The Untold Story of SEC Football: Missouri Is 5-0, but Is It a Legit Threat?
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The only remaining undefeated teams in the SEC are Alabama and...?
Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?
You'd be hard-pressed to find anyone who predicted Missouri to be standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Alabama as the only two undefeated teams left in the SEC on Oct. 9.
But here the Tigers are, 5-0, headed to Georgia with a chance to keep its SEC East and—dare I say—national title hopes alive between the hedges against a Bulldog team that is littered with injuries.
How did it get to this point?
Wins over Murray State, Toledo, Indiana, Arkansas State and Vanderbilt aren't exactly anything to write home about; but don't sleep on that 45-28 road win over Indiana. The Hoosiers just beat Penn State and have an offense that can run with a lot of teams in the country.
Let's take a closer look at how the upstart Tigers have run their record to 5-0.
Quarterback James Franklin is Healthy, and Back to Form
Franklin's first trip through the SEC in 2012 was riddled with injuries, which really hampered the offense throughout the season.
This year, he's back to his 2011 form. The senior has completed 67.9 percent of his passes (114-of-168) for 1,407 yards, 13 touchdowns and only three interceptions. On top of that, he's rushed 53 times for 278 yards and and two touchdowns—an average of 5.25 yards per carry.
Not too shabby.
"He is, right now, mentally tougher than he was before," head coach Gary Pinkel said. "He's a lot more driven than he was before. Like many of us, when we go through adversities, we don't like going through them; but there are great lessons to learn. That really labels him. He's a lot different player than he was as far as his mental toughness, his determination and his want to be successful than he's ever been."
This is what Missouri needed last year, but better late than never.
Franklin is accurate, has a big arm and a firm grasp of new offensive coordinator Josh Henson's offense.
Several Running Backs are In the Mix
Henry Josey stole all of the headlines this summer. The redshirt junior who rushed for 1,168 yards and nine touchdowns in 10 games in 2011 missed all of last season with a devastating knee injury.
Josey has been solid in his return this season, rushing for 307 yards and six touchdowns. But Missouri's rushing attack is much more than just Josey.
Russell Hansbrough leads the Tigers with 378 rushing yards, speedster Marcus Murphy has rushed for 293 and Franklin's added his 278.
Missouri leads the SEC in rushing at 258.8 yards per game, and its leading rusher has only accounted for 29.3 percent of its rushing yards. Henson and Pinkel are spreading the ball around to their weapons, accentuating their positives and keeping opposing defenses off-balance.
It's Not Just 'DGB and Everybody Else'
Sophomore wide receiver Dorial Green-Beckham is the focal point of the Tiger passing attack, but he's not the only star. Sure, he has 23 catches for a team-high 364 yards and four touchdowns, and has emerged as the deep threat he was touted to be when he was a hot-shot recruit coming out of high school.
But he's getting a ton of help from his teammates around him.
L'Damian Washington has 22 catches for 340 yards and five touchdowns; and has emerged as one of the team leaders for the Tigers.
"He's a heck of a player," Pinkel said. "He's got great speed, he can run, he can make plays and he leads by example."
Marcus Lucas is another weapon for Pinkel, catching a team-high 27 passes for 262 yards and a score. He's emerged as more of a possession wide receiver this season with the Tigers.
What's the common denominator for these three receivers? Height. All three are 6'4" or taller, which creates matchup nightmares for opposing defenses—especially a defense like Georgia's which ranks 12th in the SEC in pass defense (264.6 YPG).
Pressure With Four
The offense is dominant, but don't sleep on Missouri's defense.
Senior Michael Sam leads a dominant defensive front that has surprised the college football world during the first six weeks of the season. The 6'2", 255-pound Sam is tied for the SEC lead with Arkansas' Chris Smith with six sacks, leads the SEC with 10 tackles for loss and has back-to-back SEC defensive lineman of the week awards to his credit.
"Michael has done great [over the last couple of games]," Pinkel said. "He's a great athlete and it's great to see his perseverance and constant effort play after play. It's a great visual aid for our young players. He's doing a lot of good things."
But he's not alone. Fellow defensive linemen Kony Ealy (6'5", 275 pounds) and Markus Golden (6'3", 260) each have taken home the award this season as well.
The Tigers are second in the SEC in sacks with 15, with only one of those sacks coming from a player who isn't on the defensive line.
Missouri's ability to generate pressure with four trickles down through the entire defense, and allows the back end to capitalize on mistakes forced up front.
As mentioned before, the front end creating havoc in the backfield has benefited the secondary immensely.
Cornerback E.J. Gaines is tied for the SEC lead with three picks, and sophomore linebacker Kentrell Brothers has two. The Tigers are tied for the SEC lead in turnover margin, gaining one more than it loses per game, with all 11 takeaways coming via interception.
The Tigers are fast, physical and fly to the football, making them dangerous for a Georgia team that could be down five major offensive pieces if running back Todd Gurley is out with his ankle injury.
Missouri is a threat.
It's a threat to upset Georgia this weekend in a game in which I'm picking the Tigers. If that happens, then it's very much a threat in the SEC East.
A win over Georgia would make the Tigers bowl eligible, give them a head-to-head tiebreaker over the Bulldogs and make a statement to the rest of the conference that it is for real. Yes, the Bulldogs have injuries all over the roster, but Sanford Stadium is a difficult place to play and Georgia still has talent.
Missouri gets Florida and South Carolina at home over the next two weeks. Florida will be starting backup Tyler Murphy at quarterback on the road, one week after the always-physical matchup with LSU. South Carolina visits Missouri at the end of a three-game road trip that sends the Gamecocks to Arkansas this week and Tennessee next week.
Keep an eye on the Tigers. They could be for real.
*Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer for Bleacher Report. All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.
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