Missouri have but one task: Win their next two games and they are in the championship.
Ole Miss in Oxford and at home to Texas A&M in potentially Johnny Football’s last SEC game.
Easier said than done.
While the SEC West is full of talented, ranked teams (see Alabama, Auburn, Texas A&M, Ole Miss, LSU); the East has been a huge let down.
Georgia, though fantastic to watch throughout the year, has been savaged by injuries and quite frankly ridiculous plays. Florida is yet another team to catch the injury bug, but their problem is a lot deeper than Georgia’s.
I’m looking at you, Muschamp.
Vanderbilt has continued to grow and compete under James Franklin (the coach) and could very easily be in a position to swing the balance of power next year, with so many SEC East programs undergoing key shifts.
And then we have to mention Tennessee, who are building a very strong recruiting class which gives them hope in the upcoming years and then Kentucky, who are, well, still Kentucky. Wins against Alabama State and Miami (OH) will only get you so far, Wildcats.
This leaves us with Missouri and South Carolina to fight it out for the SEC East and Missouri are in the driver’s seat and rightly so. They have been the most consistent and most talented team so far this year.
Even when freshman quarterback Maty Maulk took controls of the offense, Mizzou still looked impressive, something which bodes well for the future of the team.
But James Franklin (the player) is scheduled to return to action on Saturday following four missed games for the Tigers with a shoulder injury he sustained against Georgia.
The senior isn’t really too much of a prospect to look out for heading into the 2014 draft, but he makes Missouri’s offense click. Completing just under 68 percent of his passes compared to Maulk’s 52, Franklin now has the keys to the car to drive Mizzou to their first SEC Championship game.
That’s not too shabby of a feat to reach considering that at the SEC Media day, they were predicted to be the second worst team in the SEC East and had just one player (defensive back E.J. Gaines) in the first, second and third team All SEC team. Gaines was in fact a preseason Third-Team All SEC pick.
So to say this Missouri team has had a chip on its shoulder all year would be an understatement.
As for Ole Miss, it’ll take a few years to really reap the abundance of talent they have from their outstanding 2013 recruiting class. With that being said, the freshmen they have are players and are holding their own against some of the nation’s elite.
Of course, the first player you have to mention is last year’s number one recruit Robert Nkemdiche. The fact that defensive coordinators are already game planning against him shows exactly how much of a monster he is. You’ll see his numbers aren’t too impressive (eight games, 16 tackles, seven tackles for loss, one sack), but his presence in stopping the run has been clear to see for the Rebels.
If Nkemdiche progresses to the player he should be, you’d be hard pushed to find a more exciting defensive tackle prospect since Ndamukong Suh.
Slotted behind Nkemdiche is another stud freshman in linebacker/safety Tony Conner. Conner has three fantastic main traits; he’s aggressive, he’s instinctive and he’s fast. As one of the highest ranked safeties in the nation, Conner turned down Nick Saban and Alabama to stay and play for his home state and has been nothing but impressive for Ole Miss.
Conner plays the “Huskie” role for the Rebels, typically a player who as fast as a defensive back but can provide the run support as a linebacker, quite the responsibility for a freshman but Conner has taken it all in his stride and continues to flourish.
On the offensive line, five star recruit Laremy Tunsil is more than holding his own against SEC defensive ends as the starting left tackle for Ole Miss. At 6’5” and 315lbs, for a true freshman to be given the responsibility to keep the blindside safe for your starting quarterback is a rarity.
But Tunsil has been an indispensible player for the Rebels, giving up just one sack and gaining the SEC Lineman of the Week award in the week 11 win against Arkansas.
Another player to keep an eye on in Oxford is freshman guard Austin Golson. The Prattville, Alabama native was committed to Florida State for nearly two years before deciding to enrol at Ole Miss. ESPN’s eighth ranked offensive tackle is currently seeing roughly 50 percent of snaps for Ole Miss so far and figures to start for Ole Miss next year with three of their five starting linemen graduating.
Tight end Evan Engram has become a stellar addition to the Ole Miss offense, contributing with 20 receptions for 265 yards and three touchdowns before suffering a season ending injury against LSU.
But the freshman to have made the biggest splash is Laquon Tredwell was the number one ranked wide receiver prospect in 2013 and it seems that the scouts were spot on with their reports.
Tredwell mostly operates from the slot with 2014 NFL draft prospect Donte Moncrief and senior Ja-Mes Logan out wide. It’s the presence of these two proven receivers which gives Tredwell the ability to put up very impressive numbers.
His 53 receptions rank third amongst freshman wide receivers, behind Pittsburgh’s Tyler Boyd (a freshman already being compared to Larry Fitzgerald) and pass heavy Western Michigan’s Corey Davis.
It’s a phrase which gets thrown around quite often now and has lost some of its luster, but Laquon Tredwell is a freak. As a freshman, he is already an incredible blocker and make is making highlight real plays. It’s no surprise that Tredwell has put up better numbers than Donte Moncrief, a player expected to be drafted next year if he comes out.
Moncrief finished last year with 66 receptions for 979 yards and ten touchdowns and was a preseason All SEC Second-Team wide receiver heading into the year. The problem is it took a while for quarterback Bo Wallace to realise this and actually get him the ball.
Of the 85 targets Moncrief has this year, only 44 have been caught.
While it’s not necessary to put all the blame on Bo Wallace, he is the one who has to get the ball to Moncrief, something he hasn’t been able to do enough this year.
For a player who can and will take the top off of a defense and has fantastic hands, but scouts will question his slight drop in production. Depending on exactly how fast he is at the combine, Moncrief could push himself into the back end of the first round, but more realistically, he’ll be gone by the end of day two if he declares at the end of the season.
On the defensive side of the ball, Ole Miss are missing junior defensive end C.J. Johnson, the man expected to be the destructive pass rusher for the Rebels this year. Johnson, whose injury history will be a worry for pro teams, is expected to apply for a medical redshirt which will give him two more years of eligibility.
But for Mizzou, pass rushers come in pairs and with a lot of quality. The Tigers rank fourth in the nation with 34 sacks and seventh in tackles for loss with 79.
Michael Sam fronts the aggressive Missouri pursuit with 10 sacks this year, seventh most in the nation. However, Sam has only recorded one sack in the last three weeks for Missouri and will be against Laremy Tunsil tonight, who, as we mentioned before, has given up just one sack this year.
The senior defensive end looks to continue his push to be a first round pick and will have to do so against of the SEC’s best offensive tackles.
Sam’s 16 tackles for a loss rank as the sixth best in the nation, but he isn’t the only player on the Missouri defensive line wrecking havoc.
Helping Sam is junior defensive end Kony Ealy, a player to keep an eye on next year who should shine in the spotlight vacated by Sam next year. Ealy has five sacks and eight tackles for a loss already this year and shows great promise.
Fellow junior defensive lineman Markus Golden is having a stellar season with 10 tackles for a loss and 4.5 sacks. He is supported by sophomore Shane Ray, another Mizzou defensive lineman with two first names, with 4.5 sacks and eight tackles for a loss.
Needless to say, Missouri have strength in depth in pass rushers, enough to give Sam and Ealy a break every now and again and still be able to scare opposing teams.
In the secondary, it’s a lot simpler. Senior EJ Gaines leads the Missouri pass defense which ranks seventh in the nation in interceptions with 17. Gaines led the team with four interceptions and is making a name for himself in an SEC packed with defensive talent.
Though not at the same level as a Loucheiz Purifoy or Andre Hal, Gaines is continuing to make noise in Colombia.
Many expected Gaines to come out last year, but he decided getting his degree was more important, a mindset which is very refreshing to hear. Gaines is expecting to be a mid round pick come May.
With E.J. Gaines and the defensive line getting attention for the Tigers, it’s easy to overlook redshirt sophomore linebacker Kentrell Brothers. But as it stands, Brothers is second on the team with three interceptions, has six tackles for loss, one sack and 45 tackles in his second season.
Brothers has really excelled in his new role as the starting WILL linebacker for MU, despite being just a three star recruit from Guthrie, Oklahoma.
On the offensive side of the ball, the Tigers are built around their strong running game, headed by junior Henry Josey, who has 760 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2013. Josey is accompanied by sophomore Russell Hansborough (544 yards, four touchdowns) and junior Marcus Murphy (485 yards, seven touchdowns) in the running back committee.
But the Tigers have one of the most balanced offenses in the SEC, ranking fourth in the conferences in rushing attempts and fifth in passing attempts.
The reason they can ranks highly in both is because their defense creates turnovers. The Tigers own the nation’s longest streak of consecutive games with a turnover. You’d have to go all the way back to October 30th 2010 to find the last game Missouri didn’t force a turnover, a 31-17 loss to Nebraska in Lincoln.
Mizzou’s turnover margin currently stands at +14, the third best in the country, which is both a credit to the defense and the offense.
Maty Maulk and James Franklin have thrown just five interceptions this year. Of course, it’s hard to throw interceptions when your smallest of your three best receivers is 6’4”.
Senior L’Damian Washington has 39 receptions for 680 yards and nine touchdowns. He’s 6’4”.
Senior Marcus Lucas leads the team with 46 catches for 531 yards and two touchdowns. He’s 6’5”.
Sophomore Dorial Green-Beckham has 36 catches and leads the team with 680 yards and nine touchdowns. He’s 6’5” and finally living up to the hype as the number one overall prospect in the country in 2012.
Green-Beckham was dubbed by many coming out of high school as the next A.J. Green or Julio Jones and was disappointing in his first season in The Show Me State.
But Green-Beckham is finally putting all his potential on the field at the college level. With a proven quarterback waiting in the wings next year, DGB will be looking to embarrass SEC defensive backs.
As it stands, DGB can’t come out this year as a sophomore but can as a junior. You’ll be able to find him near the top of nearly every draft board for the 2015 draft.
Charles Sawyer has the unfortunate job of trying to contain Green-Beckham tonight, though except to see some help from safety Trae Elsom when Missouri go deep.
It’ll be a tough trip for the Tigers but one they have to win. A loss opens up a great opportunity for South Carolina to take the lead in the SEC East and Ole Miss has played very well at home to fellow SEC teams, beating Arkansas and the number six ranked LSU Tigers and losing a close one to Johnny Freakin’ Football and the then number nine ranked Texas A&M.
But if Missouri are going to win their first conference title since 1961, they’ve got to head down to rowdy, slightly inebriated Vaught-Hemmingway Stadium in Oxford and silence the #24 ranked Rebels.
Whether you’re Hotty Toddy or Fight Tiger, it’s a game full of prospects and one you should not miss.
And no matter who wins the game, you can bet your mortgage on Ole Miss winning the party.