Missouri's goal simple but challenging

Missouri's goal simple but challenging

November 20th, 2013 by David Paschall in Sports - College

After the Southeastern Conference expanded to 12 schools in 1992, it took South Carolina 19 tries to win the East Division and reach the league's football championship.

Missouri has an opportunity for a much quicker breakthrough in the 14-team SEC.

The No. 8 Tigers control their destiny in this year's East race with their 9-1 overall record and 5-1 league mark, but they have no room for error. Missouri can earn a trip to the Georgia Dome on Dec. 7 by defeating No. 24 Ole Miss this Saturday and No. 9 Texas A&M next week, but a loss in either will give South Carolina the spot in Atlanta.

"I am excited about it," Tigers senior cornerback E.J. Gaines said at Monday's media session. "People are calling it a lot of pressure, but I just think that it is an opportunity for our football team to succeed."

The Tigers suffered through an injury-riddled 2012 debut season in the SEC with a 5-7 record and a 2-6 league mark. This year's team has won by at least 15 points in each of its victories and has led all 10 games by at least 15, which is something not even top-ranked Alabama can claim.

Missouri's lone blemish was a 27-24 double-overtime loss to South Carolina, a game the Tigers led 17-0 early in the fourth quarter.

Gary Pinkel, who was atop most every SEC coaching "hot seat" chart at the dawn of the season, isn't talking to his team about the added pressure of having to win out. The Tigers travel to Ole Miss and host A&M.

"That is clutter," Pinkel said. "Teams that prepare right don't let that affect them. They focus on what they can control, and that is playing well. That is when your mental toughness kicks in, and you do not let outside things change your focus.

"I will be really disappointed if we put all those kind of pressures on ourselves. That does not help you play well."

Missouri bounced back from its lone loss by routing Tennessee and Kentucky by the combined score of 79-20. The Tigers had last weekend off and will start James Franklin at quarterback for the first time since he separated his shoulder in the 41-26 upset win at Georgia on Oct. 12.

Franklin took some snaps in the 48-17 win over the Wildcats in Lexington.

"I felt like I was a freshman coming back out there," he said. "It seemed like it had been so long, but really it had been only about four or five weeks. It felt good to be back out there, and it was definitely exciting."

Franklin has completed 132 of 195 passes (67.7 percent) this season season for 1,577 yards with 14 touchdowns and three interceptions. Backup Maty Mauk proved to be plenty capable in relief, throwing for 10 scores and two interceptions.

Mauk completed 17 of 28 passes for 203 yards and five touchdowns at Kentucky, with four of his scores going to Dorial Green-Beckham, the nation's No. 1 recruit in the 2012 signing class who has flourished as a sophomore. Green-Beckham has 40 receptions for 579 yards through 10 games after totaling 28 catches for 395 yards last year.

"One thing that's really important to understand is that he's got experienced, high-level people around him," Pinkel told reporters after the win at Kentucky. "Dorial is the kind of athlete who can present mismatches size-wise, and he can make the circus catches. It's very difficult to physically stand up to him, and I don't care if you're a great corner. He's 6-6 and weighs 228 pounds and can jump up and get it."

Said Green-Beckham: "I've been attacking the ball better in the air. That's my biggest thing, just going up there and taking it."

South Carolina is in the East clubhouse with a 6-2 league record, with its losses coming at Georgia and at Tennessee. The Gamecocks concluded their league schedule last weekend with a 19-14 escape of Florida.

Florida, Georgia and Tennessee have combined to represent the East 20 times out of the first 21 SEC championship games. South Carolina was the lone exception in 2010, but there is guaranteed to be another, whether it's a second trek for the Gamecocks or the first for Mizzou.

"It would mean so much to a lot of these of guys, especially for these seniors to go out like that," Gaines said. "I feel like the underclassmen are definitely playing for our seniors in a lot of ways, and it is definitely an exciting time for our football program."

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524.