Vahe Gregorian

Missouri shows why it belongs at the top of SEC East

By the time Missouri’s 36-17 shredding of Florida was complete Saturday in Memorial Stadium, delirious MU students had commandeered the Gator Chomp, were chanting “Maty Football” and “We Want GameDay,” the ESPN production that confers game-of-the-week status.

Not so long ago, such audacity certainly would have required a “careful-what-you-wish-for” warning label.

Even in the best of times for MU football, an anvil has seemed to be on call to fall from the sky or a creaky trap door has been waiting to spring open.

This is where The Fifth Down and The Fleakicker defined an era of futility, after all. A place where the school’s only two weeks ever of being No. 1 were instantly crushed by a 1960 loss to Kansas that KU later had to forfeit and a 38-17 bruising by Oklahoma in the 2007 Big 12 title game.

A school that had appeared out of its element a year ago when it made a momentous change to join the Southeastern Conference and went 2-6 in league play on the way to its first losing season since 2004.

So before the season, MU coach Gary Pinkel posed it thusly to his team: Look ahead to January and ask yourself what you would want people to be saying about you.

And at the very least, there was this:

“Trust me, not a day went by when we didn’t say, ‘We’ve got to show we belong,’ ” senior receiver and emerging spokesman L’Damian Washington said.

Now they have. And then some.

After beating a ranked team for a second straight week for the first time since 1973, after becoming the first team to beat Georgia and Florida consecutively since 1992, MU is 7-0 and likely to ascend from No. 14 well into the top 10.

And coming off a season that left his job in apparent jeopardy, Pinkel has to be considered the front-runner for SEC coach of the year.

Most meaningfully, MU is alone — quite alone — atop the SEC East Division standings at 3-0. Florida, Georgia and South Carolina are 3-2.

So if Mizzou wins its next three games, against the Gamecocks and Tennessee the next two weeks at home and at Kentucky, Mizzou will have clinched the SEC East with two games to go.

And the SEC title game has been a gateway to the national title game for the last seven seasons.

But just getting to Atlanta still seems so far-fetched. And nothing is longer-fetched than the idea MU could beat Alabama there if the Tigers do get there.

And there are still a lot of ifs. And plenty of time for things to go awry, as anyone who’s followed this a while remains painfully aware of.

But there were at least two crucial developments Saturday that reinforce that notion that it’s safe to expect MU to be a completely legitimate candidate to win the SEC East.

First of all, you can now forget any fluke factor, which some might have held on to after Mizzou’s 41-26 win at then-No. 7 Georgia last week since the Bulldogs were so depleted by injuries.

Secondly, there was the play of redshirt freshman quarterback Maty Mauk, inserted into the lineup against one of the thorniest defenses in the nation after an injury to James Franklin last week.

When Franklin was hurt at Georgia, you could almost hear the collective sigh among Mizzou fans.

Typical Mizzou luck: Sure, MU won at Georgia, but the cost now would be the rest of the season.

But Mauk’s work as a sub for Franklin at Georgia was a promising view of his athleticism and poise.

And Mauk largely was terrific against Florida, which entered the game third in the nation in total defense and fourth in the nation in scoring defense and was scorched for 500 yards including 295 passing by Mauk.

“He’s got ice water in his veins,” Pinkel said, adding, “The more pressure the harder he’s going to play.”

Never mind that the passing game hadn’t looked smooth at practice earlier this week.

“To be honest, it wasn’t pretty Tuesday or Wednesday,” Washington said.

Though Washington added that was more a matter of receivers dropping passes than it was Mauk misfiring, he smiled and acknowledged that practice and scrimmages haven’t been Mauk’s forte.

“He’s a gamer. Maty Football. Some people don’t really respond well at practice,” Washington said. “I know they say practice makes perfect, and practice paves the way, but some people are just gamers.

“You can’t tell a person’s clutch gene through practice. You have to put him in the game. And Maty Mauk is a gamer.”

Between that, a veteran offense brimming with playmakers and a stout line and a punishing defense that allowed one sustained drive Saturday but otherwise straitjacketed Florida to 81 yards in 54 plays, there simply is no reason now to think MU can’t compete to win the East.

Unless you believe Mizzou really is jinxed, a notion that at least was debunked some on Saturday.

Or unless MU proves incapable of handling prosperity, something it was working on actively even as its fans bask in the moment.

Apparently practicing what he preaches about staying humble, center Evan Boehm perhaps hadn’t even processed this victory after the game when he said, “We’re very fortunate to be 6-0.”

And while Washington appreciated the victory, not to mention the Gator-chomping he considered “one of the best things I’ve seen since I’ve been at Mizzou,” he already was busy putting it in a compartmentalized context.

“This is just Step Seven honestly, and I’m being so truthful. It’s a bigger picture than the wins that we have accomplished right now,” he said.

Which brings us to a third thing MU demonstrated on Saturday: The Tigers had a certain emotional equilibrium, undistracted by last week’s win at Georgia.

“We weren’t going to have it; we weren’t going to have any baggage from last week,” said Washington, who was certain Mizzou would be equally ready to move forward this week against South Carolina. “Off a loss, they’re going to come back with it. And Steve Spurrier’s a great coach.

“And we’ve got to make sure we approach this next game like it’s the first one.”

To show they belong all the more.

“ ‘We belong in the best conference,’ ” Washington remembered telling the team Friday night. “ ‘We belong to be mentioned when everybody talks about the great teams in the SEC.’ ”

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