This Saturday’s matchup between No. 8 Missouri and No. 24 Ole Miss has all the makings of what could be a game for the ages. It’s being televised on ESPN, played under the lights, and has serious postseason implications for both teams. The stage is set.
Missouri has been the absolute surprise of this college football season. At 9-1 with victories over Vanderbilt, Georgia, Florida, and Tennessee and their lone loss coming to South Carolina in overtime, the Tigers have gone from being everyone’s pick to be in the bottom tier of the SEC East to controlling their own destiny as to whether they make it to Atlanta for the SEC Championship Game or not.
What have the Tigers done so well this year that has put them into contention for an SEC East crown?
First off their defensive has been dominant. Their 35 sacks thus far is good for second in the nation, the offenses’ number of yards lost on those sacks is 208, putting them at 12th in the FBS, and their 17 interceptions rank seventh nationally. In short, these guys love to get to the quarterback and the constant pressure they are putting on whoever they might be trying to sack has forced some bad throws that have been picked off. The 20 points a game they are allowing is 20th overall, so yes, their defense has been top notch.
The quarterback play has also been surprising. After losing starter James Franklin for a few games, in the midst of what was a great season for him, backup and freshman Maty Mauk came in and showed that despite being young, he is fully capable of leading a high performing SEC offense. Franklin will be back this week, but Mauk will be ready to go if his number gets called.
Finally, Gary Pinkel continues to prove himself as a more than adequate head football coach. Many people undervalued Missouri when they came to the SEC, but in their final nine seasons in the Big XII, Pinkel led Mizzou to eight winning seasons. Naturally coming into the SEC last year was a tough move and there was plenty of pressure to perform immediately, but after a down first year, Mizzou has come out and played like they really do belong in the powerhouse SEC.
So why, despite all of this success Missouri has had, am I predicting that Ole Miss will upset them on Saturday in Oxford? Because honestly I think Ole Miss is a better team. Yes, it is undeniable that Missouri is good. A team that is 9-1 in the SEC is obviously a good team. But their marquee wins this season have come against teams that are underperforming by normal standards or are banged up with injuries. Florida has had a horrendous season, one so bad that head coach Will Muschamp is on the hot seat. They will likely not make a bowl, a first for them since 1986 (NCAA sanctions kept them out in 1990). Georgia, a team many predicted might be able to compete for a BCS Title has been ravaged by injuries and have since dropped completely out of the top 25. So really the only game Missouri has played against a quality top 25 opponent was their matchup against South Carolina, and when the pressure was on and BCS Title hopes very much alive for the Tigers, they crumbled.
Ole Miss on the other hand comes in at 7-3, a bowl bid already secured, and a second season for Coach Hugh Freeze that is already more successful than last year’s shocking (pleasantly so) 7-6 campaign. The Rebels’ three losses have come against no. 12 Texas A&M (8-2), no. 6 Auburn (10-1), and no. 1 Alabama (10-0). Save for the Alabama game, Ole Miss could have easily won those matchups if they had caught one or two lucky breaks. If Missouri plays the identical schedule Ole Miss has, they might be 9-1, who knows, but personally I think they would be at 7-3 or maybe worse.
Hugh Freeze has the Rebels on a roll right now. After the three straight losses in the middle of the season, Ole Miss has shown some serious moxie by coming out and reeling off four straight wins when they could have simply hung their heads and struggled to end the year. The Rebs have really been clicking on offense and defense over the past few games. Bo Wallace is playing some of the best football Ole Miss has seen from a QB in a long time, the Nkemdiche brothers are both healthy and making big plays, and the highly regarded receiving corps is living up to its potential. On top of this, backup and jumbo package QB Barry Brunetti is exposing defenses with both his legs and his arm and the deep, deep backfield is capable of putting out four tailbacks that can get Freeze the yards he needs when he needs them.
Ole Miss is a Top 15 team in my opinion, but in reality Missouri is as well. I think this will be a tremendous matchup on Saturday. Missouri is playing for Atlanta. Ole Miss is playing for an upper tier bowl. Both teams want to win in the worst way, but the home field advantage and the talent level of Ole Miss gives them the advantage this week.