Auburn, a team which went 3-9 — and 0-8 in the SEC — last season, was picked to finish fifth in the Western Division at SEC Media Days in July. Missouri, coming off its first sub-.500 season since 2004, was pegged to do even worse, as writers selected to end up sixth in the SEC East.
Yet here they both the Tiger-named squads are now, one game away from an conference title, and with some help, a possible shot at a national championship.
How did each reverse course so quickly?
For Auburn, it took a coaching change, letting go of Gene Chizik, the coach at the helm of the program when it won the national title in 2010. But the Tigers didn’t look far for his replacement, bringing back one of Chizik’s former assistants in Gus Malzahn. Auburn’s offensive coordinator from 2009-11, Malzahn led Arkansas State to a 9-3 record and a Sun Belt Conference championship in 2012, his only season in charge of the Red Wolves.
Coming off a one-year hiatus from Auburn, Malzahn didn’t deny that much of this season’s success was due in part to the familiarity he already had with the team.
“I recruited some of the players, had relationships with some of the players,” he said. “I kind of knew the dynamics, the administration, the fan base, all the things with that. That really helped me. At the same time they'd been through a storm. So our new staff, we had to earn our players' trust.”
Malzahn knew the Tigers had talent, even if their 2012 record didn’t reflect it.
Even so, he refused to set any goals based solely around victories.
“We really were just focusing on us, getting our edge back, playing good Auburn football,” Malzahn said. “We didn't have any expectations as far as numbers of wins and all that. It was just real simple: Let's get our edge back, let's play together, let's improve each week.”
That mirrored Gary Pinkel’s expectations. Missouri’s coach vows that the team taking the field Saturday is vastly different than one that started the season in late August. There’s no secret formula to Missouri’s turnaround; Pinkel said this year, Missouri has avoided the injury big that bit them so hard in 2012.
One player wasn’t able to make it through the season unscathed, though. Starting quarterback James Franklin missed four games after injuring his shoulder against Georgia in mid-October. It was a familiar refrain, as Franklin dealt with various ailments last season, too.
The difference this year is that Missouri had a reliable backup to turn to in Maty Mauk.
“I think everybody knows at this level, when you lose a starting quarterback who is having a great year, then all of a sudden you have to put a redshirt freshman in there who hasn't played very much, (it’s tough),” Pinkel said. “For him to play a third of the — finished up against Georgia, then played four games himself — he did a phenomenal job. We’re very fortunate to have a player play at that level."
Aside from owning Tiger mascots and each having incredible bounce back seasons, Malzahn noticed one more subtle similarity that the two teams playing in the Georgia Dome on Saturday share.
“I (just) think about both teams being very hungry,” he said. “We're (both) kind of down at the bottom to start the year and have improved.”