Preview: Tigers aren’t taking lowly Wildcats lightly

In what could be his last start of the season, freshman quarterback Maty Mauk will attempt to help Missouri maintain sole possession of the SEC East lead.

After bouncing back nicely from their first loss, the ninth-ranked Tigers will try for another dominant performance Saturday at Kentucky.

Mauk has started the past three games, but James Franklin is on the verge of returning from a sprained shoulder. Missouri’s coaches used Franklin’s improving health as motivation for their freshman backup before last week’s game against Tennessee.

After being told he was on a tight leash, Mauk threw three touchdown passes and ran for 114 yards in a 31-3 rout of the Volunteers. That victory helped Missouri (8-1, 4-1) remain just ahead of South Carolina in the SEC East after a 27-24 double-overtime loss to the then-No. 20 Gamecocks on Oct. 26.

Mauk is expected to start again this Saturday with Franklin considered questionable.

“I feel fortunate that Maty has done a good job,” coach Gary Pinkel said. “I think what has helped Maty without question is that up front we are playing really well. The offensive line that helps him, and having the receiving corps intact allows him a greater shot of being successful.”

Franklin was expected to miss three to five weeks after suffering his injury in a 41-26 win at then-No. 7 Georgia on Oct. 12. With a bye week coming up after the visit to Kentucky, Missouri might opt to give its senior some more rest.

That would give Franklin time to get even healthier for seemingly tougher games to wrap up this season, a visit to Mississippi on Nov. 23 and a home game against No. 11 Texas A&M on Nov. 30.

To earn a spot in the SEC championship, the Tigers will likely need to win their final three games. They could make it if they go 2-1 and South Carolina drops its conference finale against visiting Florida next Saturday.

First, Missouri needs to get past Kentucky (2-6, 0-4), which has yet to beat a major conference team this season and has dropped 12 straight in SEC play. Pinkel, however, isn’t taking the Wildcats lightly.

“With the SEC, there is so little drop-off in the talent in this league. Every team is good. I think this also applies to Kentucky,” he said. “They are a good football team, and we are going to work very hard to play our best football game Saturday.”

The Wildcats snapped a five-game skid last Saturday with a 48-14 rout of Alabama State.

Jalen Whitlow shook off nagging shoulder and ankle injuries to run for 101 yards and two touchdowns — including an 88-yard scoring dash — and pass for two more TDs. Whitlow is part of a two-quarterback rotation with fellow sophomore Maxwell Smith.

That hasn’t been too effective as Kentucky ranks 12th in the conference with 24.0 points and 357.6 yards per game. The Wildcats are also 12th in total defense, allowing an average of 421.0 yards.

Missouri ranks second in the SEC in total offense with 500.0 yards per game and third with an average of 40.6 points. It’s also fourth with 20.6 points allowed per game and leads the league with 27 sacks.

“Their defense has been the biggest improvement for them. Just playing extremely good defense this year,” Kentucky coach Mark Stoops said. “Top four in our league in scoring defense, so very active, very disruptive. It’ll be a great challenge for us.”

That would indicate that the Tigers are poised for an even better performance than in their 33-10 win over Kentucky last season. Missouri shook off a slow start by scoring the final 23 points in its first SEC win.

The Tigers are making their first visit to Kentucky since a 12-6 loss Sept. 21, 1968.