Missouri football stooped to 5-7 last season, but the ongoing meaning of that record was almost impossible to interpret particularly amid three narrow losses and three squeaked-out wins.
How much of its first losing season since 2004 was attributable to being overwhelmed by the transition to the Southeastern Conference, in which MU went 2-6 in its inaugural season?
How much of it simply reflected an absurd rash of injuries?
And how much suggested an erosion of the program itself?
“Everybody tries to judge last year,” MU coach Gary Pinkel said, with a flash of annoyance, late Saturday night at Vanderbilt Stadium.
Some of those questions remain to be reconciled. But on Saturday, the Tigers continued to render 2012 an aberration and redeem their credibility with a 51-28 crunching of the Commodores in their SEC opener.
With the victory primed by quarterback James Franklin’s 341 yards of total offense and four touchdown passes, in one swoop MU, 5-0, atoned for a deflating 19-15 home loss to Vanderbilt last season, matched its overall 2012 victory total and for the first time can claim a winning record in SEC play.
“I think I’ve got some special guys here,” Pinkel said, later adding, “I love this team.”
Yes, it was “just” Vandy, and it’s a minuscule sample size in conference play for Mizzou, which began last season 0-4 in league play.
But Vanderbilt, 3-3 overall and 0-3 in the SEC, won nine games last season, and this season pushed Ole Miss to the limit before a 39-35 loss. If it’s not at the top of the SEC, it’s not at the bottom, either.
So the win helped restore a baseline for the Tigers and sets up an enticing opportunity on Saturday, when an MU team now likely to be ranked travels to No. 6 Georgia with a chance to assert a place in the SEC Eastern division race.
Pinkel paid homage to UGA and the reputation of the atmosphere at Sanford Stadium but made a point of adding, “I think it’s 100 yards long, though.”
Georgia handled the Tigers 41-20 in Columbia last season, but that score was deceiving to some degree.
The Tigers led the Bulldogs 20-17 until the final minute of the third quarter, and Georgia was able to pour it on not because of a general physical mismatch but because of two costly turnovers by the beleaguered Franklin.
Which takes us to Exhibit A in the difference between last season and this season thus far: Franklin, who completed 19 of 28 passes for 278 yards against Vandy and bashed for 63 more on the ground.
“He’s got something that not a lot of quarterbacks, and not a lot of people in football in general, have,” said tight end Eric Waters, who caught one of Franklin’s TD passes. “It’s something about him where he doesn’t get flustered too often. And if he does, you don’t see it.
“He works through the problem. He’s a problem-solver. That takes us to a whole different level already.”
Incredibly, Franklin, a model citizen who’d enjoyed a strong sophomore season in 2011, became a polarizing figure and fan target as Mizzou struggled last season.
Somehow, the facts that he hurried back on an accelerated timetable from major shoulder surgery, rallied from an MCL injury (that knocked him out of the Vandy game), a concussion and a separate shoulder injury and played behind a ravaged offensive line were trumped by a perception he wasn’t tough enough.
The notion wasn’t helped by, and arguably was stoked by, Pinkel’s ill-considered jab that suggested Franklin’s refusal to take a painkiller to play against Arizona State reflected softness instead of religious principle.
“It was just too painful for him,” Pinkel said after the game, “and he didn’t want to play.”
Pinkel never has publicly expressed regret over saying that. But he’s been walking it back virtually since the end of last season, often referring to how he’s never seen any quarterback suffer as many injuries as Franklin.
Still, that stigma lurked going into the season. And combined with Franklin’s tendency to be playful (and even goofy at times) made it trendy to question if he could lead or even really play in the SEC.
So how do you like him now?
“Everybody’s going, ‘Wow,’ all of a sudden everybody loves James Franklin,” Pinkel said. “But I loved him last year, even his sophomore year, and I’m very proud of him, how he’s playing, how he’s competing, how he sees things
“There’s some great quarterbacks out there, and he’s playing with the best of them. I think it’s fair to say that.”
Franklin, who in 2011 had the fourth-best total offense season (3,846 yards) in MU history, is on a similar pace now that he has his health back and has been coaxed to take more to heart the significance of command presence.
“The guy is just locked in. He’s zeroed in,” MU offensive coordinator Josh Henson said Monday, adding, “I like everything that he’s doing right now.”
And it’s hard not to like everything Mizzou is doing right now, setting up its most high-profile SEC matchup since the opener against Georgia last season. It’s a game that will further clarify where Mizzou really is now after a season that left so much unclear.