Lessons from last year fueling Missouri's SEC charge; Walkthrough
Former Missouri wide receiver T.J. Moe, who spent the final season of his college career getting pounded by healthier teams as the Tigers slogged through an injury-riddled nightmare in 2012, took to Twitter on Monday to point out this year's reversal of fortune. "Everyone told us last year that we had to have depth to play in the SEC," Moe tweeted. "Maybe someone should share that with Florida and Georgia this year."
Missouri had lived in the top half of the Big 12 for years before moving to the SEC. Last season, the new league seemed to overwhelm the Tigers. But, as Georgia and Florida's woes this fall have proven, few programs -- even the ones with annual posts near the top of the recruiting rankings -- can handle a rash of injuries at key positions. As it turns out, any team that suffers repeated injuries to its starting quarterback and loses five of its 10 best offensive linemen will probably have a lousier-than-expected season. How bad were Missouri's injuries last year? The Tigers are playing through the toughest stretch of their 2013 schedule without their starting quarterback (James Franklin) and best cornerback (E.J. Gaines) and coach Gary Pinkel still considers it a breeze compared to last year. "Nothing like it was last year. Not even on the same radar," Pinkel told SI.com this week. "This has been like living in the Ritz compared to what we had last year."
Funny that Pinkel should mention that particular hotel chain. There is a Ritz-Carlton located exactly one mile from Atlanta's Georgia Dome. If Pinkel's team can beat South Carolina on Saturday -- or even if it doesn't -- the Tigers may need to make some reservations for early December. Even though it has played only three conference games, Missouri has accumulated an absurd sum of house money in the SEC East race. South Carolina, Georgia and Florida all have two conference losses. Missouri has beaten the Bulldogs and Gators by an average of 17 points in the past two weeks. On Saturday in the Columbia where you get burgers at Booches and not the one where you get burgers at Pawleys Front Porch, Missouri can put the East in a stranglehold by beating the Gamecocks.
"The SEC East is a mess. It's amazing what Missouri has done and I'm glad to see that for coach Pinkel, and Butch [Jones] is helping our program here a lot," said former Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer, whose team won the East five times. "It's very telling for a team like Georgia or Florida what injuries can do."
A comparable string of injuries had a similar effect on the Tigers last year, and Pinkel believes enduring it provided the Tigers with a perspective that carried the team through the offseason. The players knew how good they needed to be. "We got hit in the mouth last year. It was pretty difficult for our team," Pinkel said. "We're used to winning and going to bowls. That's where it all started. The work ethic of this team has been second to none. The consistency of preparation has been maybe as good as I've seen."
The Tigers must remain steady this week. South Carolina is coming off a sloppy loss at Tennessee, and the Gamecocks will want to prove they're better than what they showed in Knoxville. (They are.) Steve Spurrier's team won't make it easy, but Missouri has proven it can handle difficult.
The biggest surprise has been how well Missouri has played with a healthy group of linemen and running backs. The Tigers have a dynamic offense that can pound teams with backs Russell Hansbrough and Henry Josey, a 2011 All-Big 12 performer whose brutal knee injury in November of that year should also be placed on the Tigers' 2012 ledger because it forced him to miss the entirety of last season. Receivers L'Damian Washington and Dorial Green-Beckham, the nation's top recruit in the class of 2012, have allowed Missouri's quarterbacks to stretch the field. Senior defensive end Michael Sam, a two-star recruit from tiny Hitchcock, Texas, is putting up better numbers (nine sacks, 13 tackles for loss) than South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, who will likely be selected at or near the top of the 2014 NFL draft.
Pinkel knew his players could play the way they have this season. He saw this when he recruited them. Take backup quarterback Maty Mauk, who made his first career start last week against Florida as Franklin recovers from a separated shoulder suffered at Georgia. "They say quarterbacks are like teabags," Pinkel said. "You don't know what you've got until you throw them in hot water. You really don't -- except I kind of did." Most of the Top 25 ignored the 6-foot Mauk in spite of the fact that he won the Gatorade Ohio Player of the Year award twice and set national records for passing yards (18,932) and passing touchdowns (219) while starring at Kenton (Ohio) High. Pinkel saw a quarterback perfect for the hurry-up offense the Tigers favor. Last Saturday, against a Florida team that hasn't had a quarterback who could move the offense with any consistency since Tim Tebow left following the 2009 campaign, Mauk completed 18-of-36 passes for 295 yards with a touchdown and an interception. Against one of the nation's best defenses, Mauk proved Missouri has not one but two capable quarterbacks. As Mauk returned to the sideline after his final play, Pinkel gave him a hug. "It doesn't surprise me," Pinkel told the redshirt freshman.
Like the Tigers, the Gamecocks also have a capable second quarterback. His name is Dylan Thompson, and he'll probably start in place of Connor Shaw (knee), making the biggest game in the SEC East this year a clash of backup quarterbacks. Unless Missouri is planning to collapse later this season, the Gamecocks must win on Saturday to stay in the East race. A win by the Tigers would give them head-to-head victories over the three most likely contenders for the crown and a two- or three-game lead in the standings over all of them. With a Mizzou win, the St. Louis Cardinals supporters in the fan base will completely understand all the talk of magic numbers that would begin on Saturday night. A South Carolina win would keep the Gamecocks in the race and reduce Missouri's margin for error to zero. With Ole Miss and Texas A&M remaining on Mizzou's schedule, the pressure would be on the Tigers. But they would still control their destiny -- win or lose this weekend.
After events outside the Tigers' control derailed last season, Pinkel and his team understand the opportunity they have this week. They intend to take advantage. "I don't wish injuries to that extent on my worst enemies -- ever," Pinkel said. "But you battle through it. They also grew from it as a football team. The attitude and the determination of this football team right now, what happened last year is driving the train."
• Wake Forest at Miami: Miami president Donna Shalala will not enter Saturday's game on a Harley dragging an effigy of NCAA president Mark Emmert. Shalala should probably find some way to celebrate making the NCAA blink. Maybe at halftime she can run to one end zone and spike the Division I rules manual.
• Oklahoma State at Iowa State: Cowboys coach Mike Gundy will let his starting quarterback be known when the offense takes the field on Saturday in Ames. Oklahoma State seems to be back to square one regarding that position. Clint Chelf started the season opener against Mississippi State, but J.W. Walsh replaced Chelf in the first half and won the starting job going forward. Last week against TCU, the offense sputtered until Chelf replaced Walsh. Neither player has run away with the job, and the schedule gets very difficult soon. The Cowboys also shouldn't sleep on the Cyclones, who got stiffed by the officials against Texas and then got drilled by Baylor. They're in the same position of desperation that Vanderbilt was in last week before the Commodores beat Georgia.
• Louisville at South Florida: The Cardinals probably were never going to get a shot at the national title in the first place, but last Friday's loss to UCF makes things a little tidier. Now, Louisville needs help to make a BCS bowl. The Cardinals either need a three-way tie at the top of the American or two league losses by UCF. This week, Louisville will try to bounce back against the team with one of the nation's strangest records. South Florida looked horrible to start the year. The Bulls got drilled by McNeese State, Michigan State, Florida Atlantic and Miami. Then they ripped off consecutive conference wins over Cincinnati and Connecticut. Either Willie Taggart has his team playing better, or it's a mirage and Teddy Bridgewater is going to be sitting in the pirate ship at Raymond James Stadium watching Louisville's backups play the final quarter of a blowout.
• Nebraska at Minnesota: Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez, who hasn't played since Sept. 14 because of turf toe, practiced this week and will be a game-time decision on Saturday. Meanwhile, Minnesota coach Jerry Kill, who is on medical leave as he works to manage his epilepsy, probably will attend the game. He and his wife drove to Evanston, Ill., to see the Golden Gophers beat Northwestern last week. Afterward, Kill addressed his players in the locker room. [video:]
• Vanderbilt at Texas A&M: Aggies quarterback Johnny Manziel (shoulder) is expected to play on Saturday even though he spent Monday wearing a sling. The situation is not so certain for the Commodores. Starting quarterback Austyn Carta-Samuels left Saturday's win over Georgia with an ankle injury, and it is unclear whether he'll be able to play. If he can't, backup Patton Robinette, who helped Vanderbilt come back against the Bulldogs and who also scored a perfect 36 on his ACT, would start at Kyle Field.
• Tennessee at Alabama: Welcome to the Transitive Property Game of the Week. Oregon boatraced Tennessee 59-14 on Sept. 14. So if Alabama doesn't beat Tennessee by an equal number of points, it means the Ducks deserve to jump Florida State and Alabama in the BCS standings. Or something like that. No matter what happens, spin will be applied in equal and opposite directions. Tennessee is better now -- remember, this is a team that gave up 31 points to Florida on Sept. 21 -- but we should probably try to extrapolate some objective comparison between Alabama and Oregon. That is, unless NC State beats Florida State for a second consecutive season, in which case 'Bama's margin of victory probably wouldn't matter.
• NC State at Florida State: You probably thought the punchline was going to be something like, "But NC State has the same chance of beating the Seminoles as I have of being named the president of PETA." Nope. I learned my lesson last year about making declarations prior to a Florida State-NC State game.
• Clemson at Maryland: Clemson may have gotten depantsed by the Seminoles on national television, but Maryland's game last Saturday was probably worse. Losing to Wake Forest was bad enough, but the Terrapins also lost top receivers Stefon Diggs and Deon Long for the season. Diggs broke his fibula. Long broke his tibia and fibula. Both teams will hope for a better Saturday this week, but Clemson is in a far better position from a personnel standpoint to have one.
• Texas Tech at Oklahoma: Kliff Kingsbury has his team believing it can compete for a Big 12 title, but a light schedule has helped the Red Raiders start 7-0. Now it gets hard. But just how hard? A week after getting routed by Texas, Oklahoma looked shaky early at Kansas before getting that game under control. The truth is we really don't know much about any team in the Big 12. We're going to start getting some answers this week.
• Michigan State at Illinois: Just when it seemed the Spartans' offense had turned the corner, the defense had to carry Michigan State to another win last weekend. A team that can't score on Purdue would seem to be in trouble, so it will be up to quarterback Connor Cook and the offense to prove the Purdue game was the hiccup and the previous Iowa and Indiana games were more representative.
• Utah at USC: Which Utah team will show up at the Coliseum? The one that upset Stanford? Or the one that followed up that win with a loss to Arizona? Either one should be competitive against USC, which according to ESPN.com went through Tuesday's practice with one scholarship receiver and zero scholarship tight ends. According to the Orange County Register, the tight end number remained fixed on Wednesday, but the receiver total doubled. (Take the good news where you can get it, Trojans.) Still, Ed Orgeron's team is playing hard in spite of its lack of depth. Given its injury situation, USC shouldn't have been in last week's game at Notre Dame, but it challenged the Fighting Irish all the way.
• UCLA at Oregon: Washington followed a loss at Stanford with a loss to Oregon. (Then got drilled by Arizona State.) Will the Bruins follow the same pattern? UCLA's offense was inept against the Cardinal, and a repeat performance will result in a far more lopsided loss against a team that could probably use some style points after debuting at No. 3 in the BCS standings. The other reason UCLA needs to score? Oregon tailback De'Anthony Thomas expects to be back on Saturday, meaning Oregon's offense should be even better.
• Texas at TCU: In spite of all the abuse he has endured during his time at Texas, quarterback Case McCoy hasn't lost his sense of humor or the Bevo-sized chip on his shoulder. On Monday, McCoy was asked about TCU being favored this Saturday. "Probably because I'm the quarterback, right?" McCoy said, according to Chuck Carlton of the Dallas Morning News. McCoy remains Texas' starter because David Ash is still out with a concussion. Meanwhile, Trevone Boykin will start at quarterback for the Horned Frogs. TCU coach Gary Patterson hinted last week that Casey Pachall might be able to return from his broken (non-throwing) arm early, but on Tuesday, Patterson shut down any speculation that Pachall would be able to play against the Longhorns.
• Penn State at Ohio State: Urban Meyer has been through BCS uncertainty before. Back in 2006, he wasn't ashamed to get on the stump for his Florida team when it appeared popular sentiment favored a Michigan-Ohio State rematch in the BCS title game. Yes, Virginia, there was a time when people thought the massive (nonexistent) ESPN conspiracy favored the Big Ten over the SEC. In 2006, Meyer would address his players once a week on the BCS standings and promptly tell them to stop worrying and keep winning. He apparently will do the same at Ohio State. On Sunday, Meyer delivered his first "state of the union" to his team. "My comment was that we are, indeed, in the mix. Embrace it," Meyer said. "In the mix for what? Don't worry about it. We are in the mix, though. People think very highly of you. Maybe some people don't. You just have to go out and be the best team on the field on Saturday, not in the country. I addressed it. We did talk about it. Somewhat briefly, but at least it was addressed." Bill O'Brien has to have no such talk with the Nittany Lions because the NCAA has banned them from postseason play. Because of that, expect Penn State's players, who are rested following a bye and still confident from their four-overtime victory over Michigan, to treat this like their national title game.
• Stanford at Oregon State: Oregon State's season-opening loss to Eastern Washington has kept the Beavers from getting too much hype. But that would change dramatically with a win over the Cardinal. Beavers quarterback Sean Mannion leads the nation in total offense (414.3 yards a game), and wideout Brandin Cooks leads the nation in receiving yards (1,176). If Stanford can survive the trip to Corvallis, it would set up a clash with Oregon on The Farm on Nov. 7 that likely will decide the Pac-12 North.
Saying goodbye to the Dawgfather
One of college football's most influential coaches will be laid to rest in Washington on Sunday. Don James, who led Washington to six Pac-10 titles, died this past Sunday at age 80 from pancreatic cancer. James coached the Huskies from 1975-92 and helped them to a share of the 1991 national title with Miami, but he also helped create the talent evaluation system that has helped coaches choose the players for some of today's best teams.
At Kent State, James helped usher former players Pinkel and Nick Saban into the profession. Remember the reference in the Missouri section of this column to Pinkel finding diamond-in-the-rough Sam in a tiny Texas town? Pinkel and his staff projected Sam's ability using a system developed by James back at Kent State. That system is also the basis for the one used by Saban at Alabama to stock the program that has won three of the past four BCS titles. Even the Florida State team that whipped Clemson last week owes some credit for its evaluation success to James. Seminoles coach Jimbo Fisher is a Saban disciple who developed his eye for talent using some of the tricks James taught Saban. The system uses "critical factors" for each position that help coaches project how and when a player might contribute at the college level. Last year, for a story about other programs trying to copy Saban's success, James told me why he developed the system. "We were grading a player on when he could start," James said. "We were looking for guys who could start right away. We weren't sure we were going to be around for two or three years."
Pinkel, who followed James to Washington as an assistant, said he last spoke to his mentor about three weeks ago. Pinkel cried, and he told James he loved him. "Coach James has been a part of my life since I was 17 years old," Pinkel said. "I'm very fortunate and honored to be associated with him. ... I got my doctorate in being a head coach working with Don James."
Vintage video of the week
Minnesota Vikings offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave has had a horrible week. Fans were calling for his firing after the Vikings laid an egg against on the New York Giants on Monday Night Football. On Wednesday, the Vikings revealed quarterback Josh Freeman has sustained a concussion. That means Musgrave is likely back to calling plays for Christian Ponder, whose struggles prompted the signing of Freeman in the first place.
Let's look back on a much happier moment for Musgrave. In 1990, he led Oregon to a comeback win over UCLA, with an assist from a late pass interference penalty. The win locked up a Freedom Bowl berth for the Ducks, who were still almost two decades away from snazzy uniforms and an annual place among college football's elite. Probably the most shocking thing about this video is watching the home team's quarterback line up under center at Autzen Stadium.
On the menu
If you're headed to South Florida for the Wake Forest-Miami game ... who are we kidding? You may be going to South Florida, but you aren't going to the game. You should be headed to Le Tub in Hollywood for manhole-sized burgers in a marina-side joint decorated with all manner of bathroom fixtures that were collected from nearby Hollywood Beach during a four-year period in the 1970s in which just about anything could wash up on the shore. Get a cup of chili, a burger, fries and key lime pie. Sure, that'll take a while to eat. But you won't mind.