Quarterback change? No problem. Needing to win on the road to keep their title hopes alive? Big deal. Freezing temperatures? Who cares?
In what is looking more and more like the Year of the Tigers, No. 8 Missouri returned James Franklin at starting quarterback Saturday night and matter-of-factly cranked another convincing victory, 24-10 over Mississippi in Oxford, Miss.
At 10-1, the Tigers need only to beat Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M next Saturday in Columbia to reach the SEC championship game. But lose and South Carolina will be representing the SEC East on Dec. 7 in Atlanta.
Manziel could be playing in his final regular-season game and will be trying to bounce back from one of his worst performances, a 16-of-41 showing in a 34-10 loss at LSU. He will need to be at his best just to give A&M (8-3) a chance for an upset.
The way Missouri has been playing, don’t count on it.
Anyone who still believes the Tigers aren’t a bona fide BCS contender wasn’t watching against the Rebels. Missouri went 72 yards on its first drive and never really was threatened en route to a victory that felt more convincing than the two-touchdown margin.
The Tigers rushed for 261 yards, passed for 224, the defense held Ole Miss to one touchdown and extended its streak with a turnover to 41 games on a first-quarter interception by Randy Ponder. Andrew Baggett even hit on his field-goal attempt.
But this game was about the return of Franklin, making his first start since suffering a shoulder separation Oct. 12. While there was reason to wonder if replacing Matty Mauk was the right decision since he had played so well in Franklin’s absence, Gary Pinkel never wavered in saying that Franklin would be the man once he was deemed fully ready to return. Franklin did not take long to make his coach look like a wise man.
He played as if he hadn’t missed a turn. On his first play, he used his strength to break out of a would-be sack, then calmly hit Marcus Lucas for a 19-yard gain. Seven plays later, Henry Josey scored from 4 yards and the Tigers were on their way.
Franklin went 7 for 7 in the first half before scuffling a bit after intermission to finish 12 of 19 for 141 yards with an interception. Mauk got in for one series in the second quarter — Pinkel told the TV sideline reporter the move was planned — and led the Tigers to a field goal that gave them a 10-7 lead.
Franklin returned and led the Tigers on two more long touchdown drives, using his legs as well as his arm. He was at his second on the seven-play, 68-yard drive in the second quarter when he passed for 52 yards and rushed for nine. He made the key play in an eight-play, 85-yard drive in the third quarter when, on third-and-seven, he rushed for 11 yards. Josey finished off the drive — and the scoring for the night — with a 10-yard run.
The Tigers planned to immediately turn their attention to Texas A&M. The contest will be one of the biggest — if not the biggest — ever at Memorial Stadium. The Tigers be playing for a shot at the conference title, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner will be in town and Pinkel will be shooting for his 101st win to equal Don Faurot for the most at Missouri.
“My number is insignificant,” said Pinkel, who was awarded the game ball after his 100th win as a Tiger. “I want to win for these kids.”
The way his call on changing quarterbacks worked out, everything is trending in the right direction.
You can follow Stan McNeal on Twitter @stanmcneal or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.