SEC showdown pairs vastly improved teams

photo SEC Southeastern Conference

There are plenty of similarities between No. 3 Auburn and No. 5 Missouri entering today's Southeastern Conference football championship game in the Georgia Dome.

Each set of Tigers is 11-1 after winning its respective division with a 7-1 mark. Each is holding out hope that either Florida State or Ohio State will lose tonight. Each of the SEC finalists had a losing record last season, and each has come a long way since Labor Day weekend.

"We were both kind of down at the bottom at the start of the year, and we've improved," Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. "This time of year, there are not a lot of teams that improve this late. I feel like we've improved each game, and if you look at them, I think you could probably say the same thing."

No one needs reminding how Auburn ended its regular season against chief rival Alabama, but the Tigers opened with a 31-24 escape of a Washington State team that wound up 6-6. One of Auburn's touchdowns in that game was a 100-yard kickoff return by Tre Mason, and the Tigers needed an interception in their end zone with 4:46 remaining to seal the win.

In the second week of the season, Missouri led Toledo 24-23 late in the third quarter before pulling away for a 38-23 triumph.

"I thought we would have a good football team going into this season, and I think one thing that's been really key for us is how we've improved," Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said. "We're a lot different team than we were at the first of September. We got better in October and November, and one prerequisite to improving is staying healthy so you can practice a lot.

"We've improved a lot, and the best teams I've coached have always done that."

Today's battle of the Tigers carries a lot of national significance as well, though both teams are on the outside looking in for the coveted top two spots in the BCS rankings. As today's game at the Georgia Dome is ending, the ACC championship game between No. 1 Florida State and No. 20 Duke and the Big Ten showdown between No. 2 Ohio State and No. 10 Michigan State will be kicking off.

Florida State and Ohio State are both undefeated, but the Auburn-Missouri winner is certain to stress the strength of the SEC and its seven consecutive national titles. Auburn athletic director Jay Jacobs came out this week and said it would be "Un-American" not to have an SEC team in the BCS championship game.

ESPN analyst Brad Edwards believes Jacobs may have rubbed some voters the wrong way.

"It's SEC arrogance," Edwards said, "and for all the people who don't love the SEC, it's one reason to decide not to vote for Auburn. There are people who feel strongly that the SEC is much better than the Big Ten, but there are also people out there who are sick and tired of seeing the SEC play in national championship games, especially seeing SEC teams with a loss catching breaks and being able to get back into the national championship game.

"I think the better argument would have been trying to present the case in terms of resumes, but that cat is out of the bag now."

Major college football will begin a four-team playoff system next season, though Pinkel wouldn't mind starting that a year early.

"If we could do that, then that would be great," Pinkel said. "It's going to be good when it happens. I've been a proponent of that for years."

Contact David Paschall at or 423-757-6524.