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Missouri 20, Kentucky 10: Lean on your strengths, tread around your weaknesses

Missouri isn't going to suddenly have a 500-yard, 40-point offense again. But the Tigers are mostly avoiding mistakes on offense and moving the ball just enough to win the field position battle. And the defense is taking it from there. (Consider this your Sunday live thread.)

Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

1. The good news

This is rather morbid (well, the sports version of morbid), but one piece of good news is in regard to bad news: at worst, Missouri will finish this year 7-6. Considering the meek offensive performance for a chunk of the season, considering what Mizzou lost from last year, considering ... well, a lot of things ... 7-6 as worst-case-scenario, when it kind of seemed like the best-case scenario three weeks ago, is pretty incredible.

In this very space after the Georgia game, I noted that while the Mizzou defense was incredibly underrated (and, after said Georgia game, under-appreciated), that the offense was unfixable, and that simply trying to lock up a bowl bid was just about the only goal on table. Two outta three ain't bad. The defense is indeed strong, the offense is indeed not, and Missouri's now won three straight, locked up a bowl bid, and somehow figured out how to get within reach of another, bigger goal.

2. The even better news

From an odds standpoint, Florida beating Georgia -- whipping the Dawgs, actually -- was quite a bit less likely than Indiana beating Missouri. The Gators did Mizzou an incredible solid, rushing for 418 yards (7.0 per carry) and going up 31-7 on Georgia early in the fourth quarter. Georgia started to think about a comeback, but the Dawgs failed on a two-point conversion after one touchdown (which would have made it a two-possession game at 31-15), then got stuffed at the Florida 2 on the next. Kelvin Taylor ripped off a 65-yard touchdown run to make it 38-13, and that was that. Somehow the shiftless, directionless Florida team did the same thing to Georgia as Missouri has done to Florida, Vanderbilt, and Kentucky: figure out what you're good at (running), avoid what you're bad at (Treon Harris threw just six passes), and win.

That means, of course, that these are your updated SEC East standings:

Missouri 4-1
Georgia 4-2
Florida 3-3
Kentucky 2-4
South Carolina 2-5
Tennessee 1-4
Vanderbilt 0-5

Technically, five teams still have a chance at at least a division tie -- Missouri and Georgia could fall to 4-4 while Florida, Kentucky and Tennessee rise to 4-4 -- but this is still basically a two-team race. And somehow, someway, Missouri is the leader in this race.

Now, if you put a gun to my head (please don't) and asked me who I think will win the East, I would still say Georgia. I think the Dawgs are still quite good and are as likely to finish 2-0 as Missouri is to finish 2-1 (which would create a tie and a UGA title), and I think they're as likely to go 1-1 as Missouri is to go 1-2 (which would do the same). If Missouri wins out in November, as the Tigers did last year, they're East champions. But they're not nearly as good offensively/overall as last year's Tigers, so that might be too much to ask. I'm hopeful, and I love that this is still an option on the table -- this has turned into one of Gary Pinkel better in-season coaching performances -- but I'm not betting on it happening. Still ...

...while Missouri sits on a bye week, Georgia has to play at Kentucky early next Saturday. If Kentucky pulls another "we're young and dumb and way better at home" performance against UGA (like it did against Mississippi State last week), Missouri could be two games up in the loss column when they head to College Station. I'm not betting on that, but it's on the table, and it's an incredibly interesting, unexpected bye-week subplot.

3. Work rate

Missouri's defense put in work yesterday. The Tigers are a pretty good passive, bend-don't-break unit, but they were ultra-aggressive, and successful with it, against Kentucky. In 72 UK snaps, the Tigers managed nine tackles for loss (three sacks) and a forced fumble. And more interesting (and perhaps out of character), in 37 Kentucky passes (18 incompletions), they picked off one and broke up seven others. Missouri entered the game with a 17.7 percent Havoc Rate (TFLs + FF + PDs / plays), 39th in the country. On Saturday, it was 25.0 percent.

Shane Ray was the obvious headliner here. For a school that has produced Justin Smith, Aldon Smith, Kony Ealy, Michael Sam, and a lot of other strong defensive ends in recent years, Ray recorded a pair of sacks to set the new Missouri single-season record. With either four or five games remaining on the schedule. Wow.

Mike Scherer (13 assisted tackles, 1.5 TFLs) was awesome yesterday, too. But neither was the best player on the field.

Kenya Dennis had 1.5 tackles for loss (plus a tackle for no gain on fourth down) and four of Missouri's seven break-ups. Patrick Towles kept thinking he had a matchup advantage with Dennis on Dorian Baker, and he did not. Passes to Baker were 1-for-5 for six yards and four breakups. With Aarion Penton holding his own with Ryan Timmons (one interception, two breakups), Towles just couldn't figure out where to go with the ball. Missouri's secondary was much, much better than Kentucky's receiving corps, and it was the biggest difference-maker in the game.

We came into this season worried about the receiving corps and the secondary. The former has proven to be even more of a concern than we could have imagined, but the latter not only isn't a weakness at this point ... it's a strength.

Losing Braylon Webb for the first half of the A&M game will hurt. A&M's receiving corps isn't equipped with the best hands in the universe, but like UK, A&M will spread the ball around to any number of young, athletic receiver. Dennis' performance, and the unit's performance in general, makes me far more optimistic about Missouri surviving this matchup (sans Webb) than I anticipated.

(And yes, I hated the call/ejection on Webb. Of course I did.)

4. New Maty

Maty Mauk almost had his worst brainfart of the season midway through the fourth quarter, getting pressured and almost throwing a picture-perfect pick six from the Kentucky 7. But Khalid Henderson dropped the surefire interception, and Missouri survived to kick a field goal and put the game out of reach. (The Tigers almost got a touchdown, but a tough Mauk pass went through Sean Culkin's hands two plays after the near disaster.)

That play aside, however, Mauk continued to play like New Maty, a mostly composed QB who steps up in the pocket (usually), and looks to successfully steal yards with his legs. He was sacked twice but rushed 12 other times for 93 yards and threw two more touchdown passes to Bud Sasser, Missouri's "okay, now we need yards, so go to him" guy. Passes to Sasser were only 6-for-12 for 67 yards, but he caught the two big ones.

Mauk's ball distribution here was interesting and a bit exciting. Twelve of his 33 passes were aimed at Sasser, which is about normal. But five were to Culkin (4-for-5, 30 yards), five were to Russell Hansbrough (3-for-5, 26 yards), three were to Nate Brown (3-for-3, 27 yards), and only three were to Jimmie Hunt (1-for-2 for 13 yards and a defensive pass interference penalty). He threw one at Jason Reese, too. He's doing a better job of taking what the defense gives him and trusting his receivers, even if they don't completely re-pay that trust (Reese and Hansbrough each had drops, and Culkin probably should have snared that near-touchdown pass, even if it wasn't a great throw). After what we saw earlier this year -- Sasser's covered? White's covered? WELP, time to run around, then throw the ball away! -- that's a step in the right direction. And obviously the increased snaps and targets for Brown are a happy development. He seems to be doing solid things with the extra opportunity, too.

By November, you are what you are. Your strengths are your strengths, and your warts are your warts. Missouri isn't going to suddenly have a 500-yard, 40-point offense again. But the Tigers are mostly avoiding mistakes on offense, and they're figuring out every possible way to steal yardage and moving the ball just enough to win the field position battle. And the defense is taking it from there. I don't know if that's a recipe good enough for winning the East, but it's put Missouri into the East lead, and it's turned the best-case scenario of mid-October into a worst-case scenario. Hell of a job, Tigers.

5. This was awesome