No. 3 Auburn and No. 5 Missouri will meet in Saturday's SEC Championship Game at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta in the most unlikely matchup since the divisional split in 1992.
Auburn was picked fifth in the SEC West at SEC Media Days in Hoover, Ala. in July, with Missouri chiming in at the sixth spot in the SEC East.
Naturally, the two head coaches, Gus Malzahn and Gary Pinkel, are squarely in the mix for SEC Coach of the Year honors.
So should the SEC Championship Game determine who wins SEC Coach of the Year?
Nope, because Malzahn should already have that in the bag.
Take nothing away from Pinkel, because the job he's done at Missouri turning around a 5-7 team into an 11-1 SEC East champion is incredibly impressive. But Pinkel's biggest hurdle was keeping his roster healthy.
Malzahn inherited a mess.
Former head coach Gene Chizik left him with a broken team coming off of a 3-9 disaster. Malzahn's first order of business was getting his team to believe again.
"In January we got together and Coach Malzahn got with us and he said it's going to be a new day," defensive tackle Nosa Eguae said. "It started with our workouts from Coach [Ryan] Russell, and we really prepare getting better every single day and not worrying about or not gloating on last year, but learning from it and just worrying about us, worrying about the moment."
It's a team that has evolved.
Quarterback Nick Marshall is the first signal-caller Malzahn has coached at the collegiate level who didn't go through spring practice. He was just two years removed from playing defensive back at Georgia and had to evolve on the fly before the season started—and during the season itself.
Through that evolution, Auburn continued to win games. Eleven of them, in fact.
"What Nick Marshall has been able to do, he's gotten better each week," Malzahn said. "Boy, he can really run. He's got a good arm. [Offensive coordinator] Rhett [Lashlee] has done a great job of coaching him."
There wasn't a talent shortage at Auburn. The Tigers had posted top-ten recruiting classes in the Rivals.com team recruiting rankings in each of Chizik's final three seasons at Auburn (2010-12). Malzahn's job was two-fold—developing that talent and getting those players to believe again.
*Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer for Bleacher Report. All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.
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