COLUMBIA, Mo. — A surprise no more, No. 9 Missouri leads the SEC East with three games to go.
Win out and the Tigers (8-1, 4-1 SEC) will have come back all the way from last year’s 5-7 dud that prompted doubts about whether they or their coach belonged in their new league. Beat Kentucky, Ole Miss and No. 11 Texas A&M, and they earn a berth in the conference championship game.
“We’ve probably exceeded everybody else’s expectations, but with our expectations, we still haven’t accomplished what we want to accomplish yet,” cornerback Randy Ponder said. “We’ve still got to take each game like day one.”
Coach Gary Pinkel’s crew is a double-digit favorite this week at Kentucky and then there’s a week off, perhaps bonus time allowing quarterback James Franklin to return from a shoulder strain at full strength.
Pinkel warned players there’s little drop-off in the SEC, and they know better than to treat Kentucky (2-6) lightly. They were there a year ago.
“It doesn’t matter where they are in the conference,” said quarterback Maty Mauk, who’ll likely be making his fourth consecutive start. “They’re playing in the SEC. We know they’re going to be good. Maybe they don’t come out on top a lot of the time, but they’re a great team.”
No. 13 South Carolina (7-2, 5-2) and Georgia (5-3, 4-2) are lurking, each with two losses and hoping for another Missouri stumble that could set up a tiebreaker mess. The survivor of various scenarios likely earns the underdog role — make that a heavy underdog — in the SEC championship game, perhaps against No. 1 Alabama.
Based on head-to-head results and two teams tied for first at 6-2, South Carolina trumps Missouri and Missouri trumps Georgia.
Head-to-head competition would not decide a three-way tie, since South Carolina beat Missouri but lost to Georgia, and Missouri beat Georgia but lost to South Carolina. With a 2-1 finish, Missouri would prevail in the next tiebreaker based on division record — one loss vs. two each for Georgia and South Carolina.