Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - Coming into the 2013 campaign, many expected the quest for the SEC Eastern Division crown to be one of the most challenging races in college football, with perennial favorites Florida, Georgia and South Carolina duking it out for the right to play in the conference championship game.
It's time to add the Missouri Tigers to that list.
The race has been as advertised thus far, with Florida, Georgia and South Carolina all tied at 3-1 in the SEC, but it's Missouri which has established itself as the early favorite at a shocking 6-0 overall and a 2-0 in conference.
The Tigers debuted in the SEC in 2012, coming over from the Big 12 Conference along with Texas A&M, but while the Aggies thrived in their first season by going 11-2, Missouri was little more than an afterthought at 5-7, with just two wins against its new conference rivals. The Tigers came into this season well under the radar in the loaded SEC, and while their fast start is certainly one of the biggest surprises in the FBS, the team has simply reverted back to the winning ways it displayed prior to changing conference allegiance.
Gary Pinkel has turned Missouri into one of the most consistent programs in the nation during his 13-year tenure, which includes bowl appearances in every season from 2005-11. The team may have lost some credibility with last season's let down, but it regained its status with a vengeance here in the first half of 2013. The Tigers are 6-0 for the third time under Pinkel, and they made their mark as a bona fide contender on Oct. 12 by going on the road and taking down nationally-ranked Georgia, 41-26, in their first win over a top-10 away from home since 1981.
"I just think we earned a little more respect," Missouri head coach Gary Pinkel said following the emotional win at Georgia. "The respect level just went up a couple notches."
That respect factor was certainly evident in the fact that the Tigers made a monumental leap in this week's AP poll, climbing from No. 25 all the way to No. 14. But just as everything was starting to come together, they were dealt a devastating blow that could very well derail their hopes for a shot in the SEC title tilt.
Senior quarterback James Franklin left in the fourth quarter of the Georgia contest, and it was determined after that his separated shoulder will keep him out of action indefinitely. Franklin was in the midst of a career year, completing nearly 68 percent of his passes for 1,577 yards with 14 touchdowns and only three interceptions, while rushing for 290 yards and three more scores. To the Tigers, he is irreplaceable, especially with all-important SEC East matchups against Florida and South Carolina slated to close out the month of October.
However, even without their signal caller, there's still room for optimism. When Franklin exited the Georgia game, the Tigers were only up by two, but instead of rolling over they managed to rally around freshman Maty Mauk and scored 13 unanswered points to put the game away.
Mauk only attempted three passes last week in his first action since Sept. 7, but he completed all of them for 23 yards, while adding 12 rushing yards, and after unexpectedly having to answer the bell in a tough spot, the young QB has earned the trust of his head coach.
"He just got thrown into the fire pretty quickly there," Pinkel said. "It's a pretty hostile environment (in Athens, Ga.), and it takes a lot of team communication. I think he did a good job. He is a pretty poised guy. He is thoroughly excited about this opportunity at hand. He is surrounded by an experienced offensive line and receiving corps...He is going to be nervous be he will do fine."
While the success of Mauk going forward remains a big question mark, Pinkel was right about his excellent supporting cast that has helped the Tigers ascend to the top-12 in the nation in both scoring offense (45.7 ppg) and total offense (515.7 ypg). Mauk has an outstanding trio of receivers to rely on to bail him out of tough situations. Marcus Lucas is trustworthy between the numbers, logging a team-high 30 receptions for 301 yards and a score. L'Damian Washington is one of the conference's best big-play wideouts with 29 receptions for 455 yards and seven touchdowns, while Dorial Green-Beckham (27 catches, 399 yards, four TDs) has been nearly as explosive.
More importantly for Missouri is its rushing attack, which ranks 16th in the nation in amassing 239.3 ypg, and the team will surely utilize the ground game even more to take some of the pressure off of Mauk. The three-headed tailback monster is paced by the efforts of Russell Hansbrough, who has racked up 391 yards and three TDs on 52 attempts. Henry Josey (358 yards) has a nose for the end zone with seven scores, while Marcus Murphy is also in the mix with 350 yards. All three rushers average at least 5.5 yards per carry, and even if they have to face stacked fronts in the future, they will still find plenty of holes to burst through.
Let's not forget about the Tigers' strong defense, which allows nearly half the points to opponents that they score themselves (23.0 ppg). The opportunistic unit has changed the course of games with 15 turnovers, including an FBS-leading 13 interceptions. E.J. Gaines and Kentrell Brothers have picked off three passes apiece, while Michael Sam has established himself as one of the nation's premiere pass-rusher with 10.0 TFL and 6.0 sacks.
There's no question that Missouri faces an uphill battle the rest of the way. Already having overachieved in the eyes of many, there is a target on its back as one of the few remaining unbeaten squads. But it would be foolish to count the Tigers out just yet. The Columbia crowd will certainly give them a boost in the coming weeks during a three-game homestand, then following a couple of winnable road matchups with Kentucky and Ole Miss, they finish up at home against Texas A&M on Sept. 30 in a game that Franklin may be healthy enough to play. Regardless of what the future holds for Franklin, however, he has the utmost confidence that his team can have continued success in his absence.
"I know they can do it," Franklin said. "I would love to be able to help them out on the field, but they can still win."