Week 9 of the college football season features four battles between ranked teams. Two take place out West (UCLA-Oregon, Stanford-Oregon State), one in the Big 12 (Texas Tech-Oklahoma), and one kicks off at 7:00 p.m. ET in Columbia, Missouri. No. 5 Missouri's 102nd Homecoming features one of its biggest games ever, a battle to determine whether the SEC East race will still even be a race by mid-November.
Missouri is back in the top 5 of the polls for the first time since 2008; can the Tigers survive a visit from an explosive, terribly unstable No. 21 South Carolina squad?
If Missouri wins, and Tennessee and Vanderbilt both lose on the road as projected, here's how the SEC East standings will look on Sunday morning:
- Missouri 4-0
- Georgia 3-2
- Florida 3-2
- South Carolina 3-3
- Tennessee 1-3
- Vanderbilt 1-4
- Kentucky 0-4
With Florida and Georgia set to face off next Saturday in Jacksonville, that would basically leave one team within two games of the Tigers with four Mizzou games remaining, and whoever that team is would lose a one-on-one tie-breaker. The next two Missouri games are at home against Tennessee and at Kentucky. Win those two, as they will be projected to do, and the Tigers will own the division title by November 10.
If South Carolina wins, however, things get messier at the top.
- Missouri 3-1
- South Carolina 4-2
- Georgia 3-2
- Florida 3-2
Missouri would still own the tie-breaker against two of the three two-loss teams, and the Tigers would still face two expected wins in the coming weeks. And South Carolina does still have to play Florida, albeit at home. The Tigers might still have a bit of an upper hand in the race because of their wins over Florida and Georgia, but South Carolina's odds would only be slightly less favorable.
How did we get here?
On the afternoon of October 5, before the Tigers kicked off at Vanderbilt that evening, if you'd asked Missouri fans what they wanted from the coming four games -- at Vanderbilt, at Georgia, Florida, South Carolina -- most would have said that a 2-2 record would be fantastic. Now 3-1 will feel like a disappointment.
Fortunes change quickly in college football. Mizzou was unranked when it kicked off in Nashville. Twenty days later, the Tigers are fifth in the BCS standings. Three weeks ago, the Missouri offense was explosive but hadn't played anybody. The defense was seen as vanilla and passive. If Toledo's David Fluellen (28 intended touches, 211 yards) and Arkansas State's J.D. McKissic and Julian Jones (27 targets, 25 catches, 253 yards) had torched the Tigers, what would SEC offenses do?
Since conference play began, however, the Missouri defense has unleashed hell on opposing quarterbacks. It is no longer vanilla. Vanderbilt's Austyn Carta-Samuels, Georgia's Aaron Murray, and Florida's Tyler Murphy attempted 130 passes on the Tigers and were sacked 15 times and hurried another 15 times. They completed 60 percent of their passes but connected on almost nothing deep, averaging just 10.4 yards per completion, and were picked off four times. Yes, Georgia and Florida both suffered a series of damaging injuries on both sides of the ball, but 4.8 yards per pass attempt is still impressive. Michael Sam has been treating offensive tackles like trash cans, and if he doesn't get you from one side, Shane Ray, Kony Ealy, or Markus Golden might get you from the other. We live in a world where Missouri might have the best defensive line in the SEC. (I just wanted to see what that sentence looked like in print. Looks good!)
Meanwhile, Missouri's big, experienced offense has scored points in bursts. Redshirt freshman Maty Mauk filled in for the injured James Franklin last week against Florida and averaged 8.2 yards per pass attempt while Henry Josey ran for 136 yards. Senior receiver (and captain) L'Damian Washington has erupted, catching 13 of 21 passes for 285 yards and four touchdowns in conference play. The offensive line, so banged up, so inexperienced, and so ineffective in 2012, is more than holding its own.
To put it another way, the team from Columbia (MO) is basically where the team from Columbia (SC) was supposed to be at this point in the season.
The Gamecocks are the Stephen Jackson of college football teams, explosive and occasionally brilliant, but inconsistent enough to only be good overall, not great. Steve Spurrier has quite a few playmakers, but they don't make plays in succession. For every bomb, there are a few three-and-outs. For every explosive Mike Davis run, there is a handful of two-yard runs.
Case in point: Last Saturday against Tennessee, Connor Shaw completed a perfect, 76-yard bomb to Damiere Byrd on the first play of the second quarter. His other 24 pass attempts (including sacks) netted 68 yards. Two big Mike Davis carries gained 66 yards (45 and 21); his other 19 carries gained 71. And despite Tennessee going three-and-out seven times (which typically results in a big field position advantage for the other team), the Gamecocks did it themselves six times and lost the field position battle by 15 yards per possession (average starting field position: Tennessee 35, SC 20).
South Carolina is a little too good at getting in its own way. But ... if the Gamecocks get rolling, then like Stephen Jackson, they can blow you out before you even realize what's happening.
South Carolina has been terribly inconsistent this season, relying on big plays to overcome gaps and general inefficiency. And for the most part, it has worked.
There's no shame in losing in Athens to a healthy Georgia team, and despite lackluster performances against UCF and Kentucky, the Gamecocks looked mostly great against Arkansas (run defense aside) and were basically one more play away from beating Tennessee in Knoxville last Saturday. They couldn't make that play, however, and instead of having a chance to seize control of the East race this coming Saturday, now they must beat Missouri just to remain in the race at all.
How South Carolina wins
When South Carolina looks good, it looks great. And it's not exactly hard to put together a script for a Gamecock win in Missouri, even without quarterback Connor Shaw. Last year, the Gamecocks had Missouri's defense on a string, taking advantage of the Tigers' bend-don't-break tendencies by dinking, dunking, and breaking tackles. Shaw's short passes to running backs Marcus Lattimore and Kenny Miles and tight end Justice Cunningham were 13-for-14 for 137 yards, and when Missouri was forced to get more aggressive, Shaw burned it deep with passes to Nick Jones, Ace Sanders and company.
Missouri is content to allow short passes as long as it tackles well, and in recent weeks, the Tigers have tackled really well. But South Carolina will severely test their ability to do so; running back Mike Davis is an outstanding receiver out of the backfield (he's outstanding in general), and the Gamecocks' trio of small, bouncy receivers (Damiere Byrd, Bruce Ellington, Nick Jones) will try to force Mizzou into a nickel formation. Once in the nickel, Missouri could be vulnerable to the power run game from Davis, fullback Connor McLaurin, and an enormous, if flawed, offensive line.
Against every BCS opponent it has played, Missouri has gone up double-digits in the first half. If South Carolina can strike early a couple of times, an excitable Tiger Homecoming crowd could clam up, and the team could follow suit. Forced to make a play against a Carolina defense with its ears pinned back (and the most acclaimed defensive end in college football just a few steps away), Missouri quarterback Mauk could force some throws and make serious mistakes. Jamie Squire, Getty
How Missouri wins
Missouri's 2013 season proves that there is still value in consistency and experience. Mizzou has won every game by at least 15 points, in part because of injuries (it's fair to say that while Missouri might have still beaten full-strength Georgia and Florida teams -- the Tigers won those games by a combined 34 points, after all -- they obviously wouldn't have won by the same margins), and in part because of precise execution and timely defense.
Under new offensive coordinator Josh Henson, Missouri uses every inch of the field, stretches you horizontally and vertically, distributes the ball evenly, and picks on whatever weakness it finds. And there are weaknesses to find in the South Carolina defense. The Gamecocks still have a good unit overall, and Jadeveon Clowney is still a scary presence who can force you to ignore whichever half of the field he occupies. But the defense is still young and vulnerable. Kentucky quarterback Jalen Whitlow rushed 15 times for 84 yards (not including sacks) against the Gamecocks. Arkansas rushed 24 times for 218 yards. And in short bursts, at least, Tennessee's passing game was allowed to click at a pretty high level; on the Vols' five scoring drives, Justin Worley completed 10 of 14 passes for 147 yards. (In other drives, of course: 9-for-22 for 32 yards and a sack.)
Whatever weakness Missouri finds, either via its three-headed running back combination (Henry Josey, Russell Hansbrough, Marcus Murphy) or a certain one-on-one matchup with one of its bevy of big receivers (Washington, Dorial Green-Beckham, Marcus Lucas, Bud Sasser, Jimmie Hunt), the Tigers should be able to move the ball pretty well. And if they can get an early lead on Carolina, like UCF did, the Gamecocks probably won't be able to just double down on handoffs to Davis to catch back up. If Missouri can absorb a couple of big plays, respond with precision (as the Tigers have all season), and keep pressuring South Carolina to make more plays, this season's results suggest that the 'Cocks will eventually fade.
Missouri won 56 games and finished in the AP top 20 three times from 2006-11. The Tigers have already proven that last season's 5-7 season was an outlier, not the new normal for the program in the SEC. But Saturday's game will define their goals moving forward. Win, and you're looking at heading into mid-November with a 10-0 record, an East title, and a top-5 BCS ranking. Lose, and your lone goal is to somehow fend off South Carolina and win the East.
Elsewhere in the SEC
Vanderbilt at No. 16 Texas A&M
Vanderbilt took advantage of a pair of Georgia miscues to pull off a stunning late comeback last Saturday. The Commodores also stumbled into a potential quarterback battle when backup Patton Robinette, a redshirt freshman, stood behind center. Robinette will start in College Station while Austyn Carta-Samuels tries to recover from a leg injury, and he has a chance to build his case to remain the starter even if or when ACS returns. He averaged just 5.3 yards per pass attempt versus Georgia, but Lord knows the A&M defense is pretty charitable to opposing quarterbacks.
Of course, the big quarterback story comes from the other sideline, where Johnny Manziel's throwing shoulder could conceivably keep him out of this one. I assume it won't, but we won't know for sure until Saturday. Without Manziel, it is possible that Vanderbilt's defense could make enough stops to keep this game interesting most of the way. (Possible, not likely.) Vandy was a bit lucky to pull off the win last week, but the Commodores' offense has just enough weapons to slice A&M's defense up a few times.
Tennessee at No. 1 Alabama
Good for Tennessee. The Vols rode the upset script to a near-win over Georgia, then closed the deal against South Carolina. Butch Jones' squad is 4-3 and finishes the season with winnable games against Vanderbilt (in Knoxville) and Kentucky (in Lexington). This is a good thing.
But let's not fool ourselves into thinking the Vols have any chance whatsoever in Tuscaloosa. Nick Saban doesn't have time for the upset script. Tennessee still ranks just 49th in the F/+ rankings, and projections say the Tide win by somewhere between 32 and 35. I find it difficult to disagree, though you never know when Saban might sit on a 25-point lead with a 25-minute bear hug.
Florida Atlantic at Auburn
"Only 91 percent?" That's the response I got from a couple of Auburn fans on Twitter after my Wednesday Wins Day piece on BCS contenders and win probabilities. The F/+ rankings give Auburn only ("only") a 91 percent chance of beating FAU this weekend; it seems strange considering the Tigers just beat Texas A&M, but realize this: FAU's defense ranks 39th in Def. F/+, and despite the 2-5 record, the Owls rank 72nd overall, ahead of BCS teams like Iowa State (No. 76), Wake Forest (No. 81), Arkansas (No. 83), Syracuse (No. 84), and Kentucky (No. 85), among others. FAU's last three losses have come by a touchdown or less; this team is close to being much more successful.
That's not to say that FAU is actually close to beating Auburn. Still, this game could remain competitive longer than you think, at least until the whole "FAU's offense stinks, and Auburn's defense is quite good" thing becomes an issue.
Idaho at Ole Miss
Recovery time begins for Hugh Freeze's Rebels. After a pretty brutal scheduling gauntlet -- at Texas, at Alabama, at Auburn, Texas A&M, LSU -- that cost them three games in the loss column, along with a few healthy contributors, here's how Ole Miss' next four weeks take shape: Idaho at home (F/+ No. 120), bye week, Arkansas at home (No. 83), Troy at home (No. 110). The Rebels will certainly be confident, and probably healthier, when Missouri comes to town on November 23.
Furman at LSU
Furman has one of the prettiest campuses you'll ever see. So at least the Paladins will have that to welcome them home after LSU takes out some frustration following last week's upset loss to Ole Miss.