ATLANTA — Auburn and Missouri are competing for the Southeastern Conference title Saturday, and possibly a chance to play for the national championship.
Yet both teams have to guard against a letdown.
As ludicrous as that might sound, Auburn and Missouri are coming off emotionally charged victories last week that gave each coach a reason to fret just a bit.
No. 3 Auburn (11-1, 7-1 SEC) used one of the greatest finishing plays in college football history — a 109-yard return of a missed field goal with no time on the clock — to beat two-time defending national champion Alabama in the Iron Bowl for the West Division title. No. 5 Missouri (11-1, 7-1) won the East with a thrilling victory of its own, knocking off Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M 28-21.
"The challenge of any coach, the leadership of the team, the coaching staff, everybody, is can you stay focused to do what you do day-to-day to play your best?" Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said Friday at the Georgia Dome, where each team held its final workout. "I would like to think we're doing all the right things. We've done it all year long."
Auburn must get past one of the most improbable victories ever, beating its biggest rival in a game that likely eliminated the Crimson Tide from its quest for an unprecedented third straight national title. Auburn coach Gus Malzahn watched the frenzied crowd storm the field at Jordan-Hare Stadium, then urged his team to get right back to work.
"The challenge with emotional wins like that is you've got to put it behind you," he said. "Our guys showed up for their Sunday practice, went about their business like normal. I thought that was a very good sign. We had a very good week of practice. Our guys understand. You can turn the film on from Missouri. We've got to play our best game, play better than we did last week, to win the game."
The winner could get a shot to play for the SEC's eighth straight national title, but that will depend on what happens in Charlotte and Indianapolis.
Top-ranked Florida State (12-0) is a huge favorite against Duke in the Atlantic Coast Conference championship game, while second-ranked Ohio State (12-0) figures to face a much tougher challenge against Michigan State in the Big Ten title game. If both win, that will likely set the matchup for the BCS championship. If either falters, the Auburn-Missouri winner can expect to land a trip to Pasadena.
With that in mind, here are five things to watch for in the SEC championship game:
RUN, AUBURN, RUN: Malzahn's team has one of the nation's most prolific running games, centered on quarterback Nick Marshall and junior back Tre Mason. Auburn's hurry-up spread formation incorporates elements of old-school offenses such as the wishbone, but can strike suddenly with its lesser-used passing attack. Just ask Alabama. Marshall hooked up with Sammie Coates on a tying 39-yard touchdown with 32 seconds remaining after luring the Crimson Tide close to the line with repeated runs.
JOSEY'S COMEBACK: Two years ago, Missouri running back Henry Josey tore up his left knee in a game against Texas, an injury so extensive that Pinkel compared it to an automobile accident. Last year, all Josey could do was watch as his team went 5-7 in its SEC debut. Fully recovered this season, the 5-foot-9 back is averaging 6.2 yards per carry and has broken off four 50-yard-plus gains — including a 57-yard scoring run that gave Mizzou its victory over Texas A&M.
OVERLOOKED D: Auburn's defense plays in the shadow of the team's explosive offense but has come up with huge stops in the red zone. It stopped Georgia's Aaron Murray at its own 20 to preserve a 43-38 victory, and kept Alabama from converting on fourth-and-1 in the fourth quarter, which made it possible for the Tigers to pull off the amazing finish.
DISRUPTIVE SAM: Missouri's defense is led by end Michael Sam, who leads the SEC in both sacks (10.5) and tackles behind the line of scrimmage (18). "They have an attacking-style defensive front," Malzahn said. "They do a lot of slanting and twisting, doing some things to create some problems." Missouri hopes that style will reduce the chances of Auburn breaking off big plays.
CARDIAC AUBURN: Auburn feels like a team of destiny. Malzahn's group pulled out an improbable victory over Georgia with a 73-yard touchdown pass on fourth-and-18 in the final minute — a play that looked doomed until two Georgia defenders collided going for the interception, deflecting the ball ahead to Ricardo Louis, in stride, for the winning score. The victory over Alabama was even more unlikely. After Marshall's tying TD pass to Coates, Alabama attempted to win the game on a 57-yard field goal, only to have Chris Davis field the kick in the back of the end zone and bring it all the way back for a touchdown.