used up a lot of emotional energy, no doubt. This team has found a way to take it one day at a time, and that's what we will have to do this week."

Auburn, which is making its fifth SEC title-game appearance, and Missouri are not only vying for a league crown but a potential berth in the BCS championship. Florida State and Ohio State are 1-2 in the latest BCS standings, with Auburn third, Alabama fourth and Missouri fifth.

The Seminoles and Buckeyes have remained undefeated but have faced the nation's 85th- and 80th-toughest schedules according to the NCAA. Auburn has faced the 16th-toughest schedule, with Missouri's 43rd and Alabama's 66th.

"I've been in the Big 12 and now I'm in the SEC, and it didn't take me to be in the league to really appreciate and understand it," Pinkel said. "I understand the league, and I think people should take strength of schedule into consideration."

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524.