- Mark Schlabach, ESPN Senior Writer
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For the Big 12 Conference team from the Show Me State, the challenge last Saturday was simple: Show us something.
Yes, Missouri was 5-0 going into Saturday's game at Texas Tech. But those victories came against lesser opponents: Murray State (Division I-AA), Ole Miss, New Mexico, Ohio (not State) and winless Colorado.
Inquiring minds still wanted to know: Were the Tigers for real?
No. 19 Missouri emphatically silenced its doubters with a 38-21 win over the Red Raiders, who hadn't lost to a team from the Big 12 North in three seasons. The Tigers forced quarterback Graham Harrell into five turnovers, converting four of them into touchdowns. Missouri led 24-0 and then held off a Texas Tech comeback everyone knew was coming.
The Tigers are 6-0 for the first time since 1973, are eligible to play in a postseason bowl game and seem destined for no worse than the Cotton Bowl. At Texas A&M on Saturday, Missouri will seek to match the 7-0 start of the 1960 team that played in the Orange Bowl under coach Dan Devine and is widely regarded as the best in school history.
"I don't know if [beating Texas Tech] solidifies anything," Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said Sunday. "I can understand why people would wonder if this is a good team. You've got to go out and prove yourselves. We had a test down there. I think we passed a test and there are a lot more tests to come. We're only halfway through the season."
Missouri quarterback Chase Daniel certainly passed his biggest test on his 20th birthday. Starting only his second road game and his first in his native Texas, Daniel completed 15 of 22 passes for 173 yards with one touchdown and one interception. In six games, the sophomore has completed 64.3 percent of his passes with 14 touchdowns and five interceptions. He ranks sixth in the Big 12 in pass efficiency and third in total offense with 268.8 yards per game.
"He's played really well, especially for a guy that's only played six college games," Pinkel said. "He's got great skills and has great accuracy. Certainly, every week is a new challenge for him being a [first-year starter]. But he's a great leader and has all the intangibles needed to be successful."
So do the Tigers. Missouri is averaging 34.2 points per game and is very balanced on offense. The Tigers rank fifth in the Big 12 in both passing (244.8 yards per game) and rushing (179). They've converted more than 50 percent of their third-down plays and have allowed only seven sacks.
Junior Tony Temple is averaging 93.8 rushing yards per game, and receiver Will Franklin and tight end Martin Rucker have combined for 55 catches and six touchdowns. The Tigers use their tight ends as well as any team in the country.
"I think now, because of the kind of quarterback Chase is, we distribute the football to a lot of people," Pinkel said. "He distributes the football."
Under former quarterback Brad Smith, a four-year starter who set 69 Missouri, Big 12 and NCAA records and became the first Division I-A quarterback to run for 4,000 yards and throw for 8,000, the Tigers might have been too predictable. Smith was a security blanket for the Tigers, and opponents often knew where the football was going on critical plays. In 48 games, Smith either ran or threw the football nearly 50 times per game.
"I always told people that was a great design," Pinkel said. "He threw for 8,000 yards and was a great athlete. That was smart. Anybody would do that."
But Pinkel, who came into this season on the hot seat after winning only 29 games in his first five seasons, has looked much smarter this year. The Tigers are more balanced on offense, and much better on defense.
Missouri is allowing only 11.8 points per game, second-best in the Big 12 behind Texas, and has allowed only one rushing touchdown. The Tigers lead the Big 12 with 24 sacks, with senior defensive end Brian Smith accounting for seven.
Against Texas Tech, defensive tackle Xzavie Jackson returned an interception 17 yards for a touchdown. Safety William Moore stepped in front of receiver Robert Johnson on a screen pass and returned an interception 22 yards for another score. The Tigers recovered another fumble at the Texas Tech 6.
"A lot of people were saying that this would be a real test for our defense and that we didn't get to play anybody up until now," defensive end Brian Smith told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "Give it to Texas Tech. They were a great offense, and they moved the ball exceptionally well. Everybody said this would be a real test for us. We came out with the win, so I guess we passed the test."
Tougher tests are still to come; Missouri travels to Texas A&M on Saturday. The Aggies are 5-1 and might be desperate to get coach Dennis Franchione the signature win he needs so badly. The Tigers still face home games against surprising Kansas State, Oklahoma and Kansas. They have road games at Nebraska and Iowa State, but don't have to play Texas this season, unless, of course, they advance to the Big 12 championship game.
"The thing about this is that it's not really all that surprising," Temple told reporters after the Texas Tech game. "We knew all along we could do this. We knew it. No one else knew it, but we knew it.
"Was it convincing enough?"
On (and off) the Mark
On the Mark
Surely, the athletics administration at Ole Miss is kicking itself these days. The Rebels barely beat Vanderbilt on Saturday to end a six-game losing streak in SEC games and their future doesn't look real bright.
Meanwhile, former coach David Cutcliffe, who was inexplicably fired after winning 44 games and reaching five bowl games in five seasons at Ole Miss, has positioned himself to get any job opening he wants after this season. What Cutcliffe has done with Tennessee's offense this season has been truly remarkable. He has turned Erik Ainge back into an SEC quarterback, and Cutcliffe's play calling has transformed the unit into the Volunteers' best offense since their 1998 national championship season.
At Georgia on Saturday night, the Volunteers trailed 24-7 in the second quarter. Tennessee scored a late touchdown in the half to make it a ball game again, and then blasted the Bulldogs like they've rarely been assaulted before. The Volunteers outscored Georgia 44-9 after trailing by 17 points and won 51-33, only the second time the Bulldogs allowed 50 points in Sanford Stadium. Georgia came into the game ranked No. 1 in the country in scoring defense.
"I hope it's a coming of age," Cutcliffe told The Tennessean. "Once you've done this, you realize what you're capable of doing. The team that continues to improve and the team that stays hungry is the team that will have the best chance to win down the road. This is our chance to stay hungry, keep improving and stay focused in practice."
And Tennessee remains alive in the SEC East. No. 2 Florida beat the Volunteers in Knoxville and would have to lose twice in league play for Tennessee to advance to the Dec. 2 SEC championship game in Atlanta's Georgia Dome. The Gators play at Auburn on Saturday and still face Georgia and South Carolina. Tennessee has four remaining obstacles: home games against Alabama and LSU and road games at South Carolina and Arkansas.
Off the Mark
Georgia wasn't the only team to blow a big lead on Saturday. Wake Forest seemed well on its way to a 6-0 record and a national ranking with a 14-point lead over Clemson in the second half. The Demon Deacons had dominated the Tigers for three quarters and lined up for a field goal that would have put them ahead by 17 points in the fourth quarter.
But holder Jon Temple botched a clean snap, the football flew up in the air and into the hands of Clemson defensive end Gaines Adams, who returned the fumble 66 yards for a touchdown. The Tigers scored 24 unanswered points in the fourth quarter for a 27-17 victory.
Instead of heading to North Carolina State on Saturday with an unblemished record, the Demon Deacons are left wondering how their sure victory over Clemson got away.
"I think the key is simply that guys don't point fingers, and I don't think we're going to have a lot of that," Wake Forest coach Jim Grobe told reporters. "We'll have guys accept responsibility, and we'll get back and look at the film and bring them in Monday evening and go over it and point out our mistakes. But I like our kids and would be very surprised if they don't bounce back."
On the Mark
NC State coach Chuck Amato has been given a lot of grief in this space and deservedly so. But we also give credit when credit is due, and Amato might well be the self-proclaimed "Man" in the Tar Heel State again.
After losing to Akron and Southern Mississippi in consecutive weeks, we thought Amato's job security was about as solid as the coaches at the other two ACC schools in the Triangle in North Carolina. But the Wolfpack rallied to beat then-No. 20 Boston College in dramatic fashion and then upset No. 17 Florida State on Thursday night.
NC State's season, and perhaps Amato's job, have been saved by sophomore quarterback Daniel Evans, who took over the starting job against Boston College. Against the Eagles, he threw the game-winning touchdown to John Dunlap with only 8.5 seconds to play, and then had three touchdown passes against the Seminoles.
Evans, the son of former NC State quarterback and punter Johnny Evans, has completed 56.3 percent of his passes with five touchdowns and two interceptions. His quarterback rating of 136.94 would rank fourth in the ACC if he had met the minimum number of passes for inclusion in the rankings.
Off the Mark
It can be argued that LSU and Auburn are the most talented teams in the SEC. LSU has a boatload of wide receivers who might play in the NFL, free safety LaRon Landry and more depth on the defensive line than any team in the conference. Auburn has running back Kenny Irons, quarterback Brandon Cox and what was perceived as a very good defense under first-year coordinator Will Muschamp.
But both teams were embarrassed on Saturday. Auburn had looked pretty average at South Carolina on Sept. 28, then allowed 279 rushing yards in a 27-10 loss at home to Arkansas on Saturday. Razorbacks sophomore Darren McFadden ran for 145 yards, including a 63-yard touchdown. Auburn ran for only 60 yards, and Cox was sacked five times.
Auburn hasn't looked right on offense all season. Irons has battled injuries and hasn't gotten on track. And without capable receivers, Cox is forced to hold the football too long.
Meantime, LSU continues to be a disappointment in big games under coach Les Miles. Against Florida, quarterback JaMarcus Russell self-destructed, losing a fumbled snap at the Florida 1 and throwing three interceptions. The Tigers also muffed a punt return and botched a kickoff return, which the Gators turned into a safety in the second half.
Give Miles credit for leading the Tigers to an 11-2 record amid the havoc left by Hurricane Katrina last season. But the Tigers' lackluster performances in big games has to be a concern. They blew a big lead and lost to Tennessee 30-27 in overtime last season. They were trounced by Georgia 34-14 in the SEC championship game. And they scored only a field goal in a 7-3 loss at Auburn earlier this season.
On the Mark
More mass confusion at the end of a game involving Pac-10 officials, only this time it appears the men in striped shirts got the call right. With Washington driving for what would have been the game-winning touchdown against No. 3 USC, Huskies receiver Sonny Shackelford caught a pass to the Trojans' 15. Washington was out of timeouts and there appeared to be about five seconds left on the clock.
After the clock stopped for the first down with two seconds showing on the scoreboard, officials huddled to make sure the remaining time in the game was correct. USC coach Pete Carroll was upset the Huskies were given time to line up for one last play, and the Huskies were arguing for more time on the clock. Once the clock started, the Huskies never got off a snap and the game ended. USC won 26-20.
Verle Sorgen, the coordinator of Pac-10 officials, told the Seattle Times that his crew got the call right. And he said Washington didn't have an argument because the Huskies benefited from officials stopping play to make sure the remaining time was correct. Huskies coach Ty Willingham didn't complain afterward, saying his team should have gotten the snap off.
"The referee [Brian O'Cain] took his extra time in determining the time and the guy in charge of the clock, the back judge [John Freitas], was very clear that the clock was correct," Sorgen told the Seattle Times.
Off the Mark
This is how Ron Zook got in trouble at Florida. Beat Georgia. Lose to Ole Miss. Beat Georgia (again). Lose to Mississippi State. Zook's teams won a lot of big games at Florida, but his Gators also lost games Steve Spurrier's teams would never lose.
A week after Zook led Illinois to a stunning win at Michigan State, the Illini's homecoming festivities were spoiled by a 34-32 loss to Indiana on Saturday. Austin Starr kicked a 33-yard field goal as time expired to give the Hoosiers their first Big 10 road win under coach Terry Hoeppner. Illinois blew a 25-7 lead and scored only seven points in the second half. Indiana gained 402 yards, including 238 passing.
And there were other familiar signs in Champaign. The Illini twice failed to make two-point conversions -- after scoring touchdowns in the first quarter. And Illinois kept kicking to Indiana's Marcus Thigpen, who returned four kickoffs for 197 yards. He opened the second half by returning a kickoff 98 yards for a touchdown, his third of the season on kick returns.
On the Mark
Paul Johnson continues to do one of the best coaching jobs in the country at Navy. The Midshipmen took their first step in winning the Commander-In-Chief's Trophy for the fourth season in a row by winning at Air Force 24-17 on Saturday. If Navy beats Army in Philadelphia on Dec. 2, Navy's senior class will be the first to leave the Academy with 4-0 records against both rival service academies.
Once again, Navy did its damage by land, running for 318 yards. The Midshipmen attempted only five passes, completing one. In a 41-17 win at Connecticut a week earlier, Navy ran for 464 yards against a defense that came into the game ranked in the top 10 nationally. This is the fifth season in a row Johnson has plugged a new quarterback into his spread option attack.
"Proud to be the coach of the luckiest team in America," Johnson said, after beating Air Force.
Johnson accused the Falcons of saying the Midshipmen were lucky to beat Air Force on last-second field goals the previous two seasons.
The Midshipmen (5-1) will need more than luck Saturday when they play No. 24 Rutgers in Annapolis, Md. On Oct. 28, Navy plays No. 9 Notre Dame at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore. The Fighting Irish have won 42 games in a row against the Midshipmen, the longest winning streak over one opponent in NCAA history.
Off the Mark
Poor Dan Hawkins. While Boise State, his former team, took another step toward claiming a BCS at-large berth, his first Colorado team fell to 0-6 with a 34-31, triple-overtime loss to Baylor on homecoming in Boulder, Colo.
The Buffaloes lost their 10th consecutive game, matching their longest losing streak in 117 years, when Baylor's Ryan Havens kicked a 22-yard field goal in the third overtime. Bears linebacker Joe Pawelek then ended the game when he intercepted a pass in the back of the end zone. The Buffaloes had rallied from a 17-10 deficit in the fourth quarter to force overtime. They could have won the game in overtime, but had three turnovers and allowed Baylor to convert 9 of 16 third-down plays.
Colorado figures to be a sizable underdog in its last six games -- home against Texas Tech, road games at Oklahoma and Kansas, home games against Kansas State and Iowa State and the finale at Nebraska -- so an 0-12 record is a possibility.
On the Mark
Pittsburgh's 5-1 start. Kansas State's 4-2 start. Wisconsin freshman P.J. Hill (249 rushing yards against Northwestern). Back-to-back wins for Baylor in Big 12 play (first time since joining the league in 1996). Freshman quarterbacks (Florida's Tim Tebow, Arkansas' Mitch Mustain and Texas' Colt McCoy). California wideout DeSean Jackson. Georgia Tech defensive end Michael Johnson (two sacks to save a 27-23 victory over Maryland). Nebraska tailback Cody Glenn (148 yards and two touchdowns at Iowa State). Northern Illinois tailback Garrett Wolfe (162 yards, two touchdowns against Miami (Ohio)). Army's big win. Tulane's home win. Troy Smith's Heisman Trophy chances. Seven overtimes at North Texas.
Off the Mark
Minnesota's botched extra point. Georgia's defense. Alabama's offense. Adrian Peterson's fumble. Peterson's Heisman Trophy chances. Fresno State (lost to Utah State!). Virginia, again. LSU quarterback JaMarcus Russell. Houston's hangover (lost to Louisiana-Lafayette?). West Virginia's schedule. Everything Florida State.
Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at email@example.com.
1dSam Khan Jr.