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:
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