Here's a question nobody thought to ask even a few weeks ago: What if Missouri really is this good?
Five SEC teams opened the season in the top 10 of the polls and only two are there now, one expected (Alabama) and one from beyond left field (Missouri). A year ago, in the midst of its first SEC season, Missouri was an afterthought, if not a punchline. Fellow Big 12 convert Texas A&M stole all the headlines, making a joke of the preseason "how will you adapt to the SEC?" nonsense, while Missouri lost six of its eight SEC games, plus one to Syracuse, to make sure the anti-Big 12 fire kept burning.
Now, sitting at 7-0, with back-to-back wins over Georgia and Florida, Missouri has bridged the SEC/Big 12 divide better than anyone could have imagined. The Tigers rank No. 5 in the first BCS standings of the season, just one week after entering the coaches' poll for the first time. They rank 11th in yards per play and 33rd in yards per play allowed, a significant improvement from last year's ranks of 107th on offense and 57th on defense.
They've have taken the best of what was thought of as Big 12 football and the best of what was thought of as SEC football and melded them together to form a progressive team that may, somehow -- this year at least -- illustrates an evolutionary leap for SEC football in its combination of high-scoring offense and physical, athletic defense.
And thus, just as nobody predicted, our faith in the 2013 SEC in large part relies on our faith in a Missouri team that has taken advantage of a perfect storm of circumstances.
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Their names are Michael Sam, Kony Ealy, Markus Golden and Shane Ray, and they embody the SEC half of Missouri's formula for success.
Most notably, Alabama and LSU have dominated the last decade of SEC football with a seemingly endless supply of big, athletic players on the defensive front. Control the line of scrimmage to control the game; a defensive line that constantly disrupts opposing quarterbacks -- particularly notoriously erratic college quarterbacks, not named Jameis Winston, who struggle with pressure -- makes an offense uncomfortable and allows the defense to dictate the pace of the game.
Even with the loss of a first-round pick at tackle, Sheldon Richardson, Missouri boasts one of the deepest pools of defensive line talent in the nation as everyone, especially the aforementioned ends, began peaking at the same time. Sam in particular has become a star, an obvious midseason All-America choice who opened the season as a relatively anonymous fifth-year senior (although he did record 4.5 sacks in 2012). Now he's been arguably the most disruptive player in the SEC, joining the likes of Florida's Dante Fowler and, depending on the day, Jadeveon Clowney. The 6-foot-3, 255-pound Sam is tied for the national lead with nine sacks, all of which have come in the last four games: three vs. Arkansas State, three at Vanderbilt and three vs. Florida. In between, he returned an Aaron Murray fumble (forced by his depth chart backup, Ray) for a touchdown to break the Georgia game wide-open.
Whereas most of the SEC has regressed on defense -- teams have experienced an average drop 22 places nationally in yards per play allowed -- to look more like the Big 12 we've come to know, Missouri's defense, while not necessarily among the nation's best, has acquired SEC-like qualities, particularly on the line, in an unexpected role reversal.
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Of course, there's also the Big 12 part of the equation: Newcomers Texas A&M and Missouri currently rank Nos. 1-2 in the SEC in yards per game on offense, the only two teams in the conference above 500. Last year, Missouri ranked 11th in the league as it struggled to deal with an underperforming passing game handcuffed by the nagging injury problems of QB James Franklin, as well as the absence of speedy tailback Henry Josey, who tore his ACL after averaging 8.1 yards per carry in 2011. SEC defenses were as good as ever, and Missouri wasn't equipped to handle the transition.
Now, it has as big a surplus of skill-position talent as anyone in the conference. Josey hasn't been quite as dangerous as a few years ago, but he averages a solid 6.0 yards per carry, while fellow running backs Marcus Murphy (8.7) and Russell Hansbrough (6.8) are also picking up yards at a high rate. All are undersized at less than 200 pounds, but they're effective out of the Tigers' Big 12-style spread system under Gary Pinkel. Out wide, the Tigers have a trio of big, productive receivers who look mammoth compared to the running backs: 6-foot-4 L'Damian Washington, 6-foot-6 Dorial Green-Beckham and 6-foot-5 Marcus Lucas, all of whom rank in the top nine of the SEC in catches.
Not all has been perfect, as once again Missouri is dealing with injuries: For one, star cornerback E.J. Gaines, who missed the Florida game, but also to Franklin, who hurt his shoulder against Georgia, but even the backup QB situation now looks as good or better than anyone else in the conference. Redshirt freshman Maty Mauk made his first career start against Florida, throwing for 295 yards -- the most by a QB against Florida since November 2011 -- despite playing a far from a perfect game, with a 50 percent completion rate and an interception. Mauk played well enough, though, and for all the hype around Florida's deep pool of talented defensive backs, they couldn't handle Missouri's big receivers. Missouri was simply better in all facets of the game, and the 36-17 final score could have been worse.
So now we're in the unexpected position of Missouri beating established heavyweights thanks to a depth advantage that includes a backup freshman quarterback and an embarrassment of riches around him. Upward mobility isn't as impossible in the SEC as once thought, and it turns out outspoken former receiver T.J. Moe was right about the league's power structure, if only a year early.
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Through eight weeks, everything has seemingly lined up perfectly for Missouri's shocking emergence from a 5-7 SEC East also-ran to a 7-0 overwhelming favorite to meet Alabama in the SEC title game.
Whereas the tiers of the SEC looked something like this in the preseason:
- Top: Alabama, Georgia, Texas A&M, LSU, South Carolina, Florida
- Middle: Ole Miss, Vanderbilt, Auburn, Tennessee, Missouri, Arkansas, Mississippi State
- Bottom: Kentucky
The conference, because of a combination of bad injury luck (Georgia, Florida), defenses struggling to overcome their youth (Georgia, LSU, Texas A&M), slightly overvalued all-around talent (South Carolina) and staggering offensive incompetence (Florida), may now look something like this:
- Top: Alabama
- High Middle: Missouri, Auburn, LSU, Texas A&M, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Ole Miss
- Low Middle: Tennessee, Vanderbilt, Mississippi State
- Bottom: Arkansas, Kentucky
For all we know, Missouri is good enough to leap into that top tier and be a legitimate national contender alongside Alabama, setting the stage for a national play-in game in Atlanta on Dec. 7 … or the Tigers will limp to the finish by losing to, say, South Carolina on Saturday plus Ole Miss and Texas A&M and end up 9-3, making us forget this midseason brush with immortality. For now, and as long as it continues to win, Missouri is unfortunately still stuck battling prior perceptions as the Big 12 team that lost four of its conference games by at least three touchdowns last year and entered this season projected to spend another Christmas in Shreveport.
The SEC is weaker, sure, but this is a Missouri team that appears capable of finishing in the top two or three of any conference in college football. It's not an accident nobody has stayed within two touchdowns of the Tigers, and if they continue playing at this high level, their presence as the No. 2 team in the SEC, instead of Georgia or LSU, should do nothing to hurt the reputation of the league.
The safe bet is that things will begin to even out a bit, that a good Missouri team will still lose a game or two before the SEC title game. But it's also possible perceptions were flat-out wrong, that a combination of youth and bad luck doomed Missouri last year and the Tigers have come along at the exact right moment to take advantage of the altered reality of the SEC.
Forget its reputation and its past shortcoming: Missouri is the right team at the right time, and problems with the rest of the SEC should do little to take away from the Tigers' rise.
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