Final SEC Rankings: Mizzou captures East title

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Riding a season-long wave of momentum and dominant defense to an East Division title, Gary Pinkel’s Missouri Tigers earn the No. 2 in Saturday Down South’s final SEC rankings, an unrivaled look at how the league’s 14 programs fared last season based on preseason expectations, on-field success, stability, recruiting and program momentum.

Final SEC Rankings of 2013:

14. Arkansas
13. Kentucky
12. Florida 
11. Tennessee
10. Ole Miss
9. Mississippi State
8. Georgia
7. Vanderbilt
6. Texas A&M
5. LSU
4. Alabama
3. South Carolina
2. Missouri
1. Auburn

Enjoy the debate.

2. Missouri (12-2, 7-1)

Why not us?

That’s the mentality Mizzou had this season under Pinkel, a man of few words and supreme confidence. The stars aligned for the Tigers — despite a backup quarterback down the stretch — and the SEC newcomer proved their value to college football’s most respected league.

On-field performance: A; Mizzou roars into driver’s seat

Raise your hand if you had the Tigers winning a division that included preseason Top 10s Georgia and South Carolina along with Florida coming off a BCS berth? Mizzou took everyone by surprise with a high-scoring offense and defense that relentlessly rushed the passer to the tune of a league-leading 41 sacks.

Junior running back Henry Josey kept opposing defenders honest with 1,166 yards and 16 touchdowns while the lethal receiving core of L’Damian Washington, Dorial Green-Beckham and Marcus Lucas proved to be a tough cover throughout the season. SEC Defensive Player of the Year Michael Sam led the turnaround on that side of the football, leading the league in sacks and tackles-for-loss. He was one of three Tiger defenders to earn all-league honors, joined by corner EJ Gaines and opposite end Kony Ealy.

Sam’s recent announcement as FBS college football’s first openly gay player tore down social barriers and makes a substantial impact on the program and the SEC.

Expectations: A; Tigers nearly win SEC

Six, maybe seven wins at best. A bowl berth would suffice. Expectations were tempered this season from those outside the program at Mizzou after a 7-loss campaign featured embarrassing losses to Georgia, South Carolina, Alabama and Texas A&M. The Tigers kept the same mentality, stayed the course and believed in Pinkel’s vision — a hard-hitting defense backed by an uptempo attack led by senior quarterback James Franklin.

RELATED: Mizzou regular season recap

Mizzou was one of four SEC teams to finish in Top 7 and deserves a standing ovation for its efforts.

Coaching: A-; Late defensive lapse costs Tigers

Pinkel deserved every bit of the national publicity he received this season, turning around a 5-7 program in its first season to a Top 5 ranking. The Tigers’ uninspiring lack of defense in the SEC Championship Game however was a disappointing display of football and a complete role reversal of everything Mizzou had mastered the previous 12 games.

Most of Auburn’s record-setting 545 yards rushing came before contact, a result of Mizzou being out-coached by the opposition at the point of attack. Gus Malzahn was one step ahead of the other Tigers and defensive coordinator Dave Steckel whose game plan was obliterated by the second quarter.

Coming into that contest, Mizzou had allowed just eight rushing touchdowns all season. The Tigers let Auburn cross the goal line seven times on the ground in Atlanta — four by 300-yard back Tre Mason.

Recruiting: C+; Any instant freshman starters?

Ranked just inside the Top 40 as a group by 247Sports, call this class an East sleeper without a noticeable star recruit. Of Mizzou’s 27 signees, only three have an average star rating of four or better. Offensive tackle Andy Bauer, a lumbering 300-pounder at 6-foot-6, is from St. Louis and picked the Tigers over offers from Alabama, Arkansas and Arizona among several others.

MORE: Mizzou Signing Day recap

In need of help on defense thanks to heavy draft and graduation losses, Mizzou brought in outside linebacker Brandon Lee from Indianapolis to join Steckel’s unit. Lee’s excellent in coverage with good range and height at 6-foot-3. Lee was a top target for Virginia Tech and California before making his intentions known to Mizzou coaches in November.

Program momentum: A-; Fans welcome ‘SEC’ chant

Seconds after Shane Ray galloped 73 yards to the end zone during a win-clinching fumble return in the Cotton Bowl, black and gold-clad Mizzou fans began the league’s obnoxious SEC chant, one no opposing team welcomes. The Tigers had earned that right with a division title in their second season and had reason to boast after their eye-popping 12th win.

Can Maty Mauk and DGB keep the locomotive rolling in Columbia? It’s always tougher as the hunted.

Photo Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

COMMENTS

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  • Wow Brad, you and Athlon Sports with praise for Missouri on the same day. I’m knocked out here. A sincere thank you for your thoughtful story.

  • Great work! This is one the best stories I’ve read written in earnest and just about the Tigers. After all the dust settled, it’s glad to see you saw Mizzou as the the second best team in the SEC. I completely agree. This team earned a lot of respect in 2013. One thing the SEC fans will have to realize is that Mizzou rarely fields a top 20 recruiting class, yet Pinkel turns out quality football year after year. For instance, Even though we went 5-7 in 2012, Kendial Lawrence still rushed for over 1000 yds and Sheldon Richardson went 1st round and won DROY first year in the NFL. In the Lawrence situation, it showed that Mizzou’s style of offense could work in the SEC. And with Sheldon it shows what Pinkel can do with big time recruits in his system. Mizzou has been a quiet little NFL factory as of late. GP gets the best out of his players, no matter the star ranking. We recruit developmental athletic guys to fit our style of play. They just happen to be mostly 3 star players. The most intriguing question going forward is: Can Pinkels world class player development stand up to the vaunted SEC without top 20 recruiting classes year after year? The realist in me says, our recruiting ranking will probably be a perennial meager top 40. The optimist thinks, wow imagine what Pinkel would do if he landed a top 10 class year after year. Another good question is: How will Pinkel’s system fair once the future classes have zero memory of the Big12, in what I call the ever inspired “conference crossover syndrome” and we are fully entrenched in the SEC with a new recruiting footprint. Lots of exciting questions about Mizzou’s future in the league, that’s for sure! So again, cheers/toast/salute to the 2013 Tigers for such an amazing turn around and giving us fans so much to ponder going forward.

    • Mizzou had a fantastic season and certainly deserves any praise that comes its way.

      • Brad….. I feel the need to say something almost all of we Mizzou fans feel. Connor Shaw may have come in late in the game and beat us on our own field…but we respect the heck out of him! He was sick (flu type) and hobbled (bad knee, I think), and he took complete control from the moment he hit the field! Very impressive. Not only is he the most underrated SEC player of any position this past season, but my gut is he will shine brightly in the NFL for some lucky team over a long successful career.

    • Perfect post. Makes me wish I would’ve wrote it.

  • really terrific store Brad. Mizzou All Day why honestly think if we can be relevant in the SEC and national spotlight for a second year in a row I really think our recruiting will improve by leaps. and if we do it a third year then it may improve by bounds also. I think getting the gbig three from Missouri next year and the two kids from E St Louis would be an incredible tecruiting job

    • Agreed about the 2 years in a row thing. It would help establish Mizzou’s “name brand” tremendously! But so tough to win the East again. Two predictions……barring injuries, Maty Mauk will be on the cover of Sports Illustrated by mid-season…..also, he, another solid D-line, & DGB will all lead Tigers to 9-10 reg season wins, just barely missing the East title.

  • You are all asking the question “repeat or just contender”. So here’s a summary of the answer. The D-line has a good chance to be more consistent and maybe even approach sack-master status. Josh Augusta is one example of a change in talent profile there. He is better in some ways. D-linebackers ?, do they have to be better coached than Andrew Wilson or just more of a complete unit? Wilson was the do everything man. Corners and safeties have the best chance to significantly improve the Tiger team. Offensive Line will have Junior Evan Boehm, so can he lead and inspire the new starting lineup in these positions and is it possible for a 2nd star to shine in that line also? Running backs will miss Josey’s home run hits but Murphy will replace some of them and Hansborough too, the real chance for another dimension next year is for Henson to play book a smasher, maybe Steward or Brantley to be that threat who sucks the other team into a tackle to tackle box. Heads are going to spin watching Mauk next year. He will take risks and truly return Missouri to a spread attack. Here’s an interesting comparison: Chase Daniel completion % 2005 58%, 06 62%, 07 66%, 08 73%. Mauk Freshman 51% . Receivers for Missouri in 2014 could catch better or get open better or both. I think we were slight under-achievers in 2013. Still Washington and Lucas and Waters had some unique physical advantages. Look for Mauk to use DGB more and this is a big question, will DGB respond with a more mature and dominant performance? Yards after catch can improve for every receiver. NOW EACH TEAM IN THE SEC HAS A CHANCE TO IMPROVE IN THESE PLACES TOO, SO MISSOURI HAS TO GET BETTER FASTER, AND CAN WE COACHING STAFF?