Red-hot Mizzou ready for daunting SEC slate
They have to feel like the kid in class who can't raise his hand high enough to get noticed.
Gary Pinkel's Missouri Tigers are the only undefeated team in the SEC East and one of only two conference clubs to enter October without a blemish.
The other, Alabama, currently hails as the country's top-ranked team and two-time BCS national champion.
And yet with a 4-0 mark, an average margin of victory of 24.5 points and an offense that's averaging more than 45 points a game, the Tigers are one of the most overlooked and easily dismissed teams in the league. In fact, they're aren't even favored this week against Vanderbilt, which has a 3-2 overall record but zero SEC victories.
Why is that? What has the college football experts pooh-poohing Mizzou and not even including the Tigers in the SEC title conversation?
A quick glance down the schedule provides the first clue. Mizzou's wins have been big, but the opponents have been something less than world class. So far, the Tigers have beaten Murray State, Toledo and Arkansas State at home by combined scores of 137-56. They also walloped Indiana in Bloomington, 45-28.
Of those routs, only Murray State has a winning record — and its biggest victory came against Jacksonville (Ala.) State, 35-34.
The Tigers have yet to face anything remotely resembling an SEC-caliber defense; and when you look at the one-on-one matchups for their SEC slate (eight games in nine weeks), it’s hard to see Mizzou claiming victory more than four times.
Still, they have a quarterback in James Franklin (1,343 total yards, 11 TDs), who is finally healthy and playing to his full potential. And when you have an athlete of that caliber, upsets can happen.
"He's a lot different now," Pinkel said during his Monday press conference, when asked to assess Franklin's performances to date. "His accuracy is a lot different ... that’s part of the fundamental work he's done over the years. You would have seen that a year ago, if he hadn’t had the problems and gotten hurt."
Pinkel also believes his quarterback is ready for the grind of an SEC schedule that gets considerably tougher after the road trip to Vandy. Missouri travels to Georgia on Oct. 12, before hosting Florida, South Carolina and Tennessee in successive weeks.
"Things have finally slowed down for him," the coach said of Franklin. "The things that he sees now in three seconds are amazing, especially compared to a freshman or sophomore. So he isn't just focused on his reads now, but he can see one receiver and know that in a particular coverage he's going to be open.
"And I think he’s mentally tougher," Pinkel said. "Going through last year with the injuries and the criticism, I think people learn most when they go through adversity. And I think he's running the ball smarter."
Pinkel will need Franklin to be smart, tough and accurate the rest of the year, if he hopes to have success with his spread offence. It didn't take long for SEC coaches to learn how to defend the spread, especially since so many conference teams run it today.
"I think the coaching changes in the league have brought more spread offenses in," Pinkel said. "And I think Texas A&M's offensive success with the spread is a part of it. I also think there are a lot of talented quarterbacks."
Mizzou will face two of those talented quarterbacks in the next two weeks — Vandy's Austyn Carta-Samuels and Georgia's Aaron Murray. The Tigers will do so with a defense that Pinkel admits, "missed a number of tackles and still needs to work on (fundamentals)."
But expect the Tigers to be competitive against the Commodores — Mizzou-Vandy will be the third-best game in the SEC this week, behind Arkansas-Florida and Ole Miss-Auburn. Even at 4-0, though, they'll still have a lot to prove before garnering serious consideration for the SEC East crown.
"We're just going to work and get better and continue to look at each week as a challenge," Pinkel said. "That's all we can do."