After losing 16 games combined last season, Missouri and Auburn have come a long ways as they prepare to face off Saturday in the SEC championship game. How, exactly, did both of these schools get here?
Their success on the field this season -- just two losses combined -- is more impressive considering Auburn is in Gus Malzahn's first season as coach and Missouri moved over from the Big 12 to the SEC before last season. Recruiting is tough enough as it is, but going through such a major transition for both programs can be detrimental to a school's recruiting class.
If games were determined by recruiting rankings, Missouri would be at a big disadvantage. Over the past five years, Missouri has never finished inside the top 25 in the team recruiting rankings. In that same time period, the Tigers have landed only five recruits ranked in the ESPN 300.
Missouri has enjoyed its success without landing many so-called superstars, with Dorial Green-Beckham, the No. 3-ranked player in the Class of 2012, the exception. The Tigers have found success by targeting recruits who fit their offensive and defensive schemes.
At wide receiver, for example, Coach Gary Pinkel and his staff want tall, physical receivers in their offense. Missouri's top three pass-catchers, Green-Beckham, Marcus Lucas and L'Damian Washington are all 6-foot-4 or taller. Lucas was the No. 38-ranked wideout in the country out of high school in 2010 and Washington wasn't ranked when he signed in the 2009 class.
Developing talent has been a key for Pinkel & Co. Starters such as leading rusher Henry Josey, havoc-wreaking sack leader Michael Sam and leading tackler Andrew Wilson were all ranked two-star prospects or lower. They all redshirted, developed both physically and mentally and are now key components in the Missouri program.
Keeping talent in-state and recruiting the state of Texas also have been a high priority for Missouri. Over the past five years, Missouri has signed 37 prospects from Missouri and 37 from Texas. Nearly 71 percent of all prospects the Tigers signed during that period were from either Texas or Missouri.
Missouri will continue to try to keep the talent in-state, but since the move to the SEC, the Tigers have started to focus their attention on recruiting southern states such as Georgia and Florida. This year, the Tigers have commitments from nine prospects from Georgia and Florida. In the previous five signing classes combined, they signed six.
Auburn, on the other hand, has had little trouble bringing in top talent. Malzahn can’t ever say that the cupboard was bare when he took over the reins from fired coach Gene Chizik after last season. The Tigers have finished with the No. 11, 17, 3, 4 and 25-ranked recruiting classes over the past five years and have signed 27 prospects who were ranked in the ESPN 300.
In fact, as the offensive coordinator from 2009-11, Malzahn was partly responsible for several of Auburn's offensive weapons. He left to coach Arkansas State for a year before returning to Auburn after Chizik was dismissed.
Though he wasn't the coach for a full recruiting season, Malzahn has helped Auburn land talented defensive players such as defensive ends Carl Lawson and Elijah Daniel and defensive tackle Montravius Adams in the 2013 class. The three defenders combined for 44 tackles including 10.5 tackles for loss and six sacks as freshmen. Malzahn also was able to land junior college quarterback Nick Marshall, who has had tremendous success in his first year as the starting quarterback.
There are several key contributors from Auburn's 2012 recruiting class, including wide receiver Ricardo Louis, whose miracle reception against Georgia is a big reason the Tigers are even playing in the SEC championship. Offensive linemen Avery Young and Alex Kozan and linebacker Cassanova McKinzy are other key contributors from the 2012 class. Auburn had to fight off Florida and Georgia for Young, who was one of the most heavily recruited linemen in the country.
The 2011 and 2010 classes have produced a majority of Auburn's starters, which is to be expected considering most of those prospects are now juniors or seniors. Do-it-all athlete Quan Bray, sack leader Gabe Wright, hard-hitting safety Robenson Therezie and leading rusher Tre Mason were all part of the 2011 class. Chris Davis -- who returned the missed field goal for a TD to beat Alabama -- kicker Cody Parkey, Jonathon Mincy, Chad Slade and Ryan Smith were all part of the 2010 class.
Auburn has had a majority of its recruiting success out-of-state. A whopping 65 percent of all 132 prospects Auburn has signed over the past five years have been out-of-state players. Auburn has had the most success in Georgia, where the Tigers have landed 40 percent of their out-of-state prospects.
Whether a team is built around a scheme or built with the best athletes in the county, there is no right or wrong way to recruit. It's a preference that every head coach has. Missouri and Auburn might have completely different approaches to how they recruit, but one thing is for certain, none of it will matter when the two teams square off for the SEC title.