Thursday, October 17, 2013

Missouri opens SEC play at Vanderbilt

It’s finally here. Missouri (4-0) is the only team in the Southeastern Conference that hasn’t played a conference game yet, but on Saturday they take the plunge at Vanderbilt, playing their eight conference games over the next nine Saturdays.

The Tigers have built some momentum and cautious fan optimism while opening the season with four wins against a very manageable nonconference schedule.

The last of those came last Saturday with a 41-19 win over Arkansas State (2-3) at Faurot Field. The Red Wolves gave the Tigers trouble for a while, taking a 16-14 lead in the third quarter.

But Missouri responded to the adversity, as it did when Toledo and Indiana rallied to make those games close. After a Missouri three-and-out immediately after Arkansas State took its second-half lead, the Tiger offense churned out touchdown drives of 94 yards, 87 yards and 67 yards to put the game away.

That response was nice, although playing close into the second half with a team that lost 31-7 to Memphis isn’t ideal. In any event, the Tigers have navigated through the four nonconference games without any losses.

The competition gets tougher now as the Tigers get into the teeth of their schedule. The front half of conference play looks tougher than the back half, with road games at Vanderbilt and Georgia and home contests against Florida and South Carolina meaning things will get tougher in a hurry.

Saturday’s game at Vanderbilt (6:30 p.m. on Comcast Sports Southeast, game will be shown on a local channel in different Missouri markets, check listings) is an intriguing way to begin SEC play for the Tigers. Third year Vandy head coach James Franklin, no relation to Missouri’s quarterback of the same name, has been building up the Commodore program, winning six games and going to a bowl in his first season then winning nine games last year, Vanderbilt’s first nine-win season since 1915.

19-15 was also the score of Vanderbilt’s win in Columbia last fall, a game in which Missouri lost its James Franklin to a knee injury early in the contest. (Coaches are generally safe from such things.)

Vanderbilt is 3-2 this year but 0-2 in SEC play, including a spectacular 39-35 loss at home to Ole Miss on college football’s opening night. The Commodores’ best player is senior receiver Jordan Matthews, who threw up on the field during the aforementioned loss to Ole Miss but then re-entered the game to make a huge catch on a do-or-die fourth down. He has 40 catches for 586 yards and four touchdowns this year. It would make sense to see Missouri’s best cornerback, E.J. Gaines, cover Matthews, but all of Missouri’s secondary will have to be on guard.

Saturday’s game is a crucial one for both schools as they struggle to climb up in the SEC East Division. It also feels like about a tossup game, adding to the suspense. Either way, should be a good one under the lights in Nashville.

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