Contender, pretender, it doesn't matter when it comes to Missouri's defense.
Only one description fits Missouri's defense this season—"SEC-caliber."
While the dynamic Tiger offense has stolen headlines this fall, it's been the play of Missouri's defense that has stolen the show.
Led by a dynamic pass rush and an opportunistic secondary, the Tigers have emerged as a force in the SEC. No, the 395.6 yards per game isn't anything to write home about. In fact, it's ranks the Tigers 10th in the SEC. But they're giving up 22.8 points per game—the fifth-best mark in the SEC—and have forced the most turnovers in the conference (21).
Essentially, it's a "bend-but-don't-break" defense, which is all Missouri needs.
The day and age of defense winning championships is over. "Just enough defense" is all a team needs to become elite, and what qualifies as "enough" varies depending on offensive style, personnel and scheme.
Missouri's prowess on defense is partly due to its front four and partly due to circumstances.
The SEC is a quarterback-driven conference in 2013, and as a result, more teams are willfully putting themselves in passing situations. That allows Missouri's strength on defense to come to the forefront, which is a big reason why defensive end Michael Sam leads the nation with 10 sacks.
But it isn't just Sam.
Kony Ealy and Shane Ray each have three sacks on the season, and Markus Golden has 2.5. The deep and talented defensive end group allows head coach Gary Pinkel to rotate players in throughout games to keep them fresh.
"We've been pretty fortunate," Pinkel said. "We have Shane Ray that we throw in there, and Markus Golden. We rotate these guys in and all of the guys are really doing some good things. I'm pleased. It's a pretty good group of guys, and the neat thing about them is that they're all playing at a high level. They're very competitive, and Michael kind of raised the bar. That sort of ignites everybody."
|Missouri Defensive Statistics|
|Rush Defense||111.38 YPG||3rd|
|Scoring Defense||22.8 PPG||5th|
|Turnover Margin||1.50 P/G||1st|
|Opponent 3rd-Down Conversions||35.48 %||5th|
|Passes Defended||6.00 P/G||1st|
But Missouri's front seven isn't all about the pass rush.
The Tigers are third in the SEC in rush defense, giving up 111.38 yards per game. This despite losing defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson—he of the first round of the most recent NFL draft—off of last year's squad.
The success up front isn't a surprise for the coaching staff.
"I don't know if I'm surprised, but I'm pleased that we're at that spot," Pinkel said. "Obviously it's important defensively to be able to do that. We've recruited some good players, and our players are playing well."
The pressure generated up front has made a direct impact on the back end.
Missouri's 21 takeaways lead the conference, and its 15 interceptions are the third most in FBS. Eleven different Tigers have interceptions on the season, and only two—cornerback E.J. Gaines and linebacker Kentrell Brothers—have more than one. Gaines and Brothers each have three, despite Gaines missing the last two-and-a-half games with a quad injury.
The Tigers have proven this season that they can stop the run, get pressure with four and capitalize on mistakes generated up front.
If that's not an "SEC-caliber" defense, I'm not sure what is.
*Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer for Bleacher Report. All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.