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The last time Gary Pinkel brought a Missouri team to Oxford, the Tigers won 38-25, finished 12-2, and Pinkel won National Coach of the Year honors by several publications. It was his best season in Columbia. That was in 2007.

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Pinkel appeared to be on the hot seat heading into the 2013 football season. Now the Missouri head coach is on everybody's National Coach of the Year watch list again. The Tigers are 9-1 overall and 5-1 in Southeastern Conference play.

How quickly things can change. But few saw the turnaround coming from a 5-7 initial season in the SEC, that included a 2-6 league mark, to being two wins away from an appearance in the SEC Championship Game in Atlanta.

But that's the case for the Tigers with games remaining at Ole Miss Saturday night and against Texas A&M at home the following weekend.

First up for Mizzou, it's the Ole Miss Rebels, who host at 7-3 overall and 3-3 in SEC play. Missouri had an open date last weekend.

"The players had a few days off that were very refreshing for them both mentally and physically," Pinkel said. "Those are a couple of goals that we wanted to accomplish last week. Now we are preparing to play a very good Ole Miss team. We look forward to the challenge, and I think our football team is obviously excited to get back competing and get back to the grind."

It may have been a grind for the Tigers this fall, but only a 27-24 double overtime loss to South Carolina at home is the blemish. The Gamecocks eagerly await the outcome of the Rebels and Tigers clash in Oxford, as well as Mizzou and Texas A&M next weekend.

USC, 8-2 overall and 6-2 in league play, is finished with SEC competition. Only games with Coastal Carolina and Clemson remain.

Pinkel, in his 13th season at Missouri, said Ole Miss poses a major threat to the Tigers claiming a SEC East crown.

QB James Franklin
USA TODAY images

"They are a really good football team," he said. "I told you about this league. There are a lot of great teams. (Hugh Freeze) has a done a great job with that program, and I think their quarterback (Bo Wallace) has played at a high level. Wallace is really playing well. They have good receivers, and really good running backs. They have a stable full of athletes at those positions.

"The numbers they are putting up and the stress they put on defenses is real, and they do a really good job. Defensively they also play really well. They are very well coached, and they keep people in front."

Pinkel said he is keeping the Tigers focused on Ole Miss only and not looking ahead, which only adds pressure to a program that wasn't in this position last season.

"Teams that prepare right don't let that affect them," Pinkel said. "They focus on what they can control, and that is playing well. That is when your mental toughness kicks in, and you do not let outside things change your focus. I will be really disappointed if we put all those kind of pressures on ourselves. That does not help you play well."

The Tigers have played well all season. Even with senior quarterback James Franklin missing four starts after getting hurt against Georgia, they kept winning, save for the South Carolina game.

Franklin, replaced during that period of time by redshirt freshman Maty Mauk, is cleared to start and play against Ole Miss and is said to be 100 percent. He actually played a couple of series in Missouri's rout of Kentucky two weeks ago.

"I told some of the guys that I felt like I was a freshman coming back out there," Franklin said. "It seemed like it had been so long, but really it had been only about four or five weeks. It felt good to be back out there and it was definitely exciting."

"He looks really good," Pinkel said of Franklin. "He looks just like he left off before the injury. What has been really good is having a couple extra practices, which we always do for our bye week as preparation for our next opponent. He's excited about being back, and the team is excited about getting him back, too. I obviously want him to do really well. He had some adversity and battled through it, and we are excited to have him in."

For now it's all about Ole Miss. But Missouri is trying to win its first conference championship in football since 1969 when it was a member of the Big Eight.

"I am excited about it," said senior cornerback E.J. Gaines. "People are calling it a lot of pressure, but I just think that it is an opportunity for our football team to succeed. It would mean so much to a lot of these guys, especially for these seniors to go out like that. I feel like the underclassmen are definitely playing for our seniors in a lot of ways, and it is definitely an exciting time for our football program."

Certainly much moreso than this time last year when just surviving year one in the SEC was the challenge.

"We are going to play a really good team on Saturday," Pinkel said. "When you are in the hunt like we are now, you expect to play games like this. Our whole thing is to remain focused on playing our best football game. You do not need any more motivation that."

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