Call it the “Improba Bowl.”
When Missouri and Auburn square off in the Georgia Dome on Saturday to decide the SEC championship, it will mark the most improbable matchup in league history.
How long were the odds facing whoever wins in Atlanta?
Missouri opened the season as a 66/1 bet to win the SEC. Bookmakers at Bovada thought less of Auburn, which opened with 75/1 odds to win the conference.
To those of you non-degenerate gamblers, anyone who placed $10 bets with Bovada on both Missouri and Auburn before the season started would cash out with either $660 or $750 depending on the outcome.
Regardless of what happens in the BCS aftermath of Championship Saturday, the unlikely tales of two SEC Tigers spark hope across a conference often dominated by heavy favorites.
Neither Missouri nor Auburn opened the year with significant national expectations because their respective 2012 seasons proved so disastrous. The paths the two teams took to Atlanta just a year later were entirely different.
Missouri coach Gary Pinkel entered the 2013 season on a hot seat – because he failed, in one season, to live up to the expectations set under his watch.
The Tigers flopped during their debut season in the SEC. They finished with a 5-7 record, failing to reach a bowl game for the first time since 2004. Worse, Missouri’s only league wins came over Kentucky and Tennessee – both of whom fired their coaches.
Such a woeful entrance into the new conference led to questions about whether Pinkel, in his 13th season in Columbia, Mo., could lead the Tigers to contend for titles in the powerhouse SEC.
It’s easy to say this now: Those questions were absurdly short-sighted.
Pinkel’s track record should have already cleared up any doubt.
Fifteen years ago, before he took over, Missouri aspired to rise from Big 12 doormat to respectability.
Under Pinkel’s tutelage, the Tigers far outpaced those goals. Missouri became a regular contender in the Big 12 North, finishing first or second in the division in each of the final six seasons that featured conference championship games. The Tigers even reached the Big 12 Championship Game twice.
In all likelihood, Missouri never comes up in SEC expansion conversations if not for Pinkel’s program rejuvenation efforts.
Yet one bad year had some Mizzou fans ready to discard the man who could become the program’s all-time winningest coach on Saturday.
What many seem to forget is that Missouri played much of the 2012 season with QB James Franklin out or limited because of injury.
Healthy issues at the game’s most pivotal position cause concern for most coaches. Double that for Pinkel, who rebuilt the program around stellar signal-callers such as Brad Smith, Chase Daniel and Blaine Gabbert.
With Franklin clearly not right all season, the Tigers struggled to find any consistency on offense. Backup QB Corbin Berkstresser showed significant limitations when he got his opportunities. Pinkel’s only other option was a true freshman named Maty Mauk.
To put all of Missouri’s struggles on the quarterback position would be to ignore the other myriad injuries within the program. Most notably, RB Henry Josey missed the entire season while trying to overcome a devastating knee injury. The injury bug also swept through virtually the entire offensive line at various times.
By now, most college football fans have heard how Pinkel handled the end of the 2012 season.
Members of the senior class have said in interviews that shortly after the dust of disappointment settled, Pinkel called a meeting. During the meeting, he posed a simple question: How does this senior class want to be remembered?
Missouri’s 4-0 start went unnoticed, largely because the Tigers fielded an unimpressive non-conference slate. Even the SEC-opening win at Vanderbilt seemingly didn’t catch much attention because the Commodores were 0-2 in league play entering the contest.
Not until the following week, when the Tigers went into Athens and dropped No. 7 Georgia, did they start to generate national interest.
However, during the fourth quarter of that game, Missouri suffered a huge loss when QB James Franklin suffered a separated throwing shoulder.
Mauk, who beat out Berkstresser as Franklin’s backup during summer practice, engineered a pair of scoring drives and an underrated Missouri defense helped seal the victory.
With games against the other SEC East favorites to follow, though, Missouri seemed to be in trouble without its starting quarterback.
Mauk instead led the Tigers to a win over Florida and to within a defensive stop – either in regulation or overtime – of beating South Carolina. The redshirt freshman posted huge numbers in leading Missouri to big wins over Tennessee and Kentucky before handing the reins back over to Franklin.
When Franklin returned to the lineup, the Tigers knew they needed to win their final two league games – against a pair of ranked opponents from the SEC West – to reach Atlanta.
Missouri delivered – especially the defense.
In a road victory, the Tigers held Ole Miss to three points on three trips inside the 10-yard line. The following week, Missouri harassed 2012 Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel, limiting him to 216 yards of total offense.
The Tigers enter Saturday’s SEC Championship Game having never trailed in the fourth quarter of a game in 2012. Only twice – and for a total of 7 minutes, 51 seconds – have opponents even been tied with Missouri during the final quarter.
Three months removed from being on the SEC’s hottest seat, Pinkel finds himself 60 minutes from leading Missouri to its first conference championship since 1969.
Where Missouri practiced patience, Auburn opted for change.
Said change – the dismissal of coach Gene Chizik – resulted in national scorn since Chizik delivered a national championship just two years earlier.
Such a tumultuous 2012 season left the university officials with little choice other than replacing Chizik.
Not only did Auburn struggle through a 3-9 season in which it failed to win a single league game, at least one of Chizik’s decisions indicated a complete loss of control in his program.
When center Reese Dismukes got arrested for public intoxication on the eve of the 2012 season, Chizik employed a private security team to monitor the players he recruited into his program.
Sports Illustrated’s Lars Anderson recently outlined additional ways Chizik alienated both his coaching staff and players.
Regardless of the precise tipping point, Auburn’s efforts on the field indicated Chizik lost his team.
Over the final three SEC games, the Tigers lost to Texas A&M, Georgia and Alabama by a combined score of 150-21.
A proud Auburn administration opted against giving Chizik a second chance to correct course.
Less than two weeks later, a search committee that included Auburn athletics director Jay Jacobs and legendary RB Bo Jackson selected Gus Malzahn as the next football coach.
Accepting the position marked a return to The Plains for Malzahn, who served as Chizik’s offensive coordinator from 2009-11 before becoming head coach at Arkansas State.
It proved an easy sell to a wounded fan base. The architect of the championship-winning 2010 offense, which also led QB Cam Newton to the Heisman Trophy, returned a hero.
A year later, and with the help of a few breaks, Malzahn has transformed from hero to legend.
Malzahn delivered a simple message to his players upon returning to Auburn: Last year is over. Today is a new day.
The Tigers bought in – a remarkable feat considering starting quarterback Nick Marshall didn’t officially join or practice with the team until August.
Auburn has not been a flawless team in 2013. The Tigers feature some glaring weaknesses – namely an inefficient intermediate passing game and significant limitations at the linebacker position.
Yet what they lacked has been overshadowed by sensational execution of the team’s strengths – running the ball at will – and its coach’s willingness to stick with what works.
And since a Week 4 loss at LSU, Malzahn’s team has found ways – invented ways, even – to win games.
The Tigers regained momentum by taking down a ranked Ole Miss team. Two weeks later, they scored an impressive road win over Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M.
Still, the two biggest challenges remained – Georgia and top-ranked Alabama.
Most of the college football world remembers vividly “The Prayer at Jordan-Hare.” Facing fourth-and-18 and trailing Georgia in the final 2 minutes, Marshall unloaded a deep desperation pass into double coverage. The throw deflected off Georgia safety Josh Harvey-Clemons and into the hands of still-sprinting-downfield receiver Ricardo Louis, who briefly bobbled the ball before hauling it in and sprinting for an unfathomable game-winning touchdown.
What people forget is that Auburn absolutely dominated the Bulldogs for the first 48 minutes, jumping out to a 20-point lead before a near-disastrous collapse.
As dramatic and improbable as the Georgia win was, the Tigers saved their best for last in the Iron Bowl.
Tied at 28 with 1 second remaining, Auburn defensive back Chris Davis fielded a missed Alabama field-goal try 8 yards deep in the end zone. Davis, with open field ahead, made one tackler miss near the 20-yard line, got to the sideline and found a cavalcade of blockers on his way to the end zone.
Many have deemed Davis’ game-winning score one of the – if not the – most remarkable endings in the history of college football – a sport with a history littered with fantastic finishes.
Now Malzahn and the Tigers look to pen an equally thrilling ending to their regular season – one with Auburn hoisting the SEC championship trophy.
Whether it’s Auburn or Missouri celebrating on the Georgia Dome field, Saturday’s winner will have capped the most improbable run to an SEC title in recent memory.