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2013 SEC Championship game: There might never be a better chance

Final thoughts (and stats) regarding tomorrow's big game.

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Bill Carter

Confused? Visit the Advanced Stats glossary here. Or just skip to the words. I won't be offended. (Okay, I'll only be a little offended.)

Auburn vs. Missouri

Record BCS
F/+ Rk Off. F/+ Rk
Def. F/+ Rk Spec. Tms. Rk
11-1 3 7 14 17 4
Missouri 11-1 5 13 27 9 69

Projected Score: Auburn 26, Missouri 23 (Mizzou win probability: 39%)

Kentucky, Ole Miss, Vanderbilt, and (of course) Texas A&M have never been to the SEC title game. South Carolina and Mississippi State have only been once. It took Georgia 11 tries to make it. It took South Carolina 19. It only took Arkansas four years, but the Hogs have only been back once in the last 11 years.

It's hard to make the SEC title game, and Missouri did it in its second try.

It's even harder to win it. Only six of the conference's 14 teams have done so. Arkansas and South Carolina, the conference newbies before Mizzou and A&M joined, are 0-4. It took Auburn three tries. In all, three schools (Florida, Alabama, LSU) have won 15 of the 21 title games.

Those three schools are not in it this year. Missouri is. There might never, ever be a better opportunity for Missouri to win the SEC than tomorrow in Atlanta.

Mind you, that's not the same thing as saying it will be easy. Obviously it won't. Auburn is, after all, a top-three team in the polls and a top-10 team on paper. But you're almost always going to face a great team in the SEC title game; only once in the last 11 years has the SEC West champion ranked lower than fifth, and only twice has it ranked worse than third. That the West champ has flaws at all -- and for its strengths, the Tigers are indeed only average in standard downs defense, among other things -- is rare. Here's to hoping Missouri takes full advantage of that. Auburn is really, really good, but Auburn can be beaten.

When Auburn Has The Ball…

Standard Downs
Auburn Offense Missouri Defense
SD % Run 77.0% (7th)
S&P+ Rk 15th 7th
Success Rate 55.0% 45.4%
PPP 0.63 0.42
S&P 1.179 0.874
Rushing S&P 1.189 0.800
Passing S&P 1.142 0.945

Just as fair warning, I'm going to quote liberally from the two pieces I wrote about this game yesterday. From my Auburn depth chart piece:

Auburn runs a ... we'll call it a power spread. The Tigers will spread you out, then pummel you between the tackles for as long as you let them, and blocking back Jay Prosch is a big reason for that. He and Andrew Wilson will be colliding a lot; if Wilson wins these battles, as he has frequently in his career, that could prevent Auburn from generating too much of a numbers advantage. Very few teams have been able to run consistently between the tackles against Missouri -- have any, actually? -- and if you can clog up the middle and force Auburn outside, you've won one of about three battles you need to win.

Auburn's offense is based on a pretty clear set of "If-Then" statements. The first one is "If you cannot stop us from softening you up between the tackles, then we'll just keep doing it." Auburn threw for just 93 yards in a 30-22 win over Ole Miss (while rushing for 282), 35 yards in a win over Tennessee (with 444 rushing yards) and 97 yards in the win over Alabama (296 rushing yards). At the same time, the Tigers threw for 243 against Georgia, 236 against Texas A&M, and 339 against Mississippi State, all in wins. They are defined by the zone-read, and for good reason: They're really, really good at it. But if you force them to adapt, they will. That's what should really define them.

Targets & Catches
Sammie Coates: 28 targets, 15 catches (54%), 326 yards (11.6 per target)
Ricardo Louis: 21 targets, 15 catches (71%), 167 yards (8.0)
Quan Bray: 15 targets, 10 catches (67%), 49 yards (3.3)
Marcus Davis: 11 targets, 8 catches (73%), 63 yards (5.7)

Auburn's going to run the ball three-quarters of the time on standard downs, and that probably won't change unless Missouri's up about three touchdowns late in the third quarter (hey, let's try that out!). But if or when Nick Marshall passes, it's either going short to Ricardo Louis, Quan Bray and Marcus Davis as a "keep 'em honest" maneuver, or it's going longer to Sammie Coates.

Passing Downs
Auburn Offense Missouri Defense
PD % Run 39.4% (28th)
S&P+ Rk 10th 38th
Success Rate 37.1% 33.1%
PPP 0.73 0.50
S&P 1.103 0.835
Rushing S&P 1.182 0.870
Passing S&P 1.052 0.824

Targets & Catches
Coates: 30 targets, 14 catches (47%), 302 yards (10.1 per target)
Davis: 14 targets, 9 catches (64%), 91 yards (6.5)
Louis: 10 targets, 5 catches (50%), 115 yards (11.5)
C.J. Uzomah: 9 targets, 4 catches (44%), 58 yards (6.4)
Bray: 6 targets, 5 catches (83%), 114 yards (19.0)
Tre Mason: 6 targets, 6 catches, 65 yards (10.8)

From yesterday's SBN preview:

Mizzou gets a lovely push on passing downs, but it has left itself vulnerable to screen passes at times. (Case in point: South Carolina running back Mike Davis caught 10 passes for 99 yards in Missouri's only loss of the season. Toledo's David Fluellen, meanwhile, caught 10 for 100.)

Missouri's defensive line will be a point of interest for a couple of different reasons on Saturday. First, Auburn runs 39 percent of the time on passing downs; even when you think you have forced Auburn to pass, that doesn't necessarily mean you have forced them to pass. Auburn's commitment to the run makes play-action a viable weapon even on second- or third-and-long, and that could hinder Mizzou's willingness to pin its ears back and go kamikaze at the quarterback. […]

How these defenses choose to attack, and how these offenses choose to counter, will be perhaps the most interesting tactical piece of this game. We know how important staying on schedule is, but both teams will fall behind schedule at times; how will they try to catch up?

It is absolutely, positively vital that Missouri hold Auburn under about a 30% success rate or so on passing downs. You've got your hands full with the running game already; if you allow the Tigers to convert on third-and-long, then a) you just blew a major opportunity, and b) you're about to get gashed by the same play because Auburn's lining up as quickly as possible to do it again. Auburn is a little more committed to the "nuclear tempo after good plays" technique than Missouri is, and they're really good at it.

When Missouri Has The Ball…

Standard Downs
Missouri Offense Auburn Defense
SD % Run 57.0% (81st)
S&P+ Rk 39th 56th
Success Rate 50.0% 49.4%
PPP 0.60 0.57
S&P 1.096 1.067
Rushing S&P 1.041 0.934
Passing S&P 1.168 1.225

Targets & Catches
L'Damian Washington: 49 targets, 28 catches (57%), 517 yards (10.6)
Marcus Lucas: 46 targets, 27 catches (59%), 301 yards (6.5)
L'Damian Washington: 45 targets, 26 catches (58%), 364 yards (8.1)
Bud Sasser: 20 targets, 12 catches (60%), 144 yards (7.2)
Jimmie Hunt: 15 targets, 13 catches (87%), 179 yards (11.9)
Jaleel Clark: 8 targets, 6 catches (75%), 50 yards (6.3)
Darius White: 7 targets, 4 catches (57%), 50 yards (7.1)
Eric Waters: 7 targets, 5 catches (71%), 27 yards (3.9)
Henry Josey: 5 targets, 4 catches (80%), 16 yards (3.2)

From the Auburn depth chart piece:

Auburn's defensive line is fast, active, and light. The four starters average just 264 pounds, but they can use speed to their advantage at times. Their line stats spell this out pretty clearly: 84th in Opportunity Rate (bad), 81st in Power Success Rate (bad), 14th in Stuff Rate (excellent). And actually, this is clear in situational pass rushing stats, too: Auburn is 122nd in Standard Downs Sack Rate ... and 14th in Passing Downs Sack Rate. They're going to try to get into your backfield before you can get downfield, but they can be taken out of the play quite a bit, too. The Stuff Rate on Mizzou runs will be huge on Saturday.

On Missouri's first six first-and-10 plays last Saturday against Texas A&M, the Tigers gained 12 yards on six carries. They were just certain they could run on the Aggies, and early on, they were painfully incorrect about that. (Later on: less incorrect.) It wasn't until they worked both the pass and the James Franklin keepers into the equation that the ball started to move. The Tigers have trended toward the run as of late (a few weeks ago, the run-pass ratio was much closer to 50-50), but the pass seems a little more open against Auburn on standard downs. We'll see what the plan of attack is. We know the run is important to Mizzou, but whatever the game plan is, hopefully it works early.

Passing Downs
Missouri Offense Auburn Defense
PD % Run 41.4% (22nd)
S&P+ Rk 16th 12th
Success Rate 41.4% 32.9%
PPP 0.73 0.50
S&P 1.144 0.828
Rushing S&P 1.110 0.940
Passing S&P 1.169 0.773

Targets & Catches
Lucas: 29 targets, 22 catches (76%), 285 yards (9.8)
DGB: 27 targets, 20 catches (74%), 299 yards (11.1)
Washington: 24 targets, 14 catches (58%), 289 yards (12.0)
Sasser: 14 targets, 8 catches (57%), 148 yards (10.6)
Hunt: 7 targets, 6 catches (86%), 55 yards (7.9)
Josey: 6 targets, 5 catches (83%), 39 yards (6.5)

Auburn attacks the run on standard downs and the pass on passing downs. That's not exactly uncommon, of course. But it's strength versus strength here; Mizzou does as good a job as almost any team in the country when it comes to creating space downfield for its big receivers and providing its quarterback with relatively easy, intermediate throws on second- or third-and-long. Part of that comes from the structure of the pass plays themselves, and part of it comes from the ongoing threat of the run. These two offenses are nearly identical when it comes to running frequently on second-and-10 or third-and-5. We'll see who performs this schtick better.

And also, of course, we'll see which offense gets to the second level of the defense more frequently. From the SBN preview:

Sustaining long, plodding drives is the modus operandi for neither offense. Despite reasonable efficiency numbers, when both Auburn and Missouri score, it's likely to be in pretty quick fashion. Big plays are the key to just about any game, obviously, but both offenses are reliant on them, and Missouri's defense in particular is reliant on stopping them. [...]

Auburn's top three running backs average 6.4 yards per carry; not including sacks, Nick Marshall averages 8.3. Plus, leading receiver Sammie Coates averages a devastating 23.3 yards per catch (albeit with an all-or-nothing 50 percent catch rate). And when Missouri has the ball, Auburn will have to cope with a multitude of weapons -- Mizzou's top three running backs also average 6.4 yards per carry, and the receiving duo of Dorial Green-Beckham and L'Damian Washington have combined to average 16.2 yards per catch on 7.8 catches per game.


So here are the key factors, as discussed in previous pieces:

1. First-and-10

It's quite possible that one team will have quite a bit of passing downs success, but the team creating easier opportunities for itself will likely win the game. So look at average yards per play on first-and-10, and you probably figure out who won.

2. Field position and finishing drives

It's so important I wrote a chapter in my book about it. I also wrote about it in my SBN preview:

Auburn's offense is suited for finishing drives with only minimal adaptation in the red zone, and Missouri has shown willing to either plow in between the tackles (Henry Josey, Russell Hansbrough, and Marcus Murphy have combined for 26 touchdowns) or post up with DGB and company. These offenses finish, but these defenses also specialize in preventing opponents from finishing.

Last week, Alabama created more than twice as many scoring opportunities as Auburn but repeatedly failed to convert. If Missouri is afforded the same luxury, it would be a damn shame not to take advantage.

3. Turnovers

Always, of course. Turnovers are worth about five points or so on average; the projected score has a three-point margin. Turnovers could make an enormous difference.

4. Big players making big plays

I made this a key last week, too, and while Henry Josey, Dorial Green-Beckham, and company came up big, A&M's Mike Evans did not, and it made a huge difference. This is the biggest spotlight any of these Missouri plays have played under. It could be a "Hello, World" moment for DGB or some other Tiger, or it could be an enormous missed opportunity. How did the big names (James Franklin, DGB, Josey, Washington, Michael Sam, E.J. Gaines for Missouri; Nick Marshall, Tre Mason, Sammie Coates, Dee Ford, corners Jonathon Mincy and Chris Davis for Auburn) do? That's probably how their team did, too.

5. Special teams

From the RMN depth chart piece:

Auburn is seventh in special teams efficiency: 15th in punt return efficiency, sixth in kick return efficiency, and 27th in punt efficiency (and, of course, first in late-game field goal return efficiency, ahem). They simply do not allow returns -- Cody Parkey parks almost three-quarters of his kickoffs in the end zone, and while Steven Clark isn't booting 50-yarders with regularity, only five of his punts have been returned all year. Meanwhile, they're pretty scary in the return game; so is Marcus Murphy, yes, but Mizzou opponents are still more likely to get return opportunities than Auburn opponents. This would be a good game for Christian Brinser and Andrew Baggett to be lights out in their kicks.

Add up only the offensive and defensive F/+ ratings for these teams, and you get Auburn at +25.4% and Missouri at +26.1%. Mizzou actually has a slight overall advantage here, but for the season as a whole, Auburn's special teams unit has done far more good than Missouri's. If MU can simply split here -- if it can prevent Auburn from deriving an advantage in special teams -- the overall game advantage shifts in Missouri's favor. It could mean making a couple of field goals (gulp). It could mean ripping off a big return. Hell, it could just mean not allowing any big returns. Just fight to a draw here.


In each step of the road, after each win, you would inevitably hear a Missouri player or coach say something to the effect of "We haven't played our best game yet." Considering the first-half offensive struggles against Texas A&M and the general problems maintaining offensive rhythm since James Franklin's return, that is almost certainly still the case. The Vanderbilt and Florida games were pretty close, honestly, but Mizzou's best game is still out there. I don't think anybody here would complain if it were to come tomorrow in Atlanta.

I accept that the odds are slightly in favor of Auburn in this game, even if just because of special teams. I also know the opportunity is there. And I know the odds of Missouri going 11-1 in the first place were infinitesimal. This has been an incredible, fulfilling, rewarding season. Tomorrow we find out if there are one or two more incredible, fulfilling, rewarding chapters left in the book. M-I-Z...