John Clay

John Clay: Missouri in top 10 not as big a surprise as it seems

Missouri head coach Gary Pinkel yells on the sidelines during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Tennessee, Saturday, Nov. 2, 2013, in Columbia, Mo. (AP Photo/L.G. Patterson)
Missouri head coach Gary Pinkel yells on the sidelines during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Tennessee, Saturday, Nov. 2, 2013, in Columbia, Mo. (AP Photo/L.G. Patterson) AP

This is the big, bad SEC, college football's Demons of Domination with its flash-fast players, its truckload of No. 1 NFL Draft picks and its serial assault on recent BCS titles.

So how in the world, in its second year of membership, did a Tiger-striped unit from the "Show Me State" elevate its head coach from hot seat to driver's seat as far as the SEC East is concerned?

Answer: Missouri has been on an uptick for a while.

Up-up-and-away has been Mizzou's flight plan for 2013. After injuries produced a subpar 5-7 overall and 2-6 SEC record last year, the turnaround Tigers bring an 8-1 mark and a No. 9 national ranking to town for Saturday's game against141/2-point underdog Kentucky.

At 4-1 in the SEC, if Gary Pinkel's club can handle UK, then beat Mississippi in Oxford and Texas A&M back in Columbia, Missouri will have qualified for the SEC Championship Game in just its second attempt.

"We are just working on the University of Kentucky right now," Pinkel said Monday.

Those who thought Pinkel would be out of work after this season misjudged the 61-year-old who played (along with Nick Saban) at Kent State for Don James, then followed his mentor to Washington where Pinkel eventually worked as offensive coordinator for the Huskies.

Pinkel was 73-37-3 in 10 seasons as head coach at Toledo before jumping to Missouri, a program struggling near the Big 12 bottom. The struggles continued in Pinkel's first two seasons until a 51-28 home loss to Bowling Green prompted the head coach to investigate just what Urban Meyer was doing.

The staff returned with the blueprints for a spread offense that immediately put Mizzou on the move. Pinkel tailored the scheme around franchise quarterbacks — first Brad Smith, followed by Chase Daniel, Blaine Gabbert and now James Franklin — to the point where Missouri began lighting up Big 12 defenses.

The breakthrough came in 2007 when Missouri beat every team on its schedule not named Oklahoma — losing twice to the Sooners; the second time in the Big 12 title game — and finished the season ranked No. 4 by The Associated Press.

That started a four-year stretch in which Missouri posted three 10-or-more-win seasons. Even when Missouri slipped to 8-5 in 2011, it lost one game by more than 10 points.

Mizzou's SEC introduction, however, started with a stumble. Injuries multiplied. Franklin, the team's star quarterback, missed four games with various ailments. Losses followed.

"We had some adversity we didn't overcome," said Pinkel at the SEC Media Days in July. "People ask me what I learned in the SEC. It is what I thought it was going to be, a line-of-scrimmage league."

In beating Vanderbilt (51-28), Georgia (41-26), Florida (36-17) and Tennessee (31-3) this year, the Tigers have dominated that line.

In fact, Michael Sam, a fifth-year senior defensive end out of Hitchcock, Texas, could be the SEC Defensive Player of the Year. A two-star recruit, Sam represents how Pinkel built the program in the first place.

With a staff that didn't lose an assistant for eight seasons, Missouri developed deep Texas ties that turned up unheralded prospects such as Sean Weatherspoon and Ziggy Hood. Both ended up as NFL first-round draft picks, two of six the Tigers have produced over the past five years.

Meanwhile, Pinkel has upped the ante. Sophomore wide receiver Dorial Beckham was Rivals' No. 1 overall prospect for the Class of 2012. Maty Mauk, the sophomore quarterback who has filled in admirably while Franklin nursed a sprained shoulder, was the nation's 20th-best pro-style quarterback prospect that same year.

"Missouri is a very good football team, as we all know," said Kentucky's Mark Stoops on Monday. "Very balanced, do a good job of running it, throwing it, keeping you off balance. Their defense has been the biggest improvement for them, just playing extremely good ... ."

Fact is, Missouri has had a good football program for quite a few years now.

This year, the SEC is finding out just how good.

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