At the midway point of the college football season, only two SEC teams have emerged with unbeaten records. There’s 6-0 Alabama, which has won three of the last four BCS titles. Then there's 6-0 Missouri, the same team that finished last season 5-7 with only two wins in SEC play. Mizzou's surprise start includes a 41-26 upset of Georgia in Athens last weekend, a game that effectively put the rest of the league on notice regarding the Tigers’ 2013 potential.
Missouri’s true colors will show soon enough. The No. 14 Tigers are in the middle of a daunting stretch that began with the Bulldogs and continues with back-to-back games against Florida and South Carolina. It’s put-up-or-shut-up time for Missouri, but head coach Gary Pinkel isn’t buying into the hype just yet.
“I haven’t looked at the standings,” Pinkel said on this week’s SEC teleconference. “This is [just] Week 7 for us. Our goal is just to prepare and play our best and try to get that done with a high level of focus.”
One of two league newcomers last fall, Missouri has been overshadowed by Texas A&M, the other Big 12 defector to join the SEC in 2012. The Aggies have gone 16-3 since coming to the conference, a mark that includes an upset against Alabama in Tuscaloosa and a Cotton Bowl win over Oklahoma. Missouri, meanwhile, failed to build off an eight-win Big 12 season in 2011; by Week 7 last year, the Tigers had lost to Georgia, South Carolina and Alabama by a combined 114-40.
But 2012's struggles haven’t stopped Missouri from starting 2013 hot, especially on offense. The Tigers are averaging 515.7 yards and 45.7 points per game, 12th and eighth in the nation, respectively. That's thanks largely to the production of quarterback James Franklin, who has managed 1,867 total yards and 17 total touchdowns on the year.
Franklin won’t line up for the Tigers for at least three weeks because of a shoulder injury sustained in the fourth quarter against Georgia. His absence presents a new challenge for the offense as it prepares to face one of the country’s top defenses. “Really, there is no reason to get frustrated or sad about it,” Franklin told reporters this week. “That is not really going to change anything. It definitely stinks being my senior year, but there's nothing I can do about it. I can only help my teammates out.”
Missouri will look to continue its surge with redshirt freshman Maty Mauk under center. The Kenton, Ohio, native finished his prep career as the nation’s all-time leading passer with 18,932 career yards, and Pinkel said Mauk’s high school offense closely mirrors Missouri's, so the similarities could work in Mauk's favor. He has weapons in receivers L’Damian Washington and Dorial Green-Beckham, but he still must handle a Florida defense that ranks third in the country against the pass. “It might be the best defense in the country, who knows?” Pinkel said.
That’s why Missouri’s defense might be the key to the game. Florida lost starting running back Matt Jones to a season-ending knee injury this week, the latest in a long line of ailments for Florida. On the season, the Gators are putting up a mere 21.8 points per game, 103rd in the country.
Coming off its first road victory over a top-10 team since 1981, Mizzou has a chance to make another statement. As the Tigers welcome Florida to Memorial Stadium on Saturday, we’ll find out if Missouri can truly shake up the SEC.
“Every game’s important,” Pinkel said. “I think that obviously, in our division, the three highest-ranked teams, expectation-wise, are those teams [Georgia, Florida, South Carolina]. They’ve got great programs, but really you take them one at a time. It has nothing to do with them being ranked in a row. Home or away, you play your schedule. [Florida is] the next one up, and that's where the focus is.”
The other big ones
• No. 5 Florida State at No. 3 Clemson: For all intents and purposes, this is a national title elimination game. Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston has yet to be truly challenged, but he will face his first road test against a Clemson defense leading the country with 24 sacks.
• No. 9 UCLA at No. 13 Stanford: The Bruins haven’t been ranked in the top 10 since 2005, the year they last beat the Cardinal. The success of Stanford's offense -- which average 405.2 total yards per game, 11th in the Pac-12 -- could determine this matchup.
How many points …
• Will Oklahoma State score? Mike Gundy and the Cowboys weren’t happy with their offensive output in a win against Kansas State on Oct. 5, when they put up only 330 total yards and needed a J.W. Walsh touchdown pass with just over four minutes left to escape. Now, Oklahoma State welcomes TCU. The Horned Frogs have the Big 12’s second-ranked defense.
• Will Baylor score? The offense in Waco was becoming stuff of legend before the Bears ran into Kansas State last week. Baylor still scored 35 points in a win, but that was only half of its 70.5-point average entering the game. Iowa State comes in allowing 447.6 yards per game, worst in the conference.
• Will Auburn and Texas A&M put up? Both the Aggies and Tigers field top-five total offenses in the SEC. But both teams’ total defenses rank near the bottom of the league. That’s a recipe for a shootout in College Station, where a rejuvenated Auburn team likely hasn’t forgotten Johnny Manziel’s five-touchdown performance in last season’s A&M win on the Plains.
• Will LSU score? Has the bottom fallen out of Ole Miss? The Rebels have dropped three straight games (all against ranked SEC opponents) after starting the season 3-0. Now, Hugh Freeze’s team will have to face Zach Mettenberger and LSU with a banged-up defense: Ole Miss will be without defensive end Robert Nkemdiche and linebacker and leading tackler Serderius Bryant to injury, among others.
Time to bounce back?
• Georgia: The Bulldogs pounded Vanderbilt by 45 points in last year’s victory in Athens. Even for an aching Georgia squad, a trip to Nashville should be a welcome sight: Vandy has dropped 17 of its last 18 games against the Dawgs.
• Michigan: Michigan finally succumbed in a close game last week, losing 43-40 in a four-overtime thriller at Penn State. Can Brady Hoke’s squad rebound against an Indiana team that beat the Nittany Lions two weeks ago?
• Oklahoma: Perhaps nothing was more shocking last Saturday than Oklahoma laying an egg against Texas. The Sooners’ opponent this week, Kansas, hasn’t won a Big 12 game in Charlie Weis’ tenure as coach. Oklahoma quarterback Blake Bell could use a strong performance after tossing his first two picks of the season against the Longhorns.
• Northwestern: The shine of the Wildcats’ 4-0 start has since faded, as a tight loss to Ohio State was followed by a bludgeoning at the hands of Wisconsin last week. The Badgers held the ‘Cats to 241 yards of total offense. Northwestern will look to get back in the win column against Minnesota.
• USC: The Trojans were riding high after USC held off Arizona in Ed Orgeron’s interim head-coaching debut. Perhaps those good vibes can carry into this weekend’s meeting with Notre Dame, which hasn’t lived up to coach Brian Kelly’s expectations this season.
• Texas Tech: Quarterbacks Davis Webb and Baker Mayfield have both led Texas Tech to wins this year, helping make Kliff Kingsbury the first Red Raiders coach to win his first six games at the helm. Now, Kingsbury will visit West Virginia and Dana Holgorsen, who was an assistant at Texas Tech when Kingsbury played there.
• Wisconsin: The Badgers absolutely smothered Northwestern last week, keeping a normally potent Wildcats' offense out of the end zone in a 35-6 win. Gary Andersen’s defense stepped up only two weeks after a loss at Ohio State. Can it do the same on the road against an Illinois team averaging 36 points per game?
Matchups to watch
• Jadeveon Clowney vs. Antonio “Tiny” Richardson: Clowney beat Tennessee’s left tackle and sacked Vols’ quarterback Tyler Bray at the end of last season’s matchup, forcing a game-clinching fumble that the Gamecocks recovered for the win. But Clowney hasn’t been his dominant self this season, and Tennessee is only one game removed from taking Georgia to overtime. Richardson will need to do some work on Clowney to give quarterback Justin Worley ample time in the pocket.
• Arkansas' offensive line vs. Alabama's defensive line: Even in a 52-7 homecoming loss to South Carolina last week, Arkansas managed to keep quarterback Brandon Allen upright for the entire game. In all, the Hogs’ offensive line has surrendered a mere five sacks, second-fewest in SEC. Still, Allen will need to complete more than four passes – his number of completions against the Gamecocks – to even hope to keep pace with the Crimson Tide on the road.
• Jake Rudock vs. Ohio State's secondary: The Buckeyes may be unbeaten, but they survived their last test against Northwestern despite giving up 343 passing yards to Kain Colter and Trevor Siemian. Last week, Iowa quarterback Jake Rudock threw the ball 46 times, the most attempts by a Hawkeyes' passer in two years.