Gary Pinkel said Monday that his players “get the numbers” when it comes to bowl eligibility.
Missouri needs at least two more to ensure a 10th bowl game in the last 11 seasons.
The Tigers probably need three wins or more to avoid spending Christmas in Shreveport, La., during their fourth Independence Bowl appearance since 2003.
The drive to maximize MU’s bowl potential begins at 3 p.m. Saturday at Vanderbilt Stadium in Nashville.
“Obviously, it’s a very important game,” Pinkel said Wednesday during the weekly SEC football coaches teleconference. “Every game is now just because of where you’re at, your circumstances and what have you.”
Pinkel lauded the job second-year head coach Derek Mason has done building the Commodores.
That’s particularly true of the Vanderbilt defense, which will try to replicate the success Florida and Georgia have had in back-to-back weeks shutting down Missouri’s offense.
Vanderbilt had the worst scoring defense in the SEC last season, giving up 33.2 points per game, and allowed more than 400 yards on average.
Mason, who served as defensive coordinator at Stanford from 2011-13, took over that side of the football and the difference is stark.
“We’re playing hard, and we’re understanding the concepts on defense better,” Mason said.
The Commodores rank fifth in the SEC in scoring defense this season, allowing only 18.5 points, and are only giving up 338 yards per game.
The Tigers will bring a struggling offense — which ranks last in the SEC in scoring, rushing and total yards — to town.
“Defensively, we’ve got to stand up and make sure that we get ourselves off the field,” Mason said, “and make this offense one-dimensional.”
That means getting after freshman quarterback Drew Lock, who been under relentless pressure the last two weeks and is getting battered around more than he’s ever been in his playing career.
“There might have been one time when I (cringed against Florida), but it’s football and I’m going to have to get used to it,” Lock said. “It’s a little different than high school obviously, but I’ll get used to it.”
Missouri’s coaches insist the accumulation of hits haven’t broken Lock’s spirit.
“I think he’s fine,” Pinkel said. “Everything is new out there when you haven’t played a lot. It was a great environment. I think he maintains his poise. You can never practice getting hit. You don’t have hit-the-quarterback day so he learns how to deal with it. You only get that through experiences, and I think he’s responded well to those and I think all the new experiences he’s having out there will allow him to grow as long as he stays positive and we stay positive.”
Pinkel reiterated Wednesday that Missouri needs the players around Lock to perform better, especially a group of inexperienced wide receivers and a leaky offensive line.
“If they play well around him, that will certainly help,” Pinkel said.