- Edward Aschoff, ESPN Staff Writer
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COLUMBIA, Mo. -- Back in August, Missouri coach Gary Pinkel asked his seniors what they wanted people to say about this football team come January.
Would it be the same team that limped through its first season in the SEC? Or would it make statement to the league -- and the nation -- that it could compete in the toughest conference?
Last year might have been a dud for the Tigers, but through seven games, they are one of the hottest teams in college football after taking Georgia and Florida down in consecutive weeks. After their 36-17 victory against the Gators on Saturday inside Memorial Stadium, it's safe to say people are thinking quite highly of this Mizzou team.
"I thought we were going to be a good football team," Pinkel said. "I don't know why nobody else thought we were going to have a good football team. I don't know, but I love my guys."
It was easy to write off Mizzou before the season after that less-than-impressive 2012 campaign. Injuries were catastrophic, but the perception was that this team was never tough enough to survive in the SEC.
Now, the Tigers (7-0, 3-0 SEC) are sizzling. Their 36 points against Florida were the most the Gators have given up in league play since surrendering 41 to LSU in October 2011. That also snapped Florida's 13-game streak of allowing 20 points or less in SEC play. Mizzou's 500 yards of offense were the most against Florida since the Gators gave up 512 to Kentucky in October 2007.
Backup quarterback Maty Mauk filled in for James Franklin (shoulder) swimmingly with 295 yards and a touchdown. Henry Josey ran for 136 yards and a score, while the defense gave up just 2.5 yards per play and had six sacks.
In three SEC games, Mizzou has averaged 466 yards and outscored teams 128-71. With Saturday losses by Georgia and South Carolina, Mizzou has a two-game lead over the SEC East powers heading into next week's visit from the Gamecocks.
As injuries pile up, Mizzou is getting all three division heavyweights at the most opportunistic of times, but it's time to give the Tigers credit. This is a good team that could be one win away from essentially clinching the SEC Eastern Division in its second year in the league.
"We have a lot of guys who are good football players," Pinkel said. "You can be as competitive as you want, but if you're not a good football player it's not going to matter.
"We have guys making plays. These aren't just average guys out there."
Added Mauk: "We want to be that team that Coach Pinkel talks about."
It's on its way, but the Tigers aren't quite popping bottles of Gatorade. They're happy, but their goals are much bigger than just beating Florida.
Wide receiver L'Damian Washington said he and the seniors went to the coaches before the season and said they wanted more than just a bowl game. During SEC media days, Washington said the goal for 2013 was 11 wins or more. He was laughed at, even by a local radio station, he said, but he knew this team was capable of a special rebound.
"We said, 'Let's not be complacent. Let's not talk bowl games,' " Washington said. "A bowl game is cool, but let's talk BCS, let's talk national championships.
"We believed in ourselves, and that's all that matters."
While the Tigers are believing, you have to wonder what's going through the Gators' minds. In back-to-back games, the offensive has been totally inept, gaining just 391 yards combined with 16 offensive points and one touchdown. Florida's 151 yards Saturday were its lowest since registering 114 against Alabama in the 1999 SEC championship game.
Mizzou kicker Andrew Baggett even outscored Florida, 18-17, with five field goals and three extra points.
"We are just not really a good football team," Florida coach Will Muschamp said, "certainly not today. That's all on my shoulders.
"I am pretty disappointed that we have not had more positive strides offensively at this point of the season."
These programs are now going in opposite directions. Mizzou has a stranglehold on the SEC East and controls its destiny to Atlanta. Florida (4-3, 3-2) is two games back and has a regressing offense.
Mizzou players are excited, but cautious. The road to Atlanta is clear, but obstacles still remain, and a slip-up next week to a reeling South Carolina squad could kill momentum. As good as this team is, it's all about hunger and humility from here on out.
"You have to act like you've been there at one point in your life," defensive end Kony Ealy said. "You can't get your head full of air and be up in the clouds or you will get knocked down to the ground really fast. You have to stay humble."
14hSam Khan Jr.