College football's Goliath -- the SEC -- is wounded, but a David-like contender has emerged within its ranks.
Yes, Auburn is an extreme darkhorse in the SEC, but to me the conference is down to two teams with legitimate national title hopes -- Alabama and the surprise team of 2013, Missouri. Those two teams don't play in the regular season, but stay tuned. If they're both undefeated heading into the conference title game in Atlanta, the SEC, despite the lumps it has taken this season, is in good shape. One of them will play for national title, as long as the conference doesn't eat itself.
If these SEC teams keep beating up on each other and take Alabama or Missouri down a peg, it opens things up for the ACC and the Pac-12.
Eleven of the SEC's 14 teams have at least two losses, which essentially takes those schools out of the national championship race. We're left with undefeated Alabama and one-loss Auburn as the competitors for the SEC West division title. Those two teams will meet to close out the regular season Nov. 30, and one -- with Alabama being the heavy favorite -- will likely advance to Atlanta to play in the conference title game.
In the SEC East division, the expected leaders were South Carolina and Georgia with Florida as a darkhorse. No one even mentioned Missouri in that conversation heading into the season, but the Tigers are 7-0 and all they have to do the rest of the season to win the division is not unravel. The Tigers have done some heavy lifting already and are in a pretty good spot.
They will be without starting quarterback James Franklin, who suffered a shoulder injury Oct. 12, for probably at least a few more weeks, but everything I'm hearing leads me to believe he could return before the end of the regular season.
However, head coach Gary Pinkel's Missouri team has staying power with or without Franklin.
What makes Missouri legit
Here's the remainder of Missouri's schedule: South Carolina, Tennesee, at Kentucky, at Ole Miss, Texas A&M.
Those are tough games, but they're also manageable given the way the Tigers are playing -- they have won every game by at least 15 points. Oregon is the only other team to have done the same.
Missouri is averaging 44 points per game while holding teams to 22. It has great balance on offense and is very efficient in the red zone, scoring on 33 of its 38 trips inside the 20 with 27 of 33 scores having been touchdowns.
Franklin had bounced back before his injury after disappointing last season, but, as the Tigers showed in their win over Florida last weekend with Maty Mauk at quarterback, all hope was not lost when Franklin went down. In fact, Florida was outgained 500-151 in that game.
Now, Mauk, a redshirt freshman, still has plenty to prove. The good thing is the Tigers have wide receivers that can go make plays.
Here's where it gets fun, especially for Mauk.
Missouri has a group of wide receivers that when they come out and warm up, it looks like a bunch of college small forwards just took the field.
Marcus Lucas (6-foot-5, 220 pounds) is averaging 10 yards per catch. L'Damian Washington (6-4, 205) is averaging 17 yards per catch and has seven TDs. The best-known player of the bunch, Dorial Green-Beckham (6-6, 225), is averaging 15 yards a catch and has four TDs. They each have at least 30 catches.
So, every ball Mauk throws does not have to be a precise throw. Just throw it into the area. Think of the catch radius for those WRs. He can throw it up, and if it's one-on-one coverage, they have a good chance of coming down with the ball. Missouri also runs the ball well out of its spread attack with its three-headed monster of RBs Henry Josey, Russell Hansbrough and Marcus Murphy.
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This is not a one-dimensional team, though. They have playmakers at every level of the defense, and the "D" is coordinated by a great coach in Dave Steckel.
DE Michael Sam (nine sacks, 13 tackles for loss) is a rising star. MLB Andrew Wilson is a thumper in the middle and is in line to lead team in tackles for the third straight season. Kentrell Brothers is a very active weakside linebacker and already has three interceptions. At cornerback, E.J. Gaines is a top pro prospect and also has three picks even though quarterbacks tend to avoid him.
Add it all up, and it's plain to see why Missouri can remain a contender even with Franklin sidelined.
A tribute to the Dawgfather
We just lost longtime Washington coach Don James, who passed away earlier this week, but in a fitting tribute to the Dawgfather, look what he left behind. The head coaches of the two undefeated SEC teams -- Alabama's Nick Saban and Missouri's Pinkel -- are both branches on James' coaching tree. As you can see from his remarkable tree, James' fingerprints are all over the college and pro football landscape. UCLA's Jim Mora played for and began his coaching career under James at Washington.
It was my honor to serve with James on a committee in conjunction with the National Football Foundation, whose president and CEO, Steve Hatchell, was the manager and scout-team quarterback at Colorado when James was the team's defensive coordinator.
"Don James' impact will reverberate through the college football landscape for many years to come," Hatchell said in a release earlier this week. "He became one of the most respected and knowledgeable people to ever set foot on a college gridiron, and countless players and coaches benefited immensely from having him as their mentor. His coaching tree ranks among the most extensive in history, and he will be deeply missed.
" ... He was a really fine man and a terrific coach. The players loved him and we remained friends for 40 years. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family and friends. We lost a legend this weekend, but his legacy will endure for many, many years to come."