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October 10, 2012

Powered Up: SEC struggles

You knew it would go this way. Every Saturday would be a referendum and every Sunday judgment would be passed on Missouri's ability to compete in the SEC. With losses in the first three league games, including a 19-15 clunker to Vanderbilt, those doing the judging haven't been kind to the Tigers in their new home.

First off, there is some validity to the SEC contributing to Missouri's woes. The Tigers' spread offense has come to a screeching halt in the new league. Injuries at quarterback and offensive line have been a major factor, as have drops and inconsistency at wide receiver.

But SEC defenses have played a part as well. Jarvis Jones was a one-man wrecking crew. The South Carolina front four terrorized James Franklin. Franklin has run 51 times for 75 yards this season, his 1.5 yards per carry easily the worst for any Tiger that has more than one carry on the season. This comes a year after Franklin fell just 19 yards short of a 1,000-yard rushing season and averaged 4.5 yards every time he ran, even with sack yardage subtracted.

There have been multiple runs this year where Franklin was dragged down by a defensive end or a linebacker. Those players indeed are faster in the SEC. The result is runs that might have gone for 15 or 20 yards in the Big 12 gaining just three or four in the SEC.

Some national pundits were scoffed at by Tiger fans when they said before the season that more players would be injured and Missouri's depth would be severely tested. Turns out, they were right. Yes, Missouri's offensive line has been a mash unit, its quarterback will have missed 11 of 28 quarters by the end of Saturday and two of the three starting linebackers have missed games. But injuries happen everywhere. Missouri's problem has been a lack of adequate replacements to stop the bleeding.

So, again, there are SEC-related factors that have the Tigers at .500 and winless in league play.

But the more stark truth is that the Tigers' struggles don't really have a ton to do with the SEC. The truth is, even in the Big 12, Missouri would be struggling this season.

Mizzou started last season in league play at Oklahoma, at Kansas State and against Iowa State at home. That is not an appreciably easier schedule than home against Georgia, at South Carolina and home for Vandy. In fact, it might not be easier at all. Missouri did manage to win one of those three (52-17 over Iowa State in Columbia). The only difference in last year's 3-and-3 start and this year's is that one of last year's wins came in league play.

Look through the Big 12. Who is Missouri definitively better than? Kansas. Maybe Iowa State and Texas Tech, but not definitively. They might be able to beat Oklahoma State, Baylor and TCU, but it would hardly be a slam dunk. The Tigers would be clearly behind Oklahoma, Kansas State, West Virginia and Texas.

In other words, Missouri is struggling in the SEC, but it isn't struggling because of the SEC.

Last season, Mizzou overcame a 4-and-5 start to win four straight games at the end of the season. Those wins came over Texas, Texas Tech, Kansas and North Carolina. Prior to that streak, Missouri hadn't won back-to-back games all season. Most expect the Tigers to be 3-and-4 after a visit from Alabama this weekend. Regardless of the result, they will not have won consecutive games through the first seven weeks. If you assume a loss to Bama and a win over Kentucky (not sure that's safe at this point, but go with me for the sake of argument), Mizzou will be 4-and-4 with four games left to play.

Last year, Missouri came through that to finish strong and salvage the season. This year? Well, this may be when we find out how much of an impact the SEC has.

Most of the talk about the SEC is that the league is such a grind week-to-week that it will wear teams out. Missouri will have road games at Florida and Tennessee, a home game against Syracuse and a road trip to Texas A&M to end the season.

Will the grind have worn Missouri down? Or can the Tigers stage another late streak to save their season? The answer to that question is what will determine the Tigers' success. If they can scratch out a couple of wins in the last four, the season is not lost. But if November is a late-season tailspin, Tiger fans better prep themselves for a long offseason of national pundits pounding their chests and telling Mizzou, "We told you so."

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