Sunday, January 4, 2015

Reflections on the season that was

Missouri capped its season with a 33-17 win over Minnesota on New Year’s Day in the Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl. You may understandably find wings and citrus to be a surprising combination, but perhaps that’s a fitting end to a surprising Missouri season that saw the Tigers repeat as SEC East champions and again outpace expectations.

Missouri (11-3) started slowly against Minnesota (8-5), which was playing in its first New Year’s Day bowl game since the early 1960s. But once the Tigers quit turning over the ball, Missouri was pretty clearly the better team. Still, Missouri only led 19-17 early in the fourth quarter until Russell Hansbrough ripped off a 78-yard run to give the Tigers some breathing room.

It was a nice sendoff for the Tiger seniors who helped the team make the transition to the SEC, and climb far up the conference pecking order quicker than about anyone expected. Senior receiver Bud Sasser, who epitomized this team’s determination and resilience and effort as well as anyone, had a nice curtain call moment to his career when he caught the game’s final touchdown.

Senior defensive end Markus Golden, who contributed as ferociously as anyone on this team’s no-margin-for-error march to the SEC Championship Game, was named the Citrus Bowl most valuable player.

It almost sounds like a backhanded compliment to say Missouri overachieved this season, as if they were a little engine that could that didn’t have much talent but somehow won 11 games. So let’s say this team played just about to its full potential, near as one can know such things for sure. Missouri had limitations this year, especially on offense. But the Tigers showed a relentlessness and a competitive tenacity to just keep playing football as well as they could, no matter what happened or whom they faced.

Yes, this team’s story will always include a home loss to an Indiana team that wasn’t very good and a 34-0 defeat to Georgia. Missouri’s spirited effort to topple mighty Alabama and end the team’s agonizing 45-year conference title drought came up short under the Georgia Dome’s turtle shell-like roof.

But this team also won the third most games of Gary Pinkel’s 14 Missouri teams. The Tigers showed they could rebound from defeat and disappointment. Missouri’s march to Atlanta, when the Tigers came from behind to win in each of their last three regular season games when they had to win, will be a special memory for Tiger fans.

So what about 2015? Missouri will have to replace Sasser, Golden and Shane Ray, among others. Defensive coordinator Dave Steckel has left to be the head coach at Missouri State. But the Tigers also return several key pieces, including quarterback Maty Mauk.

After back-to-back division titles, the road to the SEC East runs through Columbia. Georgia should be a contender again. Also keep an eye on Tennessee, which finished strong and has loads of young talent.

But first, here’s to the season that was, a thrill ride of wins, losses and memories.

Missouri faces Minnesota on New Year's Day

Below are several of my Mizzou columns I wrote for the newspapers this season. I didn't get them posted when I wrote them, but I figured I'd at least put them all up now. 

New Year’s Day has historically occupied a special place for college football. With much of the country firmly in the icy grip of winter, the nation turned its attention to warm locales like Pasadena, Miami and New Orleans for the Rose Bowl, Orange Bowl and Sugar Bowl.

The Bowl Championship Series gave fans a clear national championship game, but it was played days into January and took some of the luster from New Year’s Day. Now, Jan. 1 is as special as ever, as both semifinals of the first College Football Playoff will be played on New Year’s Day, in the Rose and Sugar Bowls.

Missouri (10-3) won’t be a part of the playoff, but thanks to their successful season the Tigers get to be a part of the New Year’s Day college football extravaganza, facing Minnesota in the Citrus Bowl (noon on ABC). Sure, its the undercard to the day’s main events, but a game on network television in a big bowl game on a day when the nation voraciously consumes college football makes for a pretty great undercard.

There will be plenty at stake for the Tigers and Golden Gophers. Missouri is going for an 11th win, which would be the third most wins of any of coach Gary Pinkel’s 14 seasons at Missouri. The Tigers enter the game ranked 16th in the AP poll and 14th in the coaches poll, so a win would mean a top 15 or maybe even top 10 finish. If Missouri wins, this is probably the third most successful season in the Pinkel era, just behind the 12-win, Cotton Bowl-champion seasons in 2007 and 2013.

Winning New Year’s Day bowl games, is a big step for programs like Missouri, trying to climb up the college football hierarchy.

Missouri is 14-16 alltime in bowl games, including 5-4 under Pinkel.

Minnesota (8-4) would probably finish the season ranked with a win. Coach Jerry Kill is making progress with the program, and a win over a quality SEC opponent is always a big deal for Big Ten teams. (The Big Ten and SEC usually face each other in three January bowl games in Florida each year.)

Golden Gopher running back David Cobb ran for 1,545 yards and 13 touchdowns this season, so Minnesota can run the ball. A key for the Tigers will be getting Minnesota in third-and-long situations to take the Golden Gophers’ running attack out of the game and unleash Missouri’s ferocious pass rush on likely passing downs.

And of course, the Tiger offense will need to find ways to score against a decent-but-not-great Minnesota defense. Missouri’s offense is not potent, but it had enough impressive drives in crucial moments to give fans some hope.

I think Missouri has the edge in this game, but it should be a pretty close and entertaining game to enjoy on New Year’s Day.

Alabama rolls Missouri in SEC Championship Game

Last Saturday in Atlanta, the most dominating force in college football, the No. 1 Alabama Crimson Tide, overwhelmed the Missouri Tigers in the SEC Championship Game. Missouri (10-3) showed plenty of mental toughness and resilience in winning the East and making it to this game, but the gap between Missouri and Alabama (12-1) was obvious as the Tide rolled 42-13.

Alabama’s Million Dollar Band played the booming opening notes to “Yea, Alabama,” the heavily pro-Alabama crowd rocked the Georgia Dome, and within minutes the Crimson Tide had a touchdown on the opening drive.

Alabama led 21-3 at the half, but Missouri kept competing, as the team has all season long. The Tigers got a touchdown and a field goal in the third quarter, with two plays where Maty Mauk eluded Alabama defenders and heaved the ball down the field for a completion.

But Alabama is No. 1 for a reason, and the Tide put the game away with three touchdowns in the fourth quarter.

Missouri could not get anything going on the ground against Alabama’s ferocious defensive front. The Tigers ran the ball 23 times but had just 41 yards to show for it, a paltry 1.8 yards per rush.

Crimson Tide Blake Sims completed 23 of his 27 passes for 262 yards and two touchdowns. Alabama put the pressure on Missouri’s secondary with a barrage of quick, short passes to the outside. The Tide’s super talented Amari Cooper racked up 12 receptions.

Missouri’s defense excelled this season, but on Saturday the Tigers yielded 504 yards of offense, continuing a disturbing trend of Missouri getting shredded in conference championship games.
Coach Gary Pinkel is now 0-4 in conference title games. Some of those games have been more competitive than others, but Missouri has allowed 38, 62, 59 and 42 points in those games. That’s an average of 50.25 points allowed per game.

These games have obviously been against top-shelf competition. Two of those four opponents, 2008 Oklahoma and 2013 Auburn, played for a national title, and 2014 Alabama might play for it next month.

Pinkel transformed Missouri from a snoozing program with potential into a consistent winner. But the conference title has eluded him, a major hole in an otherwise impressive resume.

This was Crimson Tide’s 24th SEC title, as Alabama has menaced the South for generations. Missouri fans have been waiting since 1969 for a conference title. Will Pinkel ever get that brass ring? He’s taken the Tigers so far, but on Saturday night a conference championship still felt far away.

Still, Pinkel did a fine coaching job with this team, and 10-3 seasons should be celebrated. The Tigers were rewarded with a trip to the Citrus Bowl on Jan. 1 (noon on ABC) in Orlando. Missouri will face the Minnesota Golden Gophers (8-4), who are probably grateful they’ll be in Florida instead of Minnesota on Jan. 1. The Gophers have shown signs of progress under coach Jerry Kill, so it should be a pretty good game. A win would be a nice finish to a successful season.

Missouri faces No. 1 Alabama in Atlanta for SEC title

When Missouri started a drive at its own two-yard line late in the third quarter last Friday, the situation seemed dire. The Tigers needed a win to clinch the SEC East title, but they trailed Arkansas 14-6. Missouri’s offense had not scored a touchdown on all eight drives so far on the day, and Arkansas’ defense had kept its opponent from scoring a touchdown on a staggering 31 straight drives over three games.

Then, as a gorgeous sunset lit up the sky above Faurot Field, Missouri (10-2, 7-1 in SEC) embarked on a drive for the ages. The Tigers went 98 yards on 10 plays for a touchdown. They completed the two-point conversion on a trick play wide receiver pass, with old reliable Bud Sasser tossing it to Darius White to tie the game at 14.

The long drive and score got the fans fired up, and the sellout crowd was roaring as the Tiger defense, strong all day, forced a punt.

Missouri’s suddenly hot offense reeled off a 12-play, 85-yard touchdown drive to take the lead with 4:38 to go. Faurot was rocking, a tempest of sound and hope.

Missouri got one more stop, when defensive end Markus Golden, maybe the MVP of this stretch run, recovered a fumble by Alex Collins to seal the 21-14 win.

Fans poured out onto the field, fireworks exploded above the old stadium, and then the sweet sounds of Ray Charles’ “Georgia On My Mind” drifted out from the stadium speakers. For the second year in a row, Missouri is headed to Atlanta.

Missouri’s opponent in the SEC Championship Game on Saturday (3 p.m. on CBS) is SEC West champ Alabama, the No. 1 team in the nation and most successful program in the conference, if not the country.

Alabama (11-1, 7-1 in SEC) showed its own resolve on Saturday. The Crimson Tide trailed its nemesis Auburn 33-21 in the Iron Bowl, but then went on a breathtaking 34-3 run to notch a 55-44 win.
Alabama coach Nick Saban has won four national championships and four SEC titles and is probably the best coach in the nation. But Gary Pinkel, Saban’s college teammate at Kent State, is doing as good a job coaching Missouri as he ever has.

One of the chief concerns for Pinkel and defensive coordinator Dave Steckel is slowing down Alabama’s outstanding wide receiver, Amari Cooper. Cooper was unguardable against Auburn, with 13 catches for 224 yards and three touchdowns.

The best way for Missouri to contain Cooper is for its defensive line to get heat on quarterback Blake Sims and not give him time to find Cooper downfield.

Just getting here is a fantastic achievement for Missouri, but when you’re this close to a championship, you want to close the deal. Missouri has not won a football conference title in 45 years. To win one here, against a dominant, top-ranked Alabama team, would maybe be the biggest win in Missouri football history.

Whatever happens, this remarkable season has been given one heck of an encore.

Missouri needs one more win for SEC East title

In the fourth quarter of Missouri’s game at Tennessee last Saturday, the Tigers were clinging to a 16-13 lead and facing a third-and-eight at their own 28-yard line. The crowd of nearly 96,000 had been hot all night, cheering and singing “Rocky Top” with vigor.

The crowd was thunderous, willing the Volunteer defense to make the stop, the sound echoing out of the massive, 93-year-old stadium, across the Tennessee River and into the Appalachian Mountains.
Missouri quarterback Maty Mauk dropped back and heaved a pass into the chilly Tennessee night. Deep down the field, Tiger receiver Jimmie Hunt leapt up, caught the pass, and outran the Volunteer defenders into the end zone for the touchdown. The big crowd fell silent, except for a pocket of black-and-gold clad Missouri fans celebrating in the corner.

Missouri (9-2, 6-1 in SEC play) added another touchdown, then held off a late Tennessee (5-6, 2-5 in SEC) rally to win, 29-21, and move within one victory of winning the SEC East Division.

Missouri’s defense was brilliant, holding the surging Tennessee offense to just 279 yards. When Missouri’s offense and kicking game sputtered, the defense just kept digging in. The Tiger defensive line was especially dominant. Missouri sacked Tennessee quarterback Joshua Dobbs six times. Markus Golden was tenacious, recording two sacks, two and a half tackles for loss, and a fumble recovery.
The Tiger offense struggled at times, as it has this season, but all five of Missouri’s scoring drives went at least 65 yards.

Missouri kicker Andrew Baggett missed a field goal and two extra points. He’ll need to be much sharper in what should be a pretty competitive game with Arkansas to end the regular season.
This wild season has come down to this: if Missouri beats Arkansas, the Tigers are going to Atlanta for the SEC Championship Game. If they lose, Georgia goes instead.

Simply getting here has been an impressive feat for the Tigers. After a humbling 34-0 home loss to Georgia, Missouri has won five straight. Saturday’s win was Missouri’s 10th straight road win, a school record. Missouri was an underdog in all four of its SEC road games this year, and they won all four.

Can the Tigers beat Arkansas on Friday (1:30 p.m. on CBS) at Faurot Field? The Razorbacks (6-5, 2-5 in SEC) broke a 17-game SEC losing streak with a 17-0 win over LSU, then backed that up with a 30-0 win over reeling Ole Miss last Saturday. Arkansas has played a rugged schedule, but the Hogs seem to be moving in the right direction. Arkansas has a wobbly passing attack, but a very good running game in Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins.

Whatever happens, this will be a memorable day at Faurot. With the division title on the line and the newly named “Battle Line Rivalry” in place, this is sports full throttle. On Friday, Missouri, now ranked No. 17, will either experience a soaring win or an agonizing loss. There is no middle ground on this day after Thanksgiving.

Missouri holds off A&M, heads to Tennessee next

Football seasons have a handful of moments that you remember, moments that come to mind when we recall that particular year. Missouri (8-2, 5-1 in SEC play) had one of those in the closing minutes of its 34-27 win at Texas A&M last Saturday. The Aggies (7-4, 3-4 in SEC) were driving for the tying touchdown and faced a third-and-one at the two-yard line. Missouri stuffed A&M’s Brandon Williams for no gain on third down, then tackled massive Aggie tight end Cameron Clear short of the line to gain on fourth down after he caught a short pass.

The Tigers took possession of the ball after the stop and were able to run out the last few minutes to seal the victory. It was an impressive win before 104,756 spectators at Kyle Field, the biggest crowd ever to see Missouri play a football game. It was also Missouri’s ninth straight road win.

Missouri trailed 13-6 at the half, but the Tigers just kept digging. In the third quarter, Missouri reeled off four straight touchdown drives, all 75 yards or longer. The Tiger offensive line took control, driving back and demoralizing the Aggie defense as the Tigers pounded away on the ground.

For the game, Missouri ran the ball 49 times for 335 yards, an impressive 6.8 yards per carry. Russell Hansbrough had 199 yards and two touchdowns on 20 carries.

The win kept Missouri in the lead of the SEC East Division race as the end of the season approaches. Second-place Georgia hammered Auburn on Saturday, so the Tigers have to win their last two games to win the East.

Up next is a tricky trip to Tennessee on Saturday (6:30 p.m. on ESPN). Before the renovations to Kyle Field, the Volunteers’ Neyland Stadium was the biggest football stadium in the South, with a capacity over 100,000. When the Vols are playing well, it can be a thunderous venue, with the ultra-catchy “Rocky Top” playing over and over and the fans going crazy. Last year, during an upset of South Carolina, a Tennessee mom tied her sleeping toddler to the bench seating so she could stand and yell for the Vols as they drove for the winning score.

This year’s Tennessee team started 3-5, but the Volunteers (5-5, 2-4 in SEC) have won two straight games with sophomore quarterback Joshua Dobbs starting. Dobbs came off the bench to play a solid game against Alabama, then he started and led Tennessee to wins over South Carolina and Kentucky. Those two aren’t a Murderer’s Row, but Dobbs has provided a spark. He can pass and run well, one of the toughest skill sets to defend against.

Missouri will of course need a big game from its talented defensive line, not just getting pressure on Dobbs but keeping him contained.

I expect another very competitive game under the lights this Saturday. I’m looking forward to making the trip to Knoxville to take in the scene, and Tiger fans are surely looking forward to the chance to get one win closer to the SEC Championship Game.

Saturday is a big night in the SEC East race

One way of another, Saturday will be huge in determining who wins the SEC East. Almost simultaneously, Missouri will play at Texas A&M (6:30 p.m. on SEC Network) and Georgia will host Auburn (6:15 on ESPN).

If Georgia wins and Missouri loses, the Bulldogs clinch the East. If both teams win or if both lose, Missouri has to win both of its two remaining games to win the East. And in the dream scenario for Tiger fans, if Georgia loses and Missouri wins, the Tigers just have to win one of two against Tennessee and Arkansas to play in the SEC Championship Game for the second straight year.

Generally, playing Auburn would be viewed as a much tougher task than playing A&M this year, but then A&M went into Auburn and pulled off a shocking upset last Saturday, aided by two ghastly Auburn fumbles late. Georgia should still expect a stern test from Auburn.

Missouri (7-2, 4-1 in SEC play) had a bye week to rest up heading into its trip to College Station, while the Aggies (7-3, 3-3 in SEC) will have to try to avoid a letdown after their huge win.

Missouri has had success agains A&M lately. Due to a quirk of the schedule, the Tigers played at A&M three straight years, from 2010 to 2012, winning two of three. The Aggies finally came to Columbia last year, and Missouri won.

Still, A&M’s Kyle Field, known as the “Home of the 12th Man,” can be a daunting place to play. The already-massive stadium is undergoing expansion and renovation, and there’s a chance this will be the biggest crowd Missouri’s football team has ever played in front of. That record is currently 104,578 for a 1975 game at Michigan’s “Big House.”

But Kyle Field has been more bark than bite of late, with the Aggies losing six of their last 10 conference home games.

This game will feature strength vs. strength when A&M has the ball, and weakness vs. weakness when Missouri does.

Missouri’s defense has done most of the heavy lifting for the Tigers this year. Texas A&M is a pass-heavy offense, gaining 329.6 yards per game through the air and just 152.6 on the ground. That will test Missouri’s pass defense, which will be without safety Braylon Webb for the first half after he received a targeting penalty in the second half against Kentucky. The Tigers could also be without cornerback Aarion Penton, who has a drug-related indefinite suspension.

Missouri’s best defense against the pass may be defensive ends Shane Ray and Markus Golden getting heat on the quarterback. Kenny Hill had been the starter for the Aggies, but while he was suspended freshman Kyle Allen played an outstanding game against Auburn.

On the flip side, Missouri’s wobbly offense against A&M’s weak defense will be fascinating for different reasons. In theory, one of the two has to succeed. Whichever one it is will help determine who gets the win Saturday night.

Missouri beats Kentucky, moves into first in SEC East

On the surface, Missouri’s 20-10 win at home over Kentucky last Saturday was not the most pleasant viewing experience, unless you like an obscene number of punts and uncomfortably cold temperatures. Missouri’s Christian Brinser and Kentucky’s Landon Foster combined for 15 punts, and sustaining drives was a tall task for both offenses.

But digging deeper, it was a beautiful day for for Missouri (7-2, 4-1 in SEC play). The Tigers notched a win over a decent Kentucky team, holding the Wildcats (5-4, 2-4 in SEC) to 10 points the week after Kentucky hung 31 on No. 1 Mississippi State. Conference wins are like pizza; even when they’re bad, they’re good.

The day was also huge for Missouri because of the result down in Jacksonville, where Florida went berserk on Georgia and won 38-20 in the game known as the “World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party.” The Gators (4-3, 3-3 in SEC) racked up 418 rushing yards in the win, which dealt Georgia (6-2, 4-2 in SEC) a second SEC loss and put Missouri in the driver’s seat in the SEC East Division race.

Despite losing 34-0 at home to Georgia, Missouri now leads the East. If the Tigers win their last three games, at Texas A&M, at Tennessee and home vs. Arkansas, Missouri will represent the East in the SEC Championship Game in Atlanta, against some ferociously good SEC West team.

Georgia still has to play at Kentucky and against Auburn, so the Bulldogs could very well lose again and give Missouri a mulligan to work with.

Florida is a long-shot contender, but the Gators need another loss from Georgia and at least two losses from Missouri.

Missouri has had its humiliations this year. There was the home loss to an Indiana team that is 0-4 in Big Ten play, with each of those Big Ten losses by at least 16 points. There was the aforementioned shutout loss to Georgia. And yet, this team keeps digging and has positioned itself to make a run at another SEC East title. As I say about every week, Missouri is no juggernaut, but the Tigers willingness to play hard and generally smart football, as well as put failures behind them, is admirable.

Those qualities were on display against Kentucky. Missouri’s first two drives were punts, but the defense dug in until the offense got going for two second-quarter touchdowns. Maty Mauk, who entered the game completing less than 40 percent of his passes in SEC play, completed 18 of 33 for 164 yards, two touchdowns and, maybe most importantly, no interceptions.

Now Missouri has a bye week before beginning that final three-game kick with a trip to Texas A&M on Nov. 15. It’s a nice chance for Missouri to rest up, and for Tiger fans to relax a bit and enjoy a full slate of great college football games this Saturday. Alabama at LSU (7 p.m. on CBS) is the SEC headliner, but Tiger fans who have caught SEC East fever can also keep an eye on Georgia at Kentucky (11 a.m. on ESPN).

Tigers hold off Vandy, host Kentucky next

It wasn’t until late in the game on Saturday, as a warm October day yielded to the soft glow of twilight, that Missouri (6-2, 3-1 in SEC play) finally put away its game with Vanderbilt. Bud Sasser reeled in a 25-yard touchdown pass from Maty Mauk with 2:05 to go, the final score in a 24-14 Tiger win on Homecoming.

Vanderbilt (2-6, 0-5 in SEC) is not a good team, but the Commodores hung tough all afternoon, aided in that endeavor by a laboring Missouri offense. When Vanderbilt scored a touchdown to pull within three with 6:53 to play, a hush fell over the crowd at Faurot Field, which was wearing black and gold in alternating sections for a Tiger stripe effect.

But the Tigers’ 70-yard drive to clinch the win was in many ways a depiction of Missouri’s season, which is somehow already two-thirds complete. The Tigers are not dominant, but they have found ways to win most of their games. This is not Gary Pinkel’s best team or even his fourth best team, but the Tigers could still realistically get to nine or 10 wins.

Part of this is certainly schedule driven. I know it’s the big, bad SEC, but Missouri’s schedule is one of the softer ones I can remember. The Tigers have played one team that is currently ranked, and they likely won’t play another in the regular season. Life in the SEC East simply isn’t that hard right now, and Missouri just might be playing the two worst teams in the SEC West.

If Missouri is going to play a weak schedule, this is a good year for it. Missouri still struggles on offense, especially when it tries to pass. In the four SEC games this season, Mauk has completed just 38 of 96 passes (39.6 percent) with two touchdowns and five interceptions. His two touchdown passes to Sasser against Vanderbilt were his first since Sept. 20 against Indiana.

Still, Missouri has gone 3-1 in those games. Credit the Tigers for finding ways to win, and for maintaining a respectable program while most of the rest of the SEC East burns.

However, Missouri’s next opponent, Kentucky (5-3, 2-3 in SEC), is an SEC East team heading in the right direction. The Tigers host the Wildcats on Saturday (3 p.m. on SEC Network).

Kentucky snapped a 17-game SEC losing streak with wins over Vanderbilt and South Carolina, got hammered at LSU, and then last week gave a game effort in a 45-31 home loss to No. 1 Mississippi State. Wildcat coach Mark Stoops is the younger brother of Bob Stoops, the longtime Tiger tormenter at Oklahoma.

Kentucky’s sophomore quarterback, Patrick Towles, is rapidly developing. Against Mississippi State, he threw for 390 yards and two touchdowns and rushed for 76 yards and two more touchdowns. Slowing Towles starts with Missouri’s talented defensive ends, Shane Ray and Markus Golden, getting some heat on him.

This should be a very competitive game. Missouri will need more from its offense to win this one.

Missouri dismantles Florida, faces Vanderbilt on Homecoming

Missouri’s 42-13 dismantling of Florida last Saturday in the Swamp was one of the more bizarre football games you’ll see, but in a good way. If you try to analyze it too much, you end up staring into the distance with the bewildered look that has become the default setting for Florida coach Will Muschamp.

Late in the third quarter, Missouri (5-2, 2-1 in SEC play) had put up a paltry 97 yards of offense, yet led 42-0. The Tigers finished with 119 yards of offense, a worse output than even the disastrous shutout loss to Georgia the week before. Maty Mauk completed just 6 of his 18 passes for 20 yards, a passing total straight out of the leather helmet days. The Tigers had one offensive touchdown, and it was a 19-yard drive after a Florida fumble.

So with that offense, how did the Tigers not just win, but absolutely crush Florida? Well, defense and special teams are still a big part of football, and Florida (3-3, 2-3 in SEC) is a mess right now. Marcus Murphy, started the game with a kick return for a touchdown, and later had a punt return for a touchdown. (He also had a rushing touchdown - not too shabby of a day.) The defense also scored two touchdowns, on a Markus Golden fumble return and a Darvin Ruise interception return.

Florida had an appalling six turnovers in the game. This futile effort will turn up the heat on Muschamp.
The win kept the Tigers in the SEC East race. Georgia (6-1, 4-1 in SEC) is in the driver’s seat, but a loss by the Bulldogs against Florida, Kentucky or Auburn would open the door for Missouri. However, the Tigers have to keep winning to have a chance, and the offense has to get better. This makes three straight poor offensive performances, although the Tigers have managed to go 2-1 in those games. But scoring four non-offensive touchdowns is probably not the most sustainable model for success.

Next up is Missouri’s Homecoming game with Vanderbilt (3 p.m. on SEC Network). The Commodores (2-5, 0-4 in SEC) have been struggling, to put it gently. Vanderbilt’s two wins are narrow escapes over Massachusetts and Charleston Southern, and the Commodores have lost their four SEC games by an average of 22.25 points.

Vanderbilt is trying to rebuild under first-year coach Derek Mason, but the Commodores have been shockingly noncompetitive. They are 121st nationally in scoring at 17.6 points per game and 100th in points allowed at 34.0. If Missouri’s offense doesn’t score a bunch against Vandy, it’s never going to score a bunch. I expect Missouri to win big.

It’s a day game, and since Faurot Field didn’t have permanent lights until the mid-1990s, day games harken back to another time, fitting for the tradition and nostalgia of Homecoming. By the time the Homecoming king and queen are crowned and the shadows slant across the old stadium and the clock winds down, Tiger fans should have plenty to celebrate.

Georgia hammers Missouri, Tigers head to the Swamp next

34-0. Wow.

At 11 a.m. last Saturday, Missouri was a leading SEC East contender and Faurot Field was rocking. By 2 p.m., fans were streaming out of the quiet stadium and Georgia was putting the finishing touches on an emphatic beatdown of the Tigers.

This game was a demolition, the football equivalent of a perfect game.

After the news late in the week that star Georgia running back Todd Gurley was suspended for possibly breaking NCAA rules, Missouri seemed to have a wind at its back. Instead, Georgia (5-1, 3-1 in SEC) pulled Nick Chubb out of its toolbag and hammered away again and again and again until the scoreboard clock brought a merciful end to the proceedings. Chubb ran for 143 yards on 38 carries and added four receptions for an astonishing 42 touches for the freshman who was used to a backup’s workload.

But the disaster for Missouri (4-2, 1-1 in SEC) was on offense. The Tigers managed just 147 yards of offense and never moved the ball inside Georgia’s 20-yard line. In an incomprehensible development, Missouri ran just four plays in Georgia territory and turned it over on three of them.

Missouri hadn’t been shutout since a 2002 loss to Kansas State in Columbia.

Maty Mauk had a nightmare game, throwing four interceptions and losing a fumble. To be fair, two of the interceptions bounced off a receiver’s hands first. Missouri’s receiving corps continued to struggle big time, especially with No. 2 receiver Darius White again out with an injury. Still, Missouri cannot win when Mauk has a game like this.

The offense was awful for most of the South Carolina game before a frantic rally saved the day. Georgia’s defense is not elite, but they still suffocated the Tigers’ anemic attack. Missouri has to find a way to move the football or this season could come off the rails.

Missouri is nominally still in the SEC East race and home games with Vanderbilt and Kentucky provide an accessible route to bowl eligibility, but the offense has to get better for this season to amount to much.

In college football, the narrative can change in a hurry, and Missouri has a chance to change the course of its season this Saturday at Florida (6 p.m., ESPN2).

Florida (3-2, 2-2 in SEC) also has a scuffling offense, so this game may not be for those with weak stomachs. The Gators do have a stout defense, led by Vernon Hargreaves, one of the best cornerbacks in the SEC, although he left the game last week after taking a knee to the helmet.

Florida let a game slip through its fingers against LSU on Saturday, and Gators coach Will Muschamp could really use a win against the Tigers.

In this defensive struggle - emphasis on struggle - any points will be precious. Missouri had turnovers problems last week and last time playing at Florida. The Tigers and this offense can’t afford to do that if they’re going to win in the Swamp.

Missouri hosts Georgia in key SEC East showdown

Missouri had a well timed off week last Saturday, which allowed the Tigers to rest up during a crucial stretch of the schedule, and it allowed Tiger fans to relax and enjoy an absurdly entertaining weekend of college football that saw five of the top eight ranked teams lose.

Missouri (4-1, 1-0 in SEC play) should get its own share of college football excitement and then some this Saturday when the Georgia Bulldogs (4-1, 1-0 in SEC play) come town for a huge contest, the game of the year at Faurot Field (11 a.m. on CBS).

Georgia was Missouri’s first SEC game, in 2012, and after a tense, close three quarters, Georgia pulled away late. Last year, Missouri pulled off a stunning upset at then-No. 10 Georgia, a win that helped propel the Tigers to the East Division title.

Missouri and Georgia have represented the East in the last three SEC Championship Games, and the winner on Saturday’s game will be the obvious front-runner to win the division this year.

Georgia is ranked No. 10 in the coaches poll and No. 13 in the AP poll, Missouri is 24 in the coaches and 23 in the AP. With so many ranked teams losing Saturday, if either Missouri or Georgia runs the table they would be a contender for the four-team College Football Playoff, although that’s far down the road for both teams.

Georgia and Missouri are not dominant teams, but they are good teams, and they should stage an exciting game in Columbia. Georgia has decent home wins over Clemson and Tennessee, but lost by three in the rain at South Carolina. Last week, the Bulldogs hammered poor Vanderbilt 44-17.

The engine that makes Georgia go is its dynamic running back, Todd Gurley. The junior has ran for 773 yards on 94 carries, an impressive 8.2 yards per carry, and eight touchdowns. Overall, the Bulldogs are rushing for 288.8 yards per game, 13th in the nation.

It will be a big test for Missouri’s defensive line and linebackers to keep Gurley and friends in check. If they can also get heat on first-year starter Hutson Mason, disrupt the Georgia passing game, and make the Bulldogs one dimensional, I like Missouri’s chances.

The wild card, of course, is the turnover. Missouri forced a turnover in 47 straight games before not doing so in each of its last two games. If Missouri wins the turnover battle Saturday, then I really like the Tigers’ chances.

Of course, Missouri’s offense probably can’t wait until the final frantic minutes to move the ball and win the game, the way it did at South Carolina.

This game is far from the final verdict on which team will win the SEC East, as both still have to play Florida and two games against teams from the SEC West, the superior division in the conference. That being said, this is still a massive game, and Faurot should be rocking bright and early on Saturday. Don’t miss this one.