Earlier this week in the bye week version of Pregamin’, our writers were asked a question about which games we would be keeping an eye on this weekend. Alabama vs. Georgia got a few nods. Texas A&M vs. Mississippi State got one as well. Hell, Houston vs. BYU got a shout-out.
When I was working on my answers for that portion of the Q&A, I originally noted that I would be closely following the Kentucky vs. Tennessee match up happening in Knoxville. Missouri fans have been so busy not-so-quietly announcing the return of Tiger football over the past week, that I wonder if we’ve forgotten where things stand in our own corner of the college football world. That’s not to subtract anything from last Saturday, by the way. What Missouri did continues to be impressive.
But with the Tigers stuck at home with an involuntary bye week, we got a fully concentrated dose of SEC football in the COVID-19 world. And in just one week, there’s one thing we can be sure of: Missouri isn’t the only team raising eyebrows in the chaos of 2020.
Take Kentucky, Missouri’s brand new opponent for Oct. 24. It’s well-documented that the Tigers have a severe wildcat problem on the gridiron, and it’s going to take another titanic effort to solve it next week. Just two weeks after Missouri was easily dismantled in Neyland Stadium, the Wildcats bulldozed the No. 18 Volunteers, riding 4 turnovers and 2 pick-sixes to a 34-7 victory. Does Kentucky have an inefficient offense? Yes. Are they still finding ways to win under Mark Stoops? Also yes. UK has outscored its opponents 58-9 over its last eight quarters of football, and is a field goal against Ole Miss away from being 3-1. Missouri may be rising, but they still haven’t risen above Kentucky.
Speaking of pesky SEC East opponents — don’t look now, but Columbia East may have a team of its own with which Missouri needs to reckon. After two hard-fought losses to begin the season, Will Muschamp has the Gamecocks on a two-game win streak after a 30-22 win over Auburn. Does that mean South Carolina is automatically better than Missouri? Not necessarily. After all, they had a chance to play Vanderbilt and have just as many Top 25 wins as the Tigers. But penciling them down as a win may have been tempting after the win over LSU. They proved on Saturday that’s not the case.
And just to rub some salt in the wound... how about what our old friend Barry Odom is doing down in Arkansas? If any school was more derided after the offseason coaching carousel, it was Arky. But Sam Pittman has the Razorbacks playing scrappy football, with Odom’s defense forcing 6 turnovers and 11 tackles for loss against an Ole Miss team that nearly sprinted it out with Alabama one week ago. Again, does this mean Missouri should chalk up the Battle Line Rivalry as a loss? By no means. But any Missouri fan counting it as a win (as they reasonably might after the past few years), should think twice — because you know Barry is going to want some revenge. And it seems like he has the hogs to get it.
At the beginning of the season, the baseline expectation for Eli Drinkwitz seemed to be somewhere around 3-7, maybe 4-6 if he was able to steal a win. The wins seemed to pretty set in stone: some combination of Vanderbilt, South Carolina, Arkansas and Kentucky. Missouri’s conquering of the national champs had a helium effect on fan expectations. After all, if they can take down LSU, surely they can upend more nominal programs. Perhaps Saturday showed us that there are only one or two truly elite programs and that everything else is up for grabs. That would be a boon to a program like Missouri, who has shown it may have more talent and chemistry than previously assumed.
But Saturday showed also us that the SEC is no sure thing in 2020. Missouri won a huge battle last Saturday. They’ll have to continue fighting, though, because there are a lot of other teams trying to scramble their way to the top of the hill.