Missouri senior quarterback James Franklin missed four starts this season due to a separated shoulder, but he knows things could have been much worse.
"It was definitely frustrating having to watch on the sideline, because I wanted to be out there," Franklin said. "At the same time, it was good to see us still winning."
The Tigers are making their first appearance in the SEC championship game partly because of the way they played after Franklin was hurt with less than 11 minutes remaining in their 41-26 upset win at Georgia on Oct. 12. Redshirt freshman Maty Mauk was able to help finish off the Bulldogs and then led the Tigers to wins over Florida, Tennessee and Kentucky.
Mauk's lone blemish was a 27-24 double-overtime loss to South Carolina on Oct. 26, a game the Tigers led 17-0 in the fourth quarter.
"For him to be able to come in and play at that level and keep our team going and our offense playing at a consistently high level -- not a great level but a high level -- was critical for us," Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said. "We didn't have our starting quarterback in the SEC for one third of the season, and for him to maintain that consistency was really, really important for us."
Franklin and Mauk have combined for 26 touchdowns and only six interceptions for the Tigers, who have won 11 games in a regular season for only the second time in program history. Missouri is ranked No. 5 nationally, and a win Saturday against No. 3 Auburn in the Georgia Dome would guarantee Missouri its highest ranking ever entering a bowl.
None of this seemed likely when Franklin was tackled as he went out of bounds following a 4-yard carry against Georgia. The Tigers used a timeout, and in came Mauk, who promptly converted a third-and-6 from Missouri's 45-yard line with a 6-yard scramble.
Following a 9-yard run by tailback Henry Josey, Mauk threw a lateral to receiver Bud Sasser, who completed a 40-yard touchdown pass to L'Damian Washington.
"We were rolling pretty good, and we were playing Georgia at their place, which is a difficult place to play," Pinkel said. "It was a two-point game in our favor when James got hurt, and the story there was not only Maty Mauk coming in and throwing a double pass but also coming back and guiding us down for another touchdown. He hits Dorial Green-Beckham for about 30 yards, and we score on the next play.
The win at Georgia was a high mark in Missouri's season despite the loss of Franklin, but the loss to the Gamecocks had the makings of a devastating blow. Mauk had a 96-yard touchdown pass to Washington to help stake the Tigers to their 17-point lead, but he was otherwise 9-of-24 for 153 yards and an interception.
"Instead of that setting us back, we chose to look at it as something we could learn from," Pinkel said.
Mauk rebounded quickly to lead the Tigers to a 36-17 downing of depleted Florida, and he threw for eight touchdowns and no interceptions in whippings of Tennessee and Kentucky. In the 48-17 rout of the Wildcats in Lexington, Mauk threw for five scores, including four to Green-Beckham.
Franklin, who made just eight starts last year because of various injuries, got a taste of action against Kentucky before starting Missouri's closing wins over Ole Miss and Texas A&M.
"I think it went really well," Franklin said. "Guys on the team did a great job of making Maty feel comfortable after I got hurt and came out. They were really supportive, and they stepped up and made plays, which built his confidence.
"He's a great player, and he came in and made a lot of good throws and some good runs and helped us get a lot of wins."
Franklin completed 18 of 28 passes for 233 yards and two touchdowns in last week's 28-21 win over Texas A&M that clinched the SEC East Division title. For the season, the 6-foot-2, 230-pounder from Corinth, Texas, is 162-of-242 (66.9 percent) for 1,952 yards with 16 touchdowns and four interceptions.
"Having James back there at quarterback just adds a little more confidence to our offense and our defense as a whole," Washington said. "Maty Mauk came in and did tremendous things as our quarterback, but just having James there after the trouble he went through last year does a lot for my confidence personally and does a lot for our team."
Said Franklin: "It's been exciting for me to come back this season and to have some success. I'm just really thankful for it, and going through the things I did has helped me out a lot with my perspective on some things."
Contact David Paschall at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6524.