Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Missouri needs to win last two for SEC East title

After weeks of growing anticipation and crunching SEC East scenarios, it’s down to this: Missouri has to win its last two games to win the SEC East. Should the Tigers lose, South Carolina, which has wrapped up its SEC schedule with a 6-2 mark, would win the East and represent the division in the SEC Championship Game in Atlanta.

Last Saturday, with Missouri not having a game, most Tiger fans were rooting for Georgia to beat Auburn and Florida to beat South Carolina, either of which would have meant Missouri just had to win one of its last two games to win the East. Instead, Georgia lost on an unbelievable, fourth-down, tipped-pass touchdown by Auburn, dubbed the “Miracle on the Plains.” Florida, with an offense that resembles a dog trying to play a piano, was unable to hold a fourth-quarter lead at South Carolina.

So the No. 8 Tigers (9-1, 5-1 in SEC play) will have to take care of things themselves, without a safety net. They can move within one game of the SEC title game on Saturday at Mississippi (6:45 p.m. on ESPN).

I’m excited to make the trip down to Oxford for this game. A game at Ole Miss is a spectacle, as much a slice of the SEC as about any venue. The speed limit on campus is 18 MPH in tribute to the uniform number of former quarterback Archie Manning, a legend at Oxford and the father of NFL quarterbacks Peyton and Eli Manning.

Manning’s heroics aside, Ole Miss has not been a dominant SEC program. The Rebels were on the wrong end of maybe the most storied touchdown in SEC history, Billy Cannon’s punt return touchdown for LSU to beat Ole Miss on Halloween in 1959.

But even if Ole Miss doesn’t have stacks of SEC titles, they have one of the best gameday atmospheres in the conference. A common refrain in Oxford is “we may not win every game, but we never lose a party.” The Grove, the famous tailgating hotspot on campus, is a classic part of the SEC’s lore, with overdressed fans, chandeliers in tents and tailgate food eaten off china plates.

On this stage, Missouri faces a dangerous Ole Miss team (7-3, 3-3 in SEC play). Mississippi’s offense will test Missouri’s strong defense. Rebel quarterback Bo Wallace has 17 touchdown passes and just five interceptions on the season. Mississippi has the SEC’s fifth-most rushing yards per game, led by Jeff Scott and I’Tavius Mathers.

Missouri has the conference’s second-most rushing yards per game, at 235.8. It will be interesting to see how quarterback James Franklin looks coming back from injury, and how much playing time backup Maty Mauk gets.

Both teams have a lot of offensive weapons, which makes it tempting to predict a shootout. But Missouri’s defense has been stout this year, leading the SEC in sacks and turnovers forced. If the Tiger defense plays as well as it has most of the season, Missouri can leave Oxford with the road win and set up a huge finale with Texas A&M.

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