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September 25, 2013

Powered Up: What have we learned?

It would be very-big time columnist of me to use this space to make some sweeping proclamations about everything I've learned about Missouri in the first three games of the season. It would be very provocative and incite plenty of reaction to tell you I know that because Mizzou went on the road and beat the hell out of Indiana, the Tigers are way better than we all thought and are ready to challenge South Carolina for second in the SEC East this season (it would be even more provocative and incite more reaction to say that the Tigers aren't any better than I thought and won't win another game after this weekend against Arkansas State).

Of course, all of that would also be a huge lie.

I know it's en vogue these days to make a bunch of definitive statements. All over the radio and Internet you can find "journalists" who throw out these crazy opinions. They don't really care if you agree with them or not, only that you have an opinion about their opinion. There are plenty of people who make very good livings doing this (and some of them don't even try to convince you they're doing anything else). But I don't operate that way.

The truth of the matter is, I'm still not sure just how much I've learned about this Missouri team.

There are some things I think I know. I think I know that James Franklin is playing the best football I've seen him play in three years at Missouri. He had a couple of interceptions at Indiana, but overall, he's done a good job taking care of the football and he has done an even better job of leading his team.

I think I know that the Tigers have a pretty talented stable of running backs. It's tough to see a dropoff between number one and number three between Henry Josey, Russell Hansbrough and Marcus Murphy. In a league that tends to inflict a decent number of injuries throughout the course of the season, that should serve the Tigers well.

I think I know that Dorial Green-Beckham will be force-fed the ball and has a chance to make the leap from role player to star that I said he had to make before the season. And I think he's got some pretty strong support from the likes of Marcus Lucas, L'Damian Washington, Bud Sasser and Jimmie Hunt.

Finally, I think I know Missouri should have little trouble qualifying for a bowl game this season. The Tigers will beat Arkansas State, which has been hammered by Auburn and Memphis so far this season and should probably look to schedule some programs with a different mascot in 2014. They should be heavily favored to win at Kentucky and at home against Tennessee. That's six and, at a bare minimum, would get the Tigers back to being bowl eligible.

But for everything I think I know, there is a counter argument.

Yes, Franklin is playing well. But has he played a decent defense yet? Can he stay healthy? If he doesn't, what do the Tigers have behind them?

Sure the tailbacks have looked very good so far, but they're not the biggest guys and will they (and the line in front of them) be able to stand up to SEC defensive lines, which I believe to be the single scariest conference-wide position unit in the country?

When Missouri starts to see some of the NFL caliber defensive backs they'll run up against, will that receiving corps be able to maintain what it's done so far?

And in all of this, I haven't even mentioned the defense. I was actually more impressed with the defense than the offense in the win over Indiana. But I've still got some questions, particularly in the secondary.

And finally, even if six wins is a foregone conclusion, is that progress? Six wins against this schedule would mean the best win is probably against Toledo. I'd argue Mizzou fans need to see more than six to claim things have definitively moved forward from last season. Are they good enough to win at Vandy? At Ole Miss? Knock off Florida at home?

I'm not making the argument either way. I think you can back up either opinion. Before the season, I had Missouri pegged as a five to seven win team. Today, I'd probably move the Tigers' range up to six to nine.

We want every Saturday to be a referendum. We want to learn something. We want those three hours we spend watching the game and the four or five we spend writing about it to offer us some clear-cut conclusions. Now and again, they do. But that rarely happens in September.

I think Missouri is better than I thought it was a month ago, maybe even by a large margin. But I won't really know for another month.

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