Here's hoping Alaska is right

ATLANTA --- ESPN did a poll this week, asking who would win the SEC Championship.

This poll was more informal than a below-average person at Wal Mart, so don't read too much into it.

If you weren't sure, the choices are Missouri and Auburn.

Here are the states that predicted Missouri will win:


Oh, and Alaska. Why Alaska? You tell me. Because they're really smart? Well, they live in Alaska, so ...

But that's it, two states. The other 48 think the Tigers from Auburn will beat the Tigers from Missouri.

By around 6:30 p.m. Saturday, however, it won't matter what people think. It will be about what we all know.

In the most unlikely of matchups in the SEC Championship Game, the No. 5 Missouri Tigers (11-1, 7-1 SEC East champions) will clash with the No. 3 Auburn Tigers (11-1, 7-1 SEC West champions) at 3 p.m. Saturday at the Georgia Dome.

The No. 5 and the No. 3 are national and BCS rankings, of course. Prior to this season, Missouri was No. 6 and Auburn was No. 5 --- those were the predictions for how these teams would finish in their respective SEVEN-team SEC DIVISIONS.

This matchup is less likely than being struck by lightning while making a hole-in-one after winning the lottery.

"I'm pretty excited, to be honest," Missouri quarterback James Franklin said with a big smile. "I'm pretty thankful to be a part of it and a part of this team. It's one of the goals we set before the season and to get to where we are ... I feel really good."

(For more about the resurgent seasons of both of these teams, please see ...


For Missouri, there's no secret why the Tigers went from 5-7 last year to 11-1 this year. "The biggest difference is that we were healthy," Missouri coach Gary Pinkel.

This isn't rocket science. While the Tigers stayed mostly healthy this season, many of the teams they played did not.

It all starts up front, and the Missouri fronts have been both healthy and fabulous this season. Starting with the offensive line ...

"We've been able to keep our offensive line intact, we've been very healthy," Pinkel said. "Last year, we lost five of our top 10 offensive linemen --- only one player (Evan Boehm) started every game, and he was a true freshman just out of high school.

"This year has been drastically different. For them to be able to play together, week in and week out, that was really important to our success this year."

Pinkel continued.

"The SEC is a line of scrimmage league. If you're not good up front, it's very difficult to win at a high level. And our defensive line just got better and better; Michael Sam has had a phenomenal year. A bunch of guys have had great years."

The offense has prospered behind the healthy line, including senior running back Henry Josey. His Tiger tale, too, is one of coming back from injury. His injury, however, was not a normal one.

"I don't know if anybody can really understand what he's gone through," Pinkel said of Josey, who missed all of last season after going down late in the 2011 season with a horrific knee injury. "When he had that injury, it's wasn't an athletic injury, it was a car-wreck injury (required three surgeries).

"I can't even describe the amount of time and effort he put in with our trainers to get back and play. It was remarkable. We're so proud of him. He's overcome all the odds to get back and play his best."

Josey is one of many playmakers on both sides of the ball for Missouri. At wide receiver, they have more studs than a Kentucky pasture.

"The perimeter of our offense, we have a lot of future NFL players there," Pinkel said with a wry smile.

On defense, the leader of the pack is senior defensive end Michael Sam.

"He was a good player a year ago, but he's gone from a good to a great player," Pinkel said. "He did that through remarkable determination and effort, and he's a relentless competitor, play after play. Obviously, he's a great athlete; he can run, he's strong, he's physical.

"I'm so proud of him and his accomplishments."

Sam and the defense will have to contend with Auburn's rushing attack, which is No. 1 in the SEC and No. 5 in the country.

"Stop the run and make them pass it, and I think we'll definitely have some success," said another playmaker on the MU defense, senior cornerback E.J. Gaines.

While Tre Mason leads Auburn in rushing with 1,332 yards and 18 touchdowns, it's quarterback Nick Marshall who leads the show.

"It's really been amazing to watch his progress," said Auburn coach Gus Malzahn, in his first year at the Tigers' helm. "In the very first game this year, he probably only knew about 25 percent of our offense.

"He's very unique. He's at his very best when the game's on the line; when the pressure's the greatest, he finds a way to get it done."

So what if Missouri gets it done? What if it doesn't? Here are the remaining possibilities for these Tigers:

* With a loss Saturday, the Tigers would lose out on a BCS bowl and would receive one of the higher bowl bids for an SEC team --- the Cotton Bowl, the Outback Bowl or the Capital One Bowl.

* With a win, the worst they could do is receive the SEC's automatic bid to the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans.

* With a win and an Ohio State loss to Michigan State (could happen) or a Florida State loss to Duke (no chance), Missouri would likely play for the BCS National Championship on Jan. 6 at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif.

* But there's also this possibility. With a win and an Ohio State loss, Missouri may only move up No. 3 in the BCS and Alabama could move up to No. 2 and play for the national championship. Crazier things have happened. It's Alabama, after all.

* Lastly --- and with just a win, period --- Missouri would win its first outright conference football title in 53 years. 53 years! Wow. What were you doing in 1960?

"It's football, this is why you play the game," MU offensive lineman Max Copeland said. "Can't you just feel the energy around this place and around this town? I'm excited to be a part of it and excited to be at the eye of the storm."

Here's hoping the Tigers can weather the storm.

And Alaska is right.