The following story will be available in the SEC Football Championship Game Program, on sale Saturday at the Georgia Dome, as well as online here.
As the Southeastern Conference Football Championship Game enters its 23rd edition, college football is in the midst of a new era, as the 2014 campaign is the first one in which the sport's national champion will be determined by the College Football Playoff.
What has remained a constant is the strength of the SEC. Once again, it came down to the final day of the regular season to determine the Eastern and Western Division participants in the SEC Championship Game, following an always challenging eight-game league slate.
It has already been an historic year for SEC programs, as 12 of 14 conference teams are bowl eligible, including the entire SEC West for the first time in league history. At one point during the season, the SEC placed a record-setting four teams in the top-five of the Associated Press poll, and six SEC teams have been ranked among the nation's top 25 for the majority of the season.
Alabama, which has won three of the past five national championships, enters Saturday's game as the nation's top-ranked team. Missouri, which made its first-ever SEC Football Championship Game appearance in 2013, returns for a second consecutive season.
The Crimson Tide (11-1, 7-1 SEC) are making their ninth all-time appearance in the SEC Football Championship Game and first since 2012. Alabama has won the SEC Football Championship four times in its previous eight appearances in the game.
Alabama opened the 2014 season ranked No. 2 in the nation and predicted by the media to win the SEC Western Division. The Crimson Tide began the year with four consecutive wins, including a non-conference victory against West Virginia in the Georgia Dome. Alabama dropped a road contest to Ole Miss on Oct. 4, but rebounded to win its final seven regular-season games. Along the way, the Crimson Tide defeated six bowl-eligible teams, including then-No. 1 Mississippi State and nationally ranked LSU and Texas A&M.
"I'm sure our players are extremely happy to win the SEC West and have an opportunity to go to the SEC Championship Game," Alabama head coach Nick Saban said. "Our team does a great job from a competitive character standpoint of always making plays in the game when they need to make them. They seem to always be resilient enough to play through adversity."
The Crimson Tide boast the nation's second-best rush defense, allowing just 92.7 yards per game on the ground this season. They rank sixth nationally in scoring defense, giving up just under 17 points per game.
"Looking back on past Alabama defenses that have played here and how they dominated offenses and made them quit, that's the same defense we want to become," Alabama safety Landon Collins said. "We have the determination, the focus and the mental toughness."
Alabama wide receiver Amari Cooper is the conference's top receiver, averaging 131.1 reception yards per game, which ranks second nationally. In the Tide's regular-season finale against Auburn, Cooper had 13 catches for a school-record 224 yards with three touchdowns. Quarterback Blake Sims ranks in the top-30 nationally in completion percentage (63.1) and has thrown for just shy of 3,000 yards this season.
Missouri (10-2, 7-1 SEC), predicted by the media in the preseason to finish fourth in the SEC Eastern Division, returns to Atlanta after winning its final six games of the regular season. The Tigers lost two of three games in the middle of the season, including a 34-0 loss to Georgia which appeared to put the SEC East out of reach, but Mizzou capitalized by winning key games on the road at Texas A&M and Tennessee, and clinching the divisional title with a win against a streaking Arkansas team last Friday.
"It means an awful lot to me," Mizzou head coach Gary Pinkel said. "I love my team. This has not been an easy year, but we battled and competed. I feel thankful for all the people around me. It's our second time down there in a row and that's hard to do."
The Tigers lead the SEC and rank sixth nationally in red-zone offense (92.1 pct.), while also ranking second in the nation in fourth-down conversion percentage (84.6). Missouri has been impressive on defense and is among the top-10 nationally in both sacks and tackles for loss.
The versatile Marcus Murphy has been a leader for the Tigers offensively and on special teams. He leads the SEC in all-purpose yards (135 yards per game) and is the NCAA FBS active career leader in combined kick and punt return yardage (2,740 career yards).
The Mizzou defense is led by Shane Ray and Markus Golden, who each rank among the nation's top-25 in sacks per game and tackles for loss per game. Ray is third nationally in tackles for loss per game (1.7) and fourth in the nation in sacks per game (1.13).
"The entire defense is playing really well," Ray said. "We train for when the fourth quarter comes and people expect us to be tired. We're prepared to play through at a high level. It's incredible to see what we can do with our chemistry."