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October 20, 2013

A complete team



After its most complete game in its most complete season under Gary Pinkel, Missouri shot up in both major polls. The Tigers rank fifth in the AP poll, which doesn't affect BCS standings, and seventh in the coaches poll, which does.

What's the limit for this team?



The answer for that question lies in the phrasing. It lies in the lede. For the first time since 2007, Missouri is a complete team. The Tigers rank second in scoring offense and fourth in scoring defense in the SEC.

The Tigers lead the SEC in turnover margin, and it's not even close. Missouri forces nearly a turnover and a half more than it surrenders every game, a margin of plus-ten. Mississippi State is No. 2 at plus-four.

Missouri leads the league in plays over 40 yards with 15, and is fourth in the league in opponents' plays over ten yards with 91. A year ago, the Tigers finished third to last in the conference in both categories.

Missouri's offense lost its leading rusher from 2012 and got better. Missouri's defense lost a first-round defensive tackle from 2012 and got way better.

What's the limit for this team?

That question comes into focus in six days. Missouri is the frontrunner for the SEC East. Even with upset losses by Georgia and South Carolina, the Tigers are the best team in the division through seven games. Atlanta on Dec. 7 is very much a reality.

A win against South Carolina means the ceiling is raised. It all but assures the Tigers a trip eastbound and down during the first weekend of December. The tough part of the schedule is over and only two road games remain. Ole Miss and Tennessee are rebounding, and Texas A&M is still on the docket to finish the year. But beating the Gamecocks means 12-0 isn't just a nice thought. It becomes the goal.

What's the limit for this team?

Missouri is all-in. It's clear that this year's team is a different monster. Kony Ealy, among other players, has alluded to problems that plagued the team in 2012, but never go into specifics. Whatever they were, Ealy says time and time again that they're fixed. A 7-0 start is the best salve, but even after losing its starting quarterback, Missouri rallied around a redshirt freshman and blasted the best defense it will see this regular season.

Gary Pinkel's favorite line since the summer has been some variation of "I really like this team." We heard that, but thought it was coach-speak. It wasn't. Missouri is a spread team that's playing with power, dominating the line of scrimmage and the perimeter. Missouri is an elastic defense that snaps back with sacks and interceptions, leading the SEC in both categories.

Missouri is a lot of things, but one stands out above the rest. The Tigers are a complete team.

What's the limit for this team?

A win Saturday will answer that question. A win Saturday means Missouri isn't just a flavor of the month. A win means Atlanta is all but sealed, but it also means there's more at stake over the last four games. Because, with a win, Missouri is a legitimate national title contender.

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