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Missouri Finally Proving Itself SEC Worthy

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By Chris Mahr

If one had to describe Missouri’s debut season in the SEC last year, the operative phrase would be “punching above one’s weight.”

While fellow conference newcomer Texas A&M acquitted itself beautifully, the Tigers spent almost the entirety of 2012 being bullied into submission. The powerful offense that had transformed Mizzou into a respectable program was nowhere to be found, undone by injuries and ineffectiveness. Same with a defense that was pushed around despite boasting a future first-round NFL draft pick in DT Sheldon Richardson.

The most telling moment of the season came late in a blowout loss to Alabama, when RB Russell Hansborough was (illegally) suplexed to the turf by Crimson Tide DL LaMichael Fanning.

The 5-7 campaign - the Tigers’ first losing season since 2004 - was a potential crossroads for a program that many felt had started flatlining under head coach Gary Pinkel, even going back to their final year in the Big 12. While there were unqualified successes (three Big 12 North titles from 2007-2010), Mizzou could never quite get over that hump. Pinkel was a prime “hot seat” candidate entering this season.

So how in the world are the Tigers 6-0, ranked No. 14 and a legitimate contender to win the SEC East? Even the most die-hard of Mizzou fans couldn’t have seen this coming.

On offense, first-year coordinator Josh Henson - who spent the previous four seasons as Mizzou’s co-offensive line coach - has helped breathe new life into last year’s underachieving unit by stressing more of a power offense better suited to the rigors of SEC football (as Saturday Down South’s Jon Cooper expertly predicted he would in February.)

Thus far, the Tigers are 16th in the FBS in rushing yards per game (239.3 YPG), paced by a four-headed monster of Hansborough (391 yards and three TDs on 7.5 YPC) and fellow RBs Henry Josey (358/7/5.5) and Marcus Murphy (below, 350/5/8.8) as well as QB James Franklin (290/3/4.5).

It’s balanced beautifully with a passing attack in which Franklin has thrown for 14 TDs against just three picks, thanks to two big targets on the outside in 6-foot-4, 205-pound L’Damian Washington (455 yards and seven TDs) and 6-foot-6, 225-pound Dorial Green-Beckham (399 yards and four TDs) - the latter of whom is finally living up to the potential that made him the nation’s top overall recruit in 2012. That effectiveness on the ground and through the air has powered the nation’s eighth-highest scoring offense (45.7).

It’s an even starker contrast from last year on the other side of the ball. Mizzou is tied with Northwestern and Virginia Tech for the most interceptions in the FBS (13) and is tied for 17th in sacks (17.0). In their 41-26 upset of No. 7 Georgia on Saturday, they forced four Bulldogs turnovers, including a 21-yard fumble return for a touchdown that put the Tigers up 28-10 in the second quarter.

The win was Mizzou’s second straight to open conference play as well as their second straight on the road following a 51-28 rout of a respectable Vanderbilt team the week before. Rather than seeing a dip in quality of play after opening the season with four wins against overmatched opponents, the Tigers have only gotten stronger when facing their first SEC competition of the season.

All that being said, it only gets harder for Missouri here on in. Franklin was potentially lost for the next month after separating his right throwing shoulder against Georgia. In addition, the Bulldogs were just the first of four ranked conference rivals the Tigers face this season, having to also play No. 22 Florida, No. 11 South Carolina and No. 7 Texas A&M.

While Franklin’s loss hurts, it’s one that Mizzou can overcome. Freshman fill-in Maty Mauk doesn’t have to be a do-everything star like Franklin. With the compliment of running backs and pass-catchers at his disposal, he merely needs to be a facilitator. Should the offense regress while Mauk is in the lineup, reason stands that the rejuvenated defense can pick them up.

Plus, after proving themselves on the road against the Commodores and Bulldogs, the Tigers have the luxury of facing each of those three aforementioned, ranked opponents at home, where the out-of-nowhere start has to have fans clawing their way back onto the bandwagon.

As the lone undefeated team remaining in the SEC East, Mizzou controls its own destiny. A team that looked like it was in over its head and led by a coach on the hottest of hot seats is now in the driver’s seat for a spot in the SEC title game.

One year after haplessly punching above it’s weight, the Tigers are delivering knockout blows.

Chris Mahr is the managing editor of Lost Lettermen. His column appears Tuesdays and Thursdays. You can follow him on Twitter at @CMahrtian.

Bottom Photo Credit: Dale Zanine/USA Today Sports

 
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