Missouri enters their bye week sitting at 9-1, and in position to make their last two regular-season games really meaningful. The bye week comes at a pivotal time for the Tigers who have just completed a brutal stretch of eight straight weeks of games, including having run the gauntlet which is the SEC East Division in the last six weeks.
“I’m glad we got the bye week this week because it is much needed for our team, mentally and emotionally,” said Missouri Head Coach Gary Pinkel. “The good news is we’ll get healed up a little bit, and get ready.”
At 5-1 in league play, Missouri sits atop the SEC East Division standings, and the Tigers control their own destiny in their quest to play in Atlanta on December 7th, with games remaining against SEC West Division opponents Ole Miss and Texas A&M.
Perhaps the most encouraging aspect of Missouri’s season thus far, in addition to their 9-1 record, is that the Tigers have continued to improve throughout the season. I don’t think this can be understated in anticipation of what lies ahead.
“I think we’re improving as a football team, but I don’t think we’ve played our best game yet,” said Coach Pinkel. “The kids are on a mission. After coming off our first losing season in nine years, they’re just very committed to excellence.”
Following the bye week, starting QB James Franklin is expected to return to the line-up. When he went down, Franklin had the Tigers at 5-0, and leading in the 4th quarter at Georgia. Through 5+ games, Franklin was having one of the best seasons by a QB in Missouri history. Kudos to Maty Mauk, who came in and closed out the Georgia game, then went 3-1 in his first 4 career starts. After appearing quite shaky in his first 2 starts, Mauk has steadily improved, and in his last 2 starts, Mauk has thrown 8 TDs against zero interceptions.
When Franklin went down, Coach Pinkel said that they would need everyone else around (Mauk) to raise the level of their play. There’s no question that the Missouri offense did just that. A couple of things that I’ve seen over the past month is improved play up front along the offensive line, as well as improved play from Missouri’s very talented corps of receivers, who have clearly been more aggressively pursuing and catching the ball in the air. Hopefully, everyone will continue to elevate their play with Franklin back at the helm. In addition, it’s a real plus to know that the Tigers have a capable back-up at QB.
Entering the bye week, Missouri is second in the SEC in scoring (41.3 points/game), and second in rushing (235.8 yards/game). The Tigers are third in scoring defense (20.2 points/game), and third in rushing defense (111.9 yards/game). Missouri’s total offense average of 492.6 yards/game ranks third in the conference. Missouri continues to lead the conference in interceptions (17), total turnovers (25), and turnover margin (+1.4 turnovers/game). Missouri’s 34 sacks lead the SEC, and the Tigers have been good on third downs and in the red zone on both sides of the football.
Not only has Missouri’s offensive line improved, and is playing very well, but the Tigers defensive line, which has played very well from the outset this season, has also gotten better.
“If you look at any really good football team, and if you look at it, they have a really good offensive line and a really good defensive line, then you have some perimeter people, you’re going to have a good football team,” explained Coach Pinkel. “I mean, you can have all the perimeter people you want, but if you don’t have people up front on offense and defense? And, our offensive line is playing at a very high rate, and our defensive line is playing at a very high rate.”
Missouri’s defensive ends have gotten a lot of attention, and deservedly so. One way in which Missouri’s defensive line has gotten better is that several individuals have continued to get better since the beginning of the season. And, since the beginning of the season, Markus Golden has gone from the fifth man getting a few reps to one of the main cogs in a relentless four-man rotation. He’s been a big boost to what was already a position of strength for the Tigers. But, it’s the play of Missouri's defensive tackles that makes this unit one of the best defensive lines in the country. The inside play has continued to improve, and even though the Tigers lost senior Marvin Foster for the remainder of the season, true freshman Josh Augusta is playing better each week. In addition to the league-leading 34 sacks, the Tigers have also registered 48 QB hurries, and a total of 79 tackles-for-loss. And, the Tigers are holding opponents to just 3.3 yards/rushing attempt.
At Kentucky, Dorial Green-Beckham caught 4 TD passes, a school record. Coach Pinkel said that Green-Beckham was coming off of his best week of practice, and afterwards, Coach Pinkel said that Green-Beckham can be a lot better than even what he showed on Saturday. Green-Beckham appeared to be playing at an elevated level, and it’s hoped that he can continue to elevate his play for the remainder of this season.
The bye week will be of big benefit to Missouri’s tailbacks, who have been playing at a high level all season despite having played through minor injuries for weeks.
Perhaps no player will benefit more from the bye week than DT Matt Hoch, who is having an outstanding season despite being banged up for most of the season. The bye week will allow E.J. Gaines and the Missouri secondary to heal up, and the bye week will also allow the coaches to further integrate safety Duron Singleton, who at Kentucky played extensively at the nickel safety position for really the first time since his arrival at Missouri in mid-August. Singleton played very well, and he gives the Missouri defense a big late-season boost. Perhaps he can strengthen the Missouri secondary in the same way that Golden has strengthened Missouri’s defensive line.
In addition to getting healed up and re-energized, the Tigers will get a head start on preparation for Ole Miss, and the staff will be out on the recruiting trail en force.