Just how legit are the Missouri Tigers?
According to the BCS standings, very legit.
The Tigers came in at the No. 5 spot in the initial release of the BCS standings, above Baylor, Miami and Texas Tech—all of which are undefeated teams from automatic-qualifying conferences.
No, Missouri isn't the name-brand power that you typically see near the top of the BCS standings, but that doesn't matter. The Tigers have won every game by at least 15 points, and they just ran circles around a Florida team that came in with the best defense in the SEC.
Missouri is good and, based on how it's performed this season, is on the brink of becoming elite.
What makes the Tigers so great?
Ground and Pound
The Tigers currently rank second in the SEC in rushing offense, gaining 234.43 yards per game on the ground.
Henry Josey is back to his 2011 form, rushing for 494 yards and eight touchdowns on the season. He has the home-run speed that makes him dangerous in space, and Gary Pinkel and offensive coordinator Josh Henson find ways to get him the ball in spots where he can make an impact.
Russell Hansbrough is a nice "1B" to Josey's "1A," and the combination of the two players—both of whom have speed, have a quick first step and play bigger than their measurables—allows the staff to keep both of them fresh for a full four quarters.
It isn't the pro-style approach that Alabama has used to win three of the last four BCS national titles, but it produces the same results. Like Auburn—which leads the SEC this season with 300.14 yards per game on the ground—Missouri pushes tempo, spreads defenses out and wears them down. As a result, the Tigers lead the SEC with seven rushes of 40 or more yards this season.
|SEC Rushing Offense - 2013|
|Team||YPG||Rushing TDs||Rushes of 40+ Yards|
Faith in the System
No James Franklin at quarterback? No problem for Pinkel.
All redshirt freshman Maty Mauk did in his first start at the helm was lead the Tigers to a 36-17 win over Florida on Saturday afternoon and help his team rack up 500 total yards on what was a formidable defensive unit.
It was the first time Florida had allowed 500 or more yards since Michigan did it in the 2008 Capital One Bowl following the 2007 season, and it broke a 13-game Florida streak of holding conference opponents to 20 or fewer points.
"I guess Florida hasn't allowed 21 points in, like, 13 or 14 straight games and that just goes to show a lot about our offense," wide receiver L'Damian Washington said, according to Missouri's official athletics website. "The thing about it, James didn't play today. Kudos to Maty Mauk, but this offense is just relentless no matter who it is, a different quarterback or wide receiver, we just keep rolling."
Pinkel didn't shy away from the mighty Gators defense with his backup quarterback. He welcomed the challenge. That faith in the system regardless of who's taking the snaps breeds confidence, and the result was a confident group of Tigers on Saturday afternoon.
"We did what we do best. The running backs, they made plays; and receivers, they got the ball and made plays," Mauk said, according to MUTigers.com. "We just knew we had to come together this week, with me coming in, and that's what we did. It couldn't have gone any better for us, other than just scoring six instead of three."
What's scary is that the win over Florida was the biggest hurdle for the Tigers, given the circumstances. With Franklin out, Mauk shined in the face of the offense's biggest challenge of the season. With that out of the way, the sky is the limit.
It Isn't All About the Offense
Stats lie a bit when it comes to the Missouri defense.
If you look at total defense, you aren't going to be impressed. The Tigers are giving up 381 yards per game, but that's partly caused by the offense's desire to speed the game up, which puts the defense on the field more than traditional pro-style offenses that thrive off time of possession.
Michael Sam leads the SEC with nine sacks and 13 tackles for loss. E.J. Gaines (who missed the Florida game) and Kentrell Brothers are tied for second in the SEC with three interceptions each, and any defense that holds an SEC team to 151 total yards—yes, even an offense as lethargic as Florida's—deserves a ton of credit.
"We played great defense," Pinkel said in an official university release. "We're playing at an all-time level up front on the defensive line. We rotate a lot of players in there and they play hard against good offensive lines. Florida has a good offensive line."
The Tigers get pressure with four, force mistakes and—with an SEC-high 18 takeaways—they capitalize on those mistakes.
When your offense is as prolific as Missouri's, all you need is to be opportunistic on defense. The Tigers are following that path to success, and it has worked perfectly so far.
Missouri is good, but is it elite on the same level of Alabama, Oregon and Florida State?
Not yet, but it's pretty darn close.
The last remaining piece to the puzzle is winning when the target is on your back, and the target is squarely on Missouri's back now.
If it can get by a desperate South Carolina team this week and then topple resurgent Tennessee next week, that should be enough to convince the college-football world that these Tigers are for real, if it doesn't believe in them already.