How Missouri Can Play Spoiler for the SEC Title, College Football Playoff

Ben KerchevalCollege Football Lead WriterNovember 28, 2014

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The Missouri Tigers: SEC East juggernauts, apparently. 

With a 21-14 win over Arkansas on Friday, Missouri, at 10-2 overall and 7-1 in the SEC, has secured its second straight divisional title. Next week, the Tigers will play either Alabama or Mississippi State for the chance to win the program's first SEC championship in just its third year in the league. 

In the process, Missouri can play the ultimate spoiler and throw the playoff race into total chaos. 

But before looking ahead, it's important to understand what Missouri has done and how it's done it. As Paul Myerberg of USA Today tweets, Mizzou is one of only five programs to repeat as SEC divisional champs. The other four? Alabama, Florida, Georgia and Tennessee. You know, traditional SEC powers. 

The SEC East was anything but traditional this season, however, so its champion naturally is of the most unlikely kind.

South Carolina, the preseason media favorites to win the division, could finish 6-6 with a loss at Clemson and will at the very least end the year with a losing conference record.

Florida is rebuilding, but it couldn't win enough games to save head coach Will Muschamp's job. Georgia is an enigma; the Bulldogs seem like they could beat anyone in the country on any given week and lose to any team the following week. 

That brings up Missouri, which has wins over SEC West teams Texas A&M and Arkansas but losses to Georgia (34-0) and Indiana (31-27). 

It's been that kind of year in the East.

But Missouri has done what many other teams haven't: close out games when it absolutely had to do so. The win over the Razorbacks was the fourth time this season the Tigers put up at least 13 fourth-quarter points to either run away with a game or rally from behind. 

Missouri's Close Calls
GameScore Entering Fourth QuarterFourth-Quarter PointsFinal Score
vs. UCFWinning 21-101738-10
vs. South CarolinaLosing 13-71421-20
vs. TennesseeWinning 16-131329-21
vs. ArkansasLosing 14-61521-14
ESPN.com

In short, opponents can't let Mizzou hang around. With the exception of Florida State, there may not be a better team in college football in the final 15 minutes. 

The thing is, Missouri is not an overly explosive offense, a major departure from its days in the Big 12 with former quarterback Chase Daniel. The Tigers average 29 points per game, 10th in the SEC. In fact, Missouri doesn't rank higher than ninth in the SEC in any major offensive category, including long scrimmage plays

Rather, head coach Gary Pinkel has built a steady machine with an athletic defensive front seven that features pass-rushers who are of the nightmare variety. In 2013, it was the combination of defensive ends Michael Sam, the SEC Co-Defensive Player of the Year, and Kony Ealy. Together, Sam and Ealy recorded 19.5 sacks. 

This year, pass-rushing specialists Shane Ray and Markus Golden combined for 20.5 sacks entering Week 14. Missouri gives up under 20 points per game and is ranked in the top four of the SEC in average yards per rush and pass attempts allowed. 

If there was any doubt that Pinkel, who is in his 14th year with the program, is closing in on Bill Snyder levels of wizardry, there shouldn't be any more. Pinkel has certainly stated his case for SEC Coach of the Year. 

He can use that wizardry to throw a giant wrench into college football's postseason plans next week. Remember: There are no great teams in college football this year. No team is immune to an upset. 

The formula will be the same whether it's Alabama or Mississippi State lining up on the other side: stop the run—both the Tide and Bulldogs enjoy healthy ground attacks—keep the score close and finish strong with defense. 

It's not the way Pinkel's Tigers have done it in the past, but it's what's working now. And it's what could work next week. 

There's no way Mizzou is getting into the playoff. Two losses could be acceptable in theory in the eyes of the selection committee. However, losing at home to an Indiana team that will, at best, finish with four wins is too much to overcome, and the shutout loss to Georgia is an eyesore. 

But that doesn't mean Missouri can't potentially shut the SEC out of the first four-team playoff. There are no prerequisites about winning a conference championship to get into the playoff. That said, it would be difficult to imagine a non-SEC champ, especially a non-divisional champ, being selected without total chaos across the college football landscape.

That's the kind of impact Missouri could have. Given that Missouri has arguably suffered the worst loss of any 10-win team, but is equally capable of frustrating its opponents, it would be appropriate that it could be the team to pull the upset. 

If the Tigers are in a tight game next week heading into the fourth quarter, that will play right into what they have done all year. 

 

Ben Kercheval is a lead writer for college football. All stats courtesy of cfbstats.com.