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Watch out SEC East, Missouri Is Here to Stay

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Luke BrietzkeContributor IIIMarch 26, 2014

Looking at what Missouri loses this year creates an easy assumption that the Tigers could be a one-hit wonder.

Don’t fall into the trap.

Returning stars like Dorial Green-Beckham teamed with an infusion of new starters such as Maty Mauk will allow Missouri to continue competing among the SEC’s best.

This won’t be the first time skeptics have questioned the Tigers’ ability to sustain a high level of play under coach Gary Pinkel.

Yet Pinkel kept Missouri toward the top of the Big 12 North—a feat once thought near impossible with Nebraska and Kansas State in the division.

Pinkel has already shown he can quickly transition to new quarterbacks.

In the Big 12, Brad Smith helped Missouri reach the level of respectability.

Chase Daniel followed, elevating the program to new heights and to within a questionable decision by the Orange Bowl of a BCS berth.

Successors Blaine Gabbert and James Franklin followed and—when healthy—kept the Tigers playing at a high level.

Now Mauk should take his turn at the helm.

Mauk looked promising if inconsistent during his four-game stint as a starter while Franklin recovered from a shoulder injury.

Tim Sharp/Associated Press

In other words, he looked like a redshirt freshman learning to play at college football’s highest level.

Missouri went 3-1 behind Mauk, suffering its one loss in double overtime to South Carolina. The Tigers were also a fourth-quarter defensive collapse away from running the table with Mauk as the starter.

During that time, Mauk threw for 910 yards and 10 touchdowns with just two interceptions.

He also showed off dynamic running skills at times, such as his 73-yard rushing performance (on three rushes) against Oklahoma State in the Cotton Bowl.

Especially with Mauk getting a full spring and summer camp with the vast majority of first-team reps, look for him to make a significant step forward in 2014.

Mauk should have help. Three of Missouri’s five offensive linemen return, as does Green-Beckham—one of the SEC’s top receivers.

Running backs Russell Hansbrough and home run threat Marcus Murphy are also back, giving the Tigers a strong run game and a balanced attack.

Of course, Mauk’s development is only part of the equation.

Missouri won the SEC East in part behind a dominating pass rush.

Defensive end Michael Sam emerged as the most disruptive of the group, recording 19 tackles for loss, 11.5 sacks and nine quarterback hurries on his way to collecting SEC Defensive Player of the Year honors.

Sam certainly wasn’t alone.

Kony Ealy, Sam’s partner in crime as an end, finished 2013 with 14.5 TFLs and 9.5 sacks.

SEC Team Sacks Rankings
TeamNumber
Missouri41
Georgia33
Auburn32
Arkansas28
Vanderbilt28
LSU27
South Carolina25
Kentucky23
Alabama22
Texas A&M21
Mississippi State20
Ole Miss20
Florida19
Tennessee18
SECDigitalNetwork.com

Both are gone this year, which is a mild cause for concern for the Tigers.

Then again, consider this: At this time last year, experts wondered how Missouri could possibly replace defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson—a first-team All-SEC selection the New York Jets drafted with the No. 13 pick in the 2013 NFL draft.

Thanks to Sam and company, the defensive line actually improved dramatically.

That’s not to say Missouri can simply lose players like Sam and Ealy and progress, but the talent is in place.

Reserve defensive ends Shane Ray and Markus Golden combined for 22 TFLs, 11 sacks and 19 quarterback hurries in limited action.

SEC Individual Leaders By TFLs
PlayerTeamTFLs
Michael Sam*Missouri19.0
Kony Ealy*Missouri14.5
Dee Ford*Auburn14.5
Trey FlowersArkansas13.5
Kelcy Quarles*South Carolina13.5
Markus GoldenMissouri13.0
Serderius BryantOle Miss12.5
Jordan JenkinsGeorgia12.0
Jadeveon Clowney*South Carolina11.5
Chris Smith*Arkansas11.5
* - Denotes departed player
SECDigitalNetwork.com

The bigger tests come at linebacker and in the defensive backfield.

Missouri returns safety Braylon Webb but lost Matt White. The Tigers will also be without top cornerbacks E.J. Gaines and Randy Ponder.

Kentrell Brothers shows signs of becoming a rising star at linebacker. He will need to take on a bigger leadership role this season considering Andrew Wilson and Donovan Bonner are gone.

Pinkel proved during his time in the Big 12 that he can adapt to the talent on his roster and continue winning at a consistent level.

He broke through in the SEC in 2013.

The talent with which Missouri reloads should allow Pinkel to keep the Tigers humming along.

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