Over the last two days, we reminded you how Auburn and Missouri made it to the SEC Championship Game and we've also featured the key players that will impact the game. Now it's time to take a look at the coaches. Auburn is a great example of how coaching matters. In 2012, they didn't win a single conference game. In 2013, Gus Malzahn has them playing for the SEC Championship. Not only did Malzahn make an impact with his x's and o's but he also got this team to buy-in and believe in themselves. Let's take a look at the coaches that will impact this game.
Head Coach, Missouri: Gary Pinkel. Would you believe Gary Pinkel was on the hot seat coming into 2013? Athlon, Bleacher Report, CBS Sports and SB Nation are just a few examples of websites that had him on the hot seat and I don't blame them. If I did a "hot seat" column coming into the season, he would have been the most likely SEC coach to make that list.
Pinkel started off his head coaching career at Toledo (1991-2000, with a record of 73-37-3) and then moved to Missouri in 2001 and has been the Tigers coach for 13 years. In his Big 12 years with Missouri, Pinkel took the Tigers to two Big 12 Championship Games in 2007 and 2008. In 2007, Missouri was ranked #1 in the country but fell to Oklahoma 38-17. In 2008, they were the underdog (ranked #18 and playing #4 Oklahoma) and got walloped 62-21.
Pinkel has done a great job making adjustments from what he learned in Missouri's dreadful rookie season in the SEC. Can he take a giant step forward on Saturday and bring Missouri a SEC Championship?
Head Coach, Auburn: Gus Malzahn. Everybody aboard this Gus Bus. Malzahn is not just the head coach but he's also the man behind the Auburn offense. He famously came from being a high school coach to being the offensive coordinator at Arkansas but he really hit his stride at Auburn from 2009 to 2011. In 2010, he was pivotal in helping mold Auburn's offense around Cam Newton and leading the Tigers to a National Championship.
After leaving Auburn in 2012 for a shot to become a head coach for Arkansas State, Malzahn was called back to the Plains after the Tigers dismissed Gene Chizik. Malzahn is up for coach of the year in 2013, as the has improved the Tigers from zero conference wins in 2012 to playing for the SEC Championship and possibly a National Championship in just one season. Not only has Gus called the right moves on the field, but he has them believing again after they quit on their last head coach. Gus has truly done a remarkable job turning around this team.
Key Assistants: Missouri: Josh Henson and Bruce Walker. Gary Pinkel had to make a very important decision this off-season involving his coaching staff and it led to long-time assistant David Yost resigning. Pinkel promoted Josh Henson to offensive coordinator and despite being without QB James Franklin for multiple games, Missouri has increased their scoring output from 25.8 ppg in 2012 to 38.8 ppg in 2013.
The main reason we are featuring Henson here though is for the play of the offensive line. Henson and Bruce Walker are "co-coordinators" for the OL and it is the unit that has made the biggest impact for Missouri this season. Last year, the OL was banged up and had to use a variety of different line-ups. This year, they have remained healthy and they've been a strength of this team. Whether it's luck (which Missouri's opponent Auburn has seen it's fair share of), hitting the weights in the off-season or Henry Josey bribing them with ice cream every Thursday, whatever Henson and Walker are doing is working.
Key Assistant, Auburn: Ellis Johnson. Johnson was a really good Defensive Coordinator for South Carolina from 2008 to 2011. His best year came in 2011, when his defense gave up just 18.4 points per game. In 2012, he was hired as the head coach at Southern Miss and it just wasn't a good fit as the Golden Eagles went on a downward spiral. Gus Malzahn was able to pick him up off the scrap heap and he's done a great job turning around this Auburn defensive unit.
The biggest areas of improvement have come with interceptions (improved from 2 in 2012 to 12 in 2013) and with their red zone performance. In 2012, Auburn allowed opponents to score on 83.67% of red zone trips (11th in SEC) and allowed TDs on 65.31% of trips (12th in the SEC). This season, Auburn is allowing opponents to score on just 70.45% of red zone trips (2nd to only Alabama in the SEC) and they are an SEC best allowing opponents to score TDs on just 47.73% of their red zone trips. With Malzahn being the offensive wizard that he is, he needs a coach he can trust to run his defense and in 2013 Ellis Johnson has been up to the task.