Missouri heads into stretch run as the SEC's biggest enigma

Missouri wide receiver Kam Scott, right, gets past Vanderbilt safety Brendon Harris (13), left, in the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 19, 2019, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

What do the Missouri Tigers have in common with Alabama, Clemson, LSU, Ohio State and Oklahoma this football season?

They've all been favored in every game so far.

How can you tell Mizzou apart from the nation's elite teams?

Inexplicable losses to Wyoming and Vanderbilt.

As the Southeastern Conference schedule reaches the final Saturday in October, no team presents more of a head-scratching case than Barry Odom's 5-2 Tigers, who were the last undefeated team in SEC East play before last Saturday's 21-14 loss at Vanderbilt. Those same Commodores lost the week before to a one-win UNLV team 34-10.

"We've got a decision to make in how we're going to respond," Odom said last Saturday in a news conference. "We've got to go on the road again this week to play a really good Kentucky team. We'll find out about the toughness and the resolve on how we bounce back."

The Tigers certainly have a Jekyll-and-Hyde dynamic this season depending on where they play, having posted a 5-0 mark at friendly Faurot Field but having yet to win away from home.

Missouri opened this season as a 16.5-point favorite at Wyoming and took a 14-0 lead after the first quarter. The Tigers imploded in the second quarter, however, as Wyoming reeled off touchdown runs of 61 and 75 yards and returned a Mizzou fumble 30 yards for another score in a 27-3 outburst.

photo Vanderbilt defensive back Allan George, right, intercepts a pass intended for Missouri tight end Albert Okwuegbunam, left, in the end zone during the second half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 19, 2019, in Nashville, Tenn. Vanderbilt upset Missouri 21-14. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

The staggered Tigers trailed 34-17 entering the fourth quarter before rallying to trim the final deficit to 37-31.

Missouri had a chance to regroup with its first five-game homestand since 1908 and capitalized with double-digit thumpings of West Virginia (38-7), Southeast Missouri State (50-0), South Carolina (34-14), Troy (42-10) and Ole Miss (38-27). The victory over South Carolina was especially impressive, as the Gamecocks rushed for just 16 yards and 0.7 yards per carry.

Senior middle linebacker Cale Garrett was emerging as an All-America candidate, becoming the first Mizzou defender ever to score in three straight games, but he sustained a season-ending pectoral injury against Troy. Garrett's loss was not insignificant, but the Tigers defeated Ole Miss and then headed to Vanderbilt last weekend as three-touchdown favorites.

The Commodores entered last weekend ranked last among SEC teams in all the major defensive categories but held Mizzou under 30 points for the first time all season.

"When you go on the road, you've got to bring your own energy," Mizzou quarterback Kelly Bryant, a graduate transfer from Clemson, told reporters Saturday, "and we didn't come ready to play. We still have five games left. We still control what we control, but how are we going to respond?

"We've got to go to work and not let this divide us."

Missouri, which is having to serve a postseason ban this year barring a successful appeal to the NCAA, has an open date following this week's trip to Lexington. The November schedule contains back-to-back games against Georgia and Florida, a tandem currently in the top 10 of this week's Associated Press poll.

The Tigers travel to Georgia but then will host Florida and then Tennessee the week after that.

Whether Missouri can shake its road woes will be revealed this week. The first two trips the Tigers have taken this season have been nothing short of humiliating.

"We weren't really good at anything last Saturday," offensive coordinator Derek Dooley said Tuesday during a news conference. "The only real positive that came out of it is the reminder of how you're one week away from being embarrassed when you play college football."

Said Bryant: "Any loss is bad and really hurts. Like I said, it's all about how we respond."

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