NCF Nation: T.J. Moe

It wasn’t supposed to be like this.

Missouri was supposed to be at its best with the ball in its hands. Even after moving from the offensive-packed Big 12 to the more defensive-minded SEC, this team had enough firepower and speed to challenge its new defensive counterparts.

The Tigers expected their spread offense to work, and they were supposed to be a legitimate contender in the SEC East.

But at the halfway point of the season, Missouri's offense is sputtering around and has been pushed around by SEC defenses. Missouri is 0-3 in conference play after having been outscored 91-45. The explosion we expected from the passing game has been relatively nonexistent and the Tigers are getting worn down in the second half of games.

[+] EnlargeChris Jones
AP Photo/L.G. PattersonInjuries to quarterback James Franklin and many of the Tigers' linemen have left the once-potent Missouri offense sputtering.
Injuries to the offensive line and quarterback James Franklin's inability to stay healthy have certainly contributed to Missouri’s struggles, but with the second half of the season approaching, the Tigers have to find answers to all their offensive problems or this team won’t make it to a bowl.

“We can start making some plays,” senior wide receiver T.J. Moe said. “We have guys who can make plays.

“How you turn it around is you start playing like [former Missouri wide receiver] Danario Alexander and when your offense struggles you throw it to a guy and he has four consecutive 200-yard games. That’s how you turn it around. You don’t have to fix the offense; guys just need to start making plays. We have a lot of talent, we just need to start catching better and blocking better because it’s not just going to do it itself,” Moe said.

From top to bottom, this offense has been uninspiring since the first half of the Georgia game. For a team that ranked 12th nationally in total offense last year, averaging 475.5 yards per game, the Tigers are currently 12th in the SEC in total offense, averaging over 100 yards less.

Only once this season has Missouri had a quarterback pass for 200 or more yards and a running back rush for 100 yards or more in the same game.

Injuries up front have obviously been a problem, as all five of Mizzou’s preseason starters -- Justin Britt, Elvis Fisher, Jack Meiners, Mitch Morse and Travis Ruth -- have suffered injuries since fall camp and backups Taylor Chappell and Mark Hill are out for the season. Ruth has yet to play this season, while Meiners has been in and out and just underwent knee surgery that will keep him out a few weeks. Redshirt freshman Brad McNulty replaces Morse at center after Morse went down with a knee injury against Vanderbilt last week.

“Being football, you’re going to have your injuries here and there but you need to be able to have people, like we do, on your team that can go up there and play multiple positions on the line,” quarterback Corbin Berkstresser said.

Fighting through injuries is part of the game, as Berkstresser is finding out. He replaces Franklin, who will be out for a few weeks with a knee injury of his own.

Players are invested in Mizzou’s backups, but all of the up-and-down movement on offense is frustrating.

“I have confidence, I have confidence in our guys -- but it’s hard to have confidence in a torn MCL, like half of our offensive line [has] and it’s hard to have confidence in your quarterback when he’s sitting on the bench,” Moe said. “We’ve had some tough breaks and we haven’t played yet to the best of our ability.”

Now, Missouri gets No. 1 Alabama, which is first nationally in scoring defense and total defense and ranks in the top four in rushing and passing defense. Nothing says going backward on offense like playing against Alabama.

So, simplifying things is the next step, coach Gary Pinkel said. Pinkel is hoping less is more for the Tigers. It should help with the players’ comfort level and restore some confidence. It could also help with consistency.

In the end, Mizzou has to rediscover its big-play persona. Without it, the Tigers are toast in this league. Simplifying things is a start, but execution has to be there, regardless of who's banged up.

“When you’re out there, you probably have nine or 10 guys doing their job and then there are one or two who mess up and it messes it up for the whole scheme of things,” Fisher said. “So you've got to be able to get everyone on the same page for the majority of the game and for everyone to do their job -- that’s all you can really ask for.”

What to watch in the SEC: Week 5

September, 27, 2012
9/27/12
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Here's a look at what to watch in the SEC in Week 5:

1. Shouldering the pain: A handful of SEC quarterbacks enter the weekend with shoulder issues. We already know about Connor Shaw and James Franklin and their highly publicized shoulder pain, so we'll keep an eye on them. But there are a couple more QBs dealing with shoulder injuries in Ole Miss' Bo Wallace and Kentucky's Maxwell Smith. Wallace injured his shoulder last week against Tulane and missed practice Tuesday, but returned Wednesday. Smith was injured against Western Kentucky and missed last week's game against Florida. He's expected to play.

2. Lattimore's strength: We still haven't seen the Marcus Lattimore of old, but slowly he's starting to get stronger and stronger. He shed his knee brace last week and probably ran the hardest he has all season in the Gamecocks' win over Missouri. He carried the ball 21 times for 85 yards, scored two touchdowns and caught seven passes for another 60 yards. The hesitation we saw in some of his earlier runs seems to be disappearing and the more confident he is, the better he is. That has to be a scary thought for defenses, and Kentucky could be just another victim for Lattimore as he continues his comeback.

[+] EnlargeRajion Neal, Josh Evans
AP Photo/Wade PayneVols RB Rajion Neal needs to be a factor to keep the Bulldogs' defense from pinning its ears back and rushing Tyler Bray.
3. Tennessee's running game: If the Vols are going to win at Georgia Saturday, they have to be able to run the ball. A one-dimensional offense won't beat Georgia and its defense. The Bulldogs will be trying to make quarterback Tyler Bray's day as miserable as possible by bringing pressure as much as it can. Bray hasn't done very well against the blitz, so Tennessee has to keep Georgia's defense honest through the running game. That means running back Rajion Neal has to run like he did against Akron. He has to get the tough yards, and he has to turn short runs into longer ones in order to extend drives. Bray can't do it all on his own.

4. Missouri's offensive confidence: It's pretty obvious that Mizzou's offense has stalled. It lacks creativity and it's having trouble getting much push up front. Injuries to the offensive line have contributed to that, but this line has to get tougher in order to help create more time for quarterback James Franklin and his skill players. T.J. Moe went as far as to say Mizzou's performance against South Carolina last week was "embarrassing." If this team is going to survive its first year in the SEC, the offense has to step up. UCF's defense has been solid, so this will be a good test for the Tigers before getting back to league play.

5. Mettenberger's rebound: Everyone is piling onto LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger after his subpar play against Auburn last week. He was off for most of the game and seemed to lose his confidence after his fumble at the 1-yard line early in the game. But that was his first SEC start on the road, and Auburn's defense played its best game in a while. Towson won't provide the same challenges, and this game should help boost Mettenberger's confidence. One thing that will help is if he starts to develop more of a downfield passing game. This team has to find some explosion at wide receiver and this could be the weekend Mettenberger starts developing more chemistry with his wideouts.

6. Tennessee's second-half push: Bray made it pretty clear this week that he wasn't very happy with the way the Vols played in the second half against Florida. He said earlier this week that the team "disappeared" in the second half and that the players met to discuss how they "crawled in a shell" in the last two quarters against Florida. That certainly can't happen in Athens this weekend. Georgia is built to play for four quarters and left Missouri behind in the fourth quarter earlier this season. Tennessee has to have a strong second half to keep up with the Bulldogs this weekend.

7. Aggies running wild: Arkansas coach John L. Smith said Wednesday that the two things that aren't working for the Razorbacks' defense are stopping the run and stopping the pass. Well, that's certainly not good with Texas A&M up next. The Aggies have played back-to-back cupcakes, but with a completely new coaching staff and offensive system, they have averaged 526.5 yards and 59 points in their past two outings. Arkansas is giving up a league-worst 458 yards and 36.3 points per game. Players have really picked up Kliff Kingsbury's up-tempo offense and Smith said keeping up with that offense is a major concern for the Hogs.

8. Where will they line up? Georgia coach Mark Richt is holding back from showing his cards when it comes to Malcolm Mitchell, Bacarri Rambo and Alec Ogletree. Mitchell has played all over the field for the Bulldogs this season, but he has received more reps on offense this week. He's listed as the starting boundary corner, but we could see more of him at receiver against the Vols. Rambo and Ogletree were suspended for the first four games, but are expected back this week. Richt isn't saying what their roles will be. Like the past four weeks, we'll have to wait until game time.

9. Manziel's maturation: Talk about a lack of jitters. Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel has been extremely fun to watch during his first season as a starter. After not taking a snap last year, Manziel has been one of the most productive quarterbacks in the league. He has passed for 641 yards with seven touchdowns and has carried the ball 32 times for 262 yards and five more scores. And what might be more impressive is that he hasn't thrown any interceptions. He'll face better talent this week than he has the past two, but Arkansas' defense is hurting, and Manziel has the ability to gut it.

10. Finding Bayou playmakers: Some of the criticism that has been thrown Mettenberger's way should be directed toward LSU's receivers. We haven't seen a go-to option for Mettenberger like we saw with Rueben Randle last year. Odell Beckham Jr. was thought to be that guy, but he has caught only 11 passes for 158 yards and no touchdowns. He caught two passes against Auburn. Jarvis Landry leads LSU with 17 receptions and 160 yards, but has only one score. Kadron Boone leads the team with three receiving touchdowns. If this offense is going to progress, someone has to step up as more of a consistent receiving threat.

Franklin has proven toughness before

September, 18, 2012
9/18/12
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If you didn't hear, Missouri won a close one Saturday night.

Despite nearly blowing a 24-7 lead over Arizona State, the Tigers were able to keep it together long enough to pull out a narrow victory in a game that should have had an even bigger win margin for Mizzou.

But no one seems to care about that. All the talk coming from Saturday's game has revolved around the fact that Mizzou quarterback James Franklin opted not to take a painkilling cortisone shot prior to Saturday's game because of the intense pain he felt in his right shoulder. You know, the same shoulder he injured this spring and needed surgery for. The same shoulder that was re-injured when Georgia linebacker Jarvis Jones hit it during a pass attempt last week.

Franklin's refusal to take the shot has sparked some debate about his toughness, and it started when coach Gary Pinkel informed everyone that Franklin didn't play because of his decision not to take said shot.

"It was too painful for him, and he didn’t want to play," Pinkel said after the win.

Pinkel said after Mizzou's win that he wasn't questioning his quarterback's toughness, but it was too late when he uttered those words about the shot. People had made up their minds and now a cloud of controversy hangs over Franklin and the quarterback position. Wide receiver T.J. Moe added to the drama by calling Corbin Berkstresser, who filled in for Franklin, "tough" when asked about the redshirt freshman following his first career start.

Now, whether that's a bit of a dig at Franklin for not playing is unknown and it could have just been a general compliment, but it certainly didn't help the situation.

The truth is that Franklin didn't want to take the shot because he and his family don't believe in taking medication to cure ailments. Say what you will about it, but that's their decision and it should be respected. It had an affect on Saturday's football game, but Franklin shouldn't be faulted for not taking an injection that he doesn't believe in.

Plus, cortisone only numbs the pain, it doesn't cure the injury. Franklin could have done more damage by playing.

Instead, he's supposedly done more damage to his image, which makes no sense, considering the fact that he played all last season with nine nagging injuries. From a swollen knee to broken fingers, Franklin never really felt healthy in 2011.

Did that stop him from having a breakout year? Absolutely not, as he passed for 2,865 yards, ran for another 981 and had 36 total touchdowns during his sophomore season.

That's pretty tough to do.

The ugly reality for Franklin is that the shoulder injury he suffered diving for a ball this spring will likely linger through the fall. The more hits he takes, the worse it will get. He'll just have to battle through it and increase his tolerance for pain.

Saturday, the pain was too much. It happens. To call him soft or question his toughness is absurd. He's proven time after time that he'll play nicked up when he can.

If last season wasn't enough proof, then I don't know what is.
Missouri quarterback James Franklin doesn’t mind doing a little bit of everything, but he also knows he doesn’t have to do everything.

He has plenty of help.

And if the Tigers’ season opener is any indication, that help will come from a lot of different places this season.

“We have a lot of playmakers on this team, and I’m talking about defense and special teams, too,” Franklin said. “That takes a lot of pressure off the offense. Any time you can change a game with one play, that’s a huge help in getting the momentum flowing your way.”

[+] EnlargeJames Franklin
Spruce Derden/US PresswireMissouri QB James Franklin said he will continue to run despite having to regularly face rugged defenses in the SEC.
Franklin made quite a name for himself as a playmaker a year ago in the Big 12. In his first season as the starter, Franklin made a run at 3,000 yards passing and 1,000 yards rushing. He ended the season with 2,865 passing yards and 21 touchdowns, also rushing for 981 yards and a team-leading 15 touchdowns.

“He’s one of those guys that, the more you watch him play, the more he impresses you with everything he can do,” said Missouri senior receiver T.J. Moe, the Tigers’ leading receiver last season. “He can beat you a number of different ways.”

Franklin, a 6-foot-2, 225-pound junior, thinks the same can be said for this entire team.

“It’s a huge comfort level for me, that I have the playmakers around me who are capable of getting so much done,” Franklin said. “It’s really nice as a quarterback knowing that you don’t have to make the perfect throw or the perfect read on every play. With the guys I have around me, you hand it off or throw it 5 or 10 yards and they’re going to turn it into a big play.”

Franklin wasn’t called on to do much in the 62-10 season-opening rout of Southeastern Louisiana. He threw a 2-yard touchdown pass to Moe to open the Tigers’ scoring but was done by the midway point of the third quarter.

Missouri scored four non-offensive touchdowns in the game, including punt returns of 72 and 70 yards by sophomore tailback Marcus Murphy. Senior tailback Kendial Lawrence, who was slowed by a cracked fibula early last season, also had a 76-yard touchdown run.

Defensively, the Tigers aren’t very big, but they’re fast and added an interception return and fumble return for touchdowns last week.

“There are always going to be those times when you have a tough couple of drives on offense, but nothing gets a team going like a kick return for a touchdown or a touchdown on defense,” Franklin said. “I don’t think you’ve seen the last of that from this team.”

For Franklin’s part, he wants to be more consistent this season, and he knows that will have to start this weekend against No. 7 Georgia. The Bulldogs were hard on opposing quarterbacks last season and had a stretch when they knocked several out of games.

“I want to be smarter with the ball and do the little things to get the ball in my playmakers’ hands,” said Franklin, who threw 11 interceptions last season. “I just want to be more consistent as a player and not have as many ups and downs.”

And, yes, he still plans to run when the situation calls for it – even against SEC defenses.

Franklin said somebody on Twitter tagged him after South Carolina quarterback Connor Shaw was injured running the ball against Vanderbilt in the opener.

“They said something like, ‘I hope James Franklin is watching this game, that quarterbacks don’t run in the SEC,’” recounted Franklin, who said he hasn’t had any problems out of his surgically repaired right (throwing) shoulder.

“I thought it was funny but didn’t let it get under my skin. It’s not going to affect the way I play the game. Maybe it motivates you, and maybe you work harder, but none of us are focused on what other people are saying.

“We’re a lot more grounded than that.”
Smaller in stature, E.J. Gaines can be as big as they come on the football field.

Listed at a generous 5 feet, 10 inches, Missouri’s junior cornerback plays like he has the size that most football players dream of. Sure, genetics have helped with his athleticism and speed, but his relentless attitude and thirst for physicality make up for what he loses with his height.

Gaines, who earned All-Big 12 honors as a sophomore, embraces his smaller frame because it gives quarterbacks a false sense of security. He might not look like he can match up with bigger, taller receivers, but his play quickly proves otherwise. Gaines, who salivates over one-on-one matchups, prefers battling bigger opponents.

“I loved it,” Gaines said, flashing a child-like smile. “Anytime you’re on the field, especially at this level, you have to love competition. You have to love them coming at you. Every time I went out there, I knew they were coming at me.”

While he liked it, it had to be a bit frustrating for his counterparts. Gaines only recorded two interceptions, but he led the Big 12 with 16 pass breakups. That’s pretty good for someone residing in the nation’s most pass-happy league.

[+] EnlargeE.J. Gaines
Jerome Miron/US PresswireDiminutive Missouri cornerback E.J. Gaines knows his new SEC opponents will challenge him this season -- and says he's ready.
As Gaines prepares to take his act to more ground-oriented conference, he understands there will be new challenges, like having to play in the box more and taking on what he believes will be more physical receivers.

But adapting to change is nothing new for Gaines, who has added 10 pounds from last year, weighing in at 195. He went from wanting to be a basketball star to playing running back before picking cornerback. Playing both offense and defense in high school, Gaines fell for corner during his junior year at Fort Osage High in Independence, Mo., when one of his close friends nearly broke his football spirits.

Lining up against the shifty and “definitely faster” Marvell Saffold, who now plays at Missouri State, Gaines suffered his share of embarrassment. Saffold, who had some size on him back then, consistently caught passes and made plays on him. The more the ball came his way, the worse Gaines looked.

It got to the point where Gaines almost gave up defense all together. That was until a break went his way -- one pass got to Gaines first and he ripped it out of the air for an interception. That moment not only triggered a solid finish to Gaines’ day, but also boosted his morale and made him hungry for more.

“That’s when my confidence level went out the roof,” he said.

And it stayed with him at Missouri.

Senior receiver T.J. Moe said he knew instantly during two-a-days during Gaines’ freshman year that he’d be a real player. He was simply outworking people and showed tremendous speed, agility and instincts. It reminded him of former Nebraska standout corner Prince Amukamara, who gave Moe fits when he was around.

“E.J.’s got that same talent where he can be running full speed one way and stop and still knock the ball down,” Moe said.

“He’s got a really, really special ability.

“Phil Steele thinks there are 42 better corners than him, but I probably disagree with that one.”

Gaines’ speed is something that made him deadly in the Big 12, but he admits he must control it in the SEC. He’s so used to shorter, three-step drops and quicker passes from quarterbacks that he has a tendency to jump passes early. From the SEC film he’s seen, he’s noticed that those drops are longer and the ball comes out later and goes more downfield.

Making sure he doesn’t jump too early will be crucial, he said, meaning he’ll have to do a little more meticulous film work to master the timing of opposing quarterbacks.

Regardless, Gaines expects those quarterbacks to gun for him. He’ll have to prove himself all over again, and he's ready.

“It’s obvious that I’m 5-10, 5-11, so they’re definitely going to come at me on deep balls,” he said. “None of that really matters if your technique is right.

“I’m always up for a challenge.”
HOOVER, Ala. -- Now that another year of SEC media days are through, it's time to take a look back at the best moments from this year's three days in the Wynfrey Hotel:

Best interview: Yes, Missouri wide receiver T.J. Moe had a pretty good time with the media in Hoover and Arkansas coach John L. Smith seemed to win over the main ballroom during his press conference, but the best interview of the week had to go to Alabama offensive lineman Barrett Jones. The veteran strolled right into our interview room munching on pecan pie bites without a care in the world. But the real magic came during his video interview where he playfully crushed his best friend and former teammate William Vlachos and gave fellow SEC blogger Chris Low a shout out during his hit. Jones came prepared and knew how to have fun.

[+] EnlargeDonte Moncrief
Butch Dill/AP PhotoOle Miss WR Donte Moncrief dresses to the nines for his appearance at SEC media days.
Best quote: There were so many good one-liners from Moe that we're giving you our top three from the week:

  • Moe on what's different about the SEC: “They say girls are prettier here, air’s fresher and toilet paper is thicker.” -- Offensive lineman Elvis Fisher later told us that this line was planned after a conversation during the trip over.
  • But Moe wasn't done there: "Apparently Ryan Swope is a god because he can come in and get first-team all-SEC. But that’s fine.”
  • And this one really got to Arkansas running back Knile Davis: “In the Big 12, we put our best athletes on offense. [In the SEC], they put their best athletes on defense."
Best outfit: The players came out and dressed well this week, like Auburn's Corey Lemonier and bow tie and red-striped socks and Vanderbilt's Trey Wilson in his slick charcoal suit with the black checkered shirt and red tie. But Ole Miss wide receiver Donte Moncrief stole the show with his colorful outfit. He rocked a light beige jacket over a checkered mint shirt and a blue bow tie. He was also equipped with salmon pants and a bright pink pocket square. The man dresses with confidence.

Best moment: Davis was as cool and relaxed as ever during his time in Hoover. He had no problem proclaiming that he still was the league's best running back, but the best moment came when he was leaving our room. As Davis headed toward the door, Chris asked him if he still thought he was the best and Davis replied with a smile, "Still the best and tell Marcus [Lattimore] I'm coming for him."

Best interviewer: We paled in comparison to the journalistic skills of Mississippi State offensive lineman Gabe Jackson, who took some time to interview Chris on camera. Chris looked like a deer in headlights when Jackson started firing hard-hitting questions and then asked him to name as many dog breeds as he could in 10 seconds. The tongue-tied Chris didn't even mention bulldog.

Most improved: LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger has had a very up-and-down college career, but he walked right into media days without a nervous fiber in his body. He's known to boast a little about his talents and had every opportunity to once again, but didn't. He was very humble and praised his teammates before even mentioning his ability. Plus, he handled questions about his past at Georgia like a pro.

Most confident: We're naming our top four here:

  • Moe: He's sick of hearing about transitioning over to the SEC and he let everyone know about it.
  • Davis: No hesitation in claiming he's the SEC's best running back.
  • Tennessee quarterback Tyler Bray: He doesn't talk much, but he made the statement that Tennessee will win the SEC this season. That's pretty gutsy.
  • Florida running back Mike Gillislee: His goal for the season: 1,500 rushing yards and 24 touchdowns. Florida hasn't had a 1,000-yard rusher since Ciatrick Fason in 2004 and 24 rushing touchdowns would break Tim Tebow's record of 23.
Best hair: Georgia linebacker Jarvis Jones had his hair braided in a very creative, funky way and it looked clean. It also took three and a half hours to do.

Coming out of his shell: Florida outside linebacker/defensive end Lerentee McCray is pretty soft-spoken and can be shy around the media, but not in Hoover. He was talkative and showed a little confidence when he said his favorite part of football is hitting the quarterback so he can "wipe the smiles off their faces."
HOOVER, Ala. -- It sounds like Missouri quarterback James Franklin's shoulder is ahead of schedule.

Coach Gary Pinkel said during the first day of SEC media days on Tuesday that Franklin, who underwent shoulder surgery this spring, is finally throwing a real football. Until now, he was only throwing a Nerf football.

"James is doing well," Pinkel said. "We expect him to be a 100 percent (for the season opener).

"He's ahead of schedule."

One thing Pinkel said he won't do is hesitate to play Franklin in the opener against Louisiana Tech if he's healthy. While Franklin injured his throwing shoulder, Pinkel said that if the medical staff clears him he won't wait to put him on the field.

"The medical staff will make a decision on when he plays," Pinkel said. "Whenever they say he'll play he can play. We're not going to save guys. We're not doing that. We don't do that. When they're ready to play they'll play."

Wide receiver T.J. Moe said he expects Franklin to come back stronger because he's dealt with this injury before. As a freshman, Franklin first tore his labrum when a player walked into his arm while he was attempting to throw during two-a-days and recovered just fine.

Moe also said that while Franklin hasn't been able to do much physically, that hasn't kept him from getting involved in drills. Moe said Franklin was always calling out plays during spring practice and has been during 7-on-7s.

According to Moe, Franklin's football life hasn't been too boring.

"He doesn't have to sit out everything it's just he can't do bear crawls with us, so he'll sit that drill," Moe said. "He can't do bench press, but quarterbacks don't hardly do that anyway."

The only thing Moe said might be difficult for Franklin is trying to get more reps this spring. Moe knows Franklin will try to throw as much as he can during camp, and he'll have to learn to slow things down for his shoulder.

Josey's return still unlikely

Pinkel said that while running back Henry Josey's rehab for his knee is going well, the chances of him playing this fall are still pretty slim.

"He's doing really well," Pinkel said. "It's going to be a stretch (for him to return this fall), but we're not counting him out."

Josey suffered a devastating knee injury against Texas last year, after rushing for 1,168 yards.

Pinkel said Josey has had a "remarkable attitude" throughout the entire process and added Josey will do everything he can to come back, but Pinkel wants to make sure he's completely healthy before playing him.

"The most important thing is that we get him to 100 percent, so he can be the best he can be," Pinkel said. "He's got these three years to play, so hopefully we'll get two great years out of him."
Justin Hunter and Da'Rick RogersAP Photo/Wade PayneJustin Hunter (11) and Da'Rick Rogers (21) are considered to be the best receiving duo in the SEC.
Our SEC position rankings continue with a look at schools' wide receiver and tight end groups.

Past rankings:
On to the league's wide receiver/tight end groups:

1. Tennessee: The Vols are equipped with two of the top wideouts in the league with Da'Rick Rogers, who was second in the SEC in receiving last year, and Justin Hunter, who might be the SEC's top deep threat. It sounds like Hunter will be 100 percent this fall after his ACL injury last year. Junior college transfer Cordarrelle Patterson is big, fast and possesses the big-play gene. The speedy Zach Rogers is back and is so is talented tight end Mychal Rivera.

2. Arkansas: Cobi Hamilton is now Arkansas' primary receiver, and he might be the league's most complete wideout. He can make the big-play and elude defenders along the way. While Marquel Wade's status is still unclear, if he does return, he'll be a major lift for this offense because of his playmaking ability in the slot. Julian Horton and Javontee Herndon have always impressed coaches in practice and now will get their chances to in games. Tight end Chris Gragg should be even more involved and is the league's top tight end.

3. Georgia: While Malcolm Mitchell could go back and forth between receiver and corner, when he's at receiver he's Georgia's top offensive threat and was one of the league's best as a rookie. There are vets behind him, starting with reliable senior Tavarres King, who had a very good spring, senior Marlon Brown, who seemed to take a big step in his game this spring. Sophomores Michael Bennett and Chris Conley combined for 48 catches for 608 yards and seven touchdowns last year. Unproven tight ends Arthur Lynch and Jay Rome will replace Orson Charles and Aron White.

4. Texas A&M: This isn't the fastest group out there, but there are some pretty reliable weapons, starting with star Ryan Swope, who could have left for the NFL after catching 89 passes for 1,207 yards and 11 touchdowns last year. Uzoma Nwachukwu was third on the team with 50 catches for 639 yards and three tight ends -- Nehemiah Hicks, Michael Lamothe and Hutson Prioleau -- return. Keep an eye on junior Nate Askew, who could be a downfield threat this fall.

5. LSU: Odell Beckham Jr. was one of the top rookies last year and could be even better in Year 2. He'll be joined by potential deep threat and big-play target Jarvis Landry, who developed some good chemistry with quarterback Zach Mettenberger this spring. Russell Shepard is talented, but he's been wildly inconsistent. Keep an eye on junior James Wright and incoming frosh Avery Johnson, who is the younger brother of Patrick Peterson. Also, tight end Chase Clement is on the John Mackey watch list.

[+] EnlargeJordan Matthews
Don McPeak/US PresswireWide receiver Jordan Matthews is one player the Commodores will be counting on this fall.
6. Vanderbilt: This group surprised last year and returns most of its components, starting with Jordan Matthews, who was fourth in the SEC in receiving last year. Sophomore Chris Boyd was solid last year, hauling in 31 catches and eight touchdowns. Jonathan Krause is very good in space and should see his role increase this fall after a solid spring. The coaches are excited about former QB Josh Grady moving to receiver. Replacing tight end Brandon Barden won't be easy.

7. Alabama: There is more speed out wide in Tuscaloosa, but there's a lot more youth. The Tide could turn to freshmen Chris Black, Amari Cooper and Eddie Williams to help develop a more downfield passing game. More will be expected from veterans Kenny Bell and Kevin Norwood, while sophomore DeAndrew White possesses a ton of speed. Still no word on Duron Carter. Tight end Michael Williams was solid last year, but will be used even more this fall.

8. Mississippi State: There is a lot of experience here, but this group has still underperformed at times, especially senior Chad Bumphis, who has yet to live up to all the hype that followed him from high school. Seniors Chris Smith and Arceto Clark combined for 65 catches last year, while the staff is very excited about the big-play potential redshirt freshman Joe Morrow possesses. Tight end Malcolm Johnson serves as a very reliable tight end target, as well.

9. Missouri: The Tigers lost two starting receivers and stud tight end Michael Egnew, but three of the top five pass catchers are back, including inside threat T.J. Moe, who led Mizzou in receiving last year. Big things are expected from Marcus Lucas, who can stretch the field with his speed and physicality, and the coaches think L'Damian Washington can also be a downfield threat. Also, Dorial Green-Beckham, last year's top recruit, should make an immediate impact. Eric Waters is replacing Egnew, but has just two career catches and suffered a knee injury this spring.

10. Auburn: Emory Blake is one of the league's top downfield threats and has been one of Auburn's most consistent offensive weapons. So has tight end Philip Lutzenkirchen, who should be more of a passing threat with the addition of transfer fullback Jay Prosch. There is a lot of depth, but it's unproven. Trovon Reed was supposed to be a star, but had a lackluster second year. Seniors Travante Stallworth and DeAngelo Benton have 15 and 14 career catches, respectively. Quan Bray has shown potential and could have a bigger role this season and keep an eye on freshman Ricardo Louis.

11. Florida: The Gators have struggled here since 2009 and still lack proven playmakers. Andre Debose is probably the best bet to be one, but he's been very inconsistent. Quinton Dunbar has the speed to be an outside threat, but caught just 14 passes last year. And the coaches are still waiting for senior Frankie Hammond Jr. to turn things up. True freshman Latroy Pittman had a great spring and the coaches are excited about his potential. Tight end Jordan Reed is one of the most athletic players in the league and will be a bigger target with two young quarterbacks throwing the ball.

12. South Carolina: Now that Alshon Jeffery is gone, the Gamecocks have questions and inexperience here. The fast, athletic Ace Sanders is the only returning pass catcher with at least 20 catches from last year (29). The hope is Bruce Ellington will be more of a factor this fall. Tight ends Justice Cunningham and Rory Anderson combined for 26 catches and four touchdowns. Damiere Byrd has blazing speed, but caught just one pass last year. DeAngelo Smith had a solid spring, and the coaches hope he can be a downfield threat. A lot will be expected from incoming freshman Shaq Roland.

13. Ole Miss: Sophomore Donte Moncrief is a budding star in this league and thinks he'll be even better in Hugh Freeze's spread offense. Ja-Mes Logan caught 20 passes last year, but had a very good spring. But Nickolas Brassell was an academic casualty and Randall Mackey had to move over from quarterback. The coaches are looking for consistency from Terrell Grant and Vince Sanders, who are both pretty unproven. Tight end Jamal Mosley is expected to do more in the spread and averaged 13.8 yards per catch last year.

14. Kentucky: Joker Phillips' goal this spring was to find more playmakers and he thinks he did with sophomore Demarco Robinson, who had five receptions last year, and redshirt freshman Daryl Collins. The hope is that they'll take some pressure off of La'Rod King, who is really the only proven receiving threat on the team. Tight ends Ronnie Shields and Tyler Robinson did well this spring, but combined for just 10 catches last year.
Our look at the SEC's most productive returning players in 2012 continues with a look at the league's top returning kickoff returners.

Past producers:
The SEC returns seven of the top 10 kick returners from 2011. The top three returners are back, so kickers beware. However, the ball will now be moved forward five yards to the 35-yard line for kickoffs, meaning returns should occur less often. But that also means they'll now be more important. We're going by average per return. Note: To qualify, a player must have at least one return per team's games played. This is one of the most exciting plays in football and here's a look at the SEC's top returner:

Tre Mason, RB, Auburn: He returned 24 kicks for an average of 26.4 yards per return, had a long of 97 yards and recorded a touchdown. Mason dealt with being in a crowded backfield by making a name for himself in the return game during the first half of the season. He did most of his damage in the first two weeks, grabbing 10 returns for 348 yards and had a touchdown in the season opener against Utah State. He saw his production dip as the season went on because of injuries and his fumbling issues. He eventually lost his job, but could he make a comeback for his crown in 2012?

The SEC returns six more of the top kickoff returners in 2012:

Andre Debose, WR, Florida: He returned 19 kicks for an average of 26.1 yards per return, had a long of 99 yards and registered one touchdown.

Dennis Johnson, RB, Arkansas: He returned 18 kicks for an average of 25.6 yards per return, had a long of 98 yards and registered one touchdown.

Tobias Singleton, RB, Ole Miss: He returned 21 kicks for an average of 24.6 yards per return and had a long of 47 yards.

Andre Hal, CB, Vanderbilt: He returned 31 kicks for an average of 23.8 yards per return, had a long of 96 yards and registered one touchdown.

Devrin Young, RB, Tennessee: He returned 27 kicks for an average of 23.3 yards per return and had a long of 67 yards.

Bruce Ellington, WR, South Carolina: He returned 20 kicks for an average of 23.2 yards and had a long of 45 yards.

With kickoffs being moved up, we might see even less in the kick return game this fall. We could also see a new winner for this category if Mason doesn't get his job back. And with the amount of production he'll have on offense, his returns might get cut short anyway. Keep an eye on Mason's teammates, Onterio McCalebb and Quan Bray. McCalebb averaged 30.1 yards per return and had a touchdown on just 11 returns, while Bray averaged 24.2 on 10 returns.

Johnson has always been very dangerous in the return game. He entered the 2011 season as the SEC's active leader for career kickoff return yards and total return yards with 2,014 and he added 461 last fall. Johnson will likely have more steam to work with this fall with Knile Davis eating into his carries at running back. That will make him even tougher to stop in the return game and counting him out of the race for the return crown is just silly.

Debose was named the nation’s top kick returner by the College Football Performance Awards in 2010, but has always had some issues with his decision-making in the return game. Still, there's no doubting his speed when he finds a hole. When he's focused, he's exciting to watch, but he's yet to keep his focus for an entire season as a returner.

LaDarius Perkins will have more responsibility in Mississippi State's offense, but he was sometimes fun to watch in the return game.

Missouri receiver T.J. Moe averaged 23.3 yards on 26 kicks, but didn't return a kick longer than 49 yards. Still, he's shifty enough and has the vision to make a run at this thing.
COLUMBIA, Mo. -- On paper, Missouri's group of wide receivers bleeds inexperience.

Outside of veteran T.J. Moe, who will be a senior this fall, Missouri's returning receiving targets have combined for 51 catches for 712 yards and five touchdowns in their careers.

But when you talk to players and coaches at Missouri, those numbers tell a much different story. They say that while the returners aren’t burning up the stat sheet, it hasn't been because of a lack of talent.

"It's only unproven because guys haven't got the chance to do anything yet," Moe said. "We have a lot of good receivers out here and we have a lot of guys out here who have made plays."

Last year, Moe led the Tigers with 54 receptions and 649 yards. Behind him, Missouri had former All-American tight end Michael Egnew (50 receptions) and seniors Wes Kemp (29 receptions) and Jerrel Jackson (17 receptions), who combined for 36 starts.

"It's hard to beat those guys out because they do all the right things," offensive coordinator David Yost said.

While most of the talk concerning Missouri's receivers has revolved around inexperience and numbers, Yost and Co. are excited about what this group can do.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Lucas
AP Photo/Matt YorkMissouri will be counting on speedy WR Marcus Lucas to make a significant impact in 2012.
Coaches and players think they have bona fide deep threats in rising juniors Marcus Lucas and L'Damian Washington. Lucas was fourth on the team in receiving last year (23 catches for 414 yards) and tied for first with five touchdowns. Washington was fifth with 20 catches for 364 yards and three scores.

Yost said both received more time as the season went on because of how explosive they were (Lucas has been clocked running a 4.3 in the 40-yard dash). Both ended the year averaging 18 yards per catch.

Washington was banged up this spring, but Lucas said he took full advantage of his time on the field. With more reps, Lucas said he shook the laziness that hurt him last year. His jogging and trudging around the field turned into sprints, his head stopped swimming and he finally learned how to finish plays after getting more comfortable in Missouri's offense.

"It comes with confidence, really," said Lucas, who caught four passes for 81 yards in Missouri's spring game. "When you don't really know exactly [what's going on] and you're guessing on what your exact assignment is it slows you down. Whenever you're out there just playing, you can play at your top-end speed."

Players like Bud Sasser, who worked at the Y position/tight end position, Gahn McGaffie and Jimmie Hunt, who caught an 88-yard touchdown in the spring game, all impressed this spring. So did tight end Eric Waters, who will now take over for Egnew, before he went down with an MCL injury that required surgery. Coach Gary Pinkel said Waters, who has two career catches, will be a key cog in the offense and should be back up to speed in three months.

Upperclassmen Rolandis Woodland, Jaleel Clark and Kerwin Stricker should also contribute more this fall and much ballyhooed recruit Dorial Green-Beckham, known around the program as "the big guy," will be on campus this summer.

"We're in pretty good shape," Pinkel said.

Before spring practice, 7-on-7 sessions helped build receiver chemistry, but what really brought this group together was not having quarterback James Franklin healthy this spring. After being sidelined with a shoulder injury, the receivers were forced to work with backups Corbin Berkstresser, Alex Demczak and Ashton Glaser.

Lucas said it was tough building chemistry with the other quarterbacks at first, but it forced the receivers to be more vocal in film sessions and in the huddle with the QBs

It also helped the receivers learn to take on more responsibility in the offense. They felt as though they were the voices this spring, and Lucas said that will be more beneficial for this group than in past seasons.

"We just want to be dominant," he said.

"We're kind of like the motor for [the offense]. We run the pace out there. If the wideouts are having a good day, it feels like the offense is having a good day."
Gary PinkelJohn Rieger/US PresswireMissouri coach Gary Pinkel will bring the nation's ninth-ranked rushing offense to the SEC in 2012.
COLUMBIA, Mo. -- From the moment Missouri was officially welcomed to the SEC, the questions about adjustments began.

Could Missouri’s spread offense work in the bigger, badder, faster SEC? Could the Tigers hold up in the nation’s best, most physical conference? Could all of this hyperbole about a college football conference get under the skin of a team and staff leaving the Big 12?

Coach Gary Pinkel and those around the program calmly answer each one of those with a simple “Yes.”

Pinkel has had to answer questions about change for far too long, and just so everyone is on the same page, he’s very confident the football his team has played -- both offensively and defensively -- during his 11 years in Columbia will work in the SEC. To say that there won’t be tweaks made to combat the obvious speed and power the SEC is known for would be “inappropriate,” Pinkel said. But to suggest that the Tigers should overhaul most of what they do is just as inappropriate.

“We’re going to run our offense and we’re going to run our defense,” Pinkel said. “We’re going to do what we do.”

What the Tigers did last year was rank first in the Big 12 and ninth nationally in rushing (243.5 yards per game). Missouri was also fifth in the Big 12 in total offense (475.5). In a conference known more for burning out scoreboard lights, the Tigers averaged 32.8 points per game and 30 in league play.

Say what you will about Big 12 defenses, but the Tigers are proud of their numbers and their competition. The SEC will no doubt be tougher, but Pinkel isn’t looking to change just because of a new challenge.

Most of the questions concerning change have centered on the offense. Missouri runs as true a spread as anyone. The Tigers love space for receivers and linemen. Rarely is there a tight end attached, shotgun is the primary formation, there is a lot of motion and there will be empty sets.

This is an offense built more on finesse, but offensive coordinator David Yost insists that there is power. New wrinkles were added last year to attach the tight end more and run more I-form. Both will make appearances, along with a little three-back action, if the personnel works out.

[+] EnlargeT.J. Moe
Photo by Scott Rovak/US Presswire T.J. Moe said he's confident that Missouri's spread offense will give the highly regarded SEC defenses reason for concern.
While the Tigers have been asked if they can adapt, Yost wonders if the SEC can adapt. Not a lot of spread has been used in this league, and even Urban Meyer’s spread at Florida showed a lot of power plays with physical QB Tim Tebow. Auburn was much more spread out, but Yost said this will be different.

“We will be a spread team and we will try to give people fits in different ways than how other people do it,” Yost said.

“There’s not a lot of what we do happening in that league right now. It’s a change for us going against new people, but it’s also a change for them for what they’re going to see because we’re different and we’re different in how we do it.”

Wide receiver T.J. Moe, who led Missouri with 54 catches for 649 yards and had four touchdowns in 2011, agrees. He understands the SEC is good, but thinks SEC defenses will have to catch on as well.

"Offensively, they have to cater to us because whatever we do they have to try and defend us," Moe said. "They can't put eight in the box when we're spreading it five wide. You just can't do that.

"For us, we're going to do what we do and they're going to have to stop it."

Defensively, the Tigers feel just as confident. This group ranked fourth in the Big 12 in total defense last fall, and defensive coordinator Dave Steckel said he doesn’t plan to change much -- physically or schematically -- in the move. In fact, he’s been so focused on his own team and recruiting that he hasn’t seen much SEC offensive tape at all. When asked about any changes he might think about making, Steckel seemed disinterested in the idea.

“I can’t answer that question. I’m too old, man,” he said with a laugh. “Football is football. You just play football.

“We’ve always emphasized since we’ve been here tough and physical football.”

As far as taking on bigger or faster skill players, linebacker Will Ebner isn’t concerned because he doesn’t believe he’ll see anything faster than what he saw in the Big 12.

“I don’t agree with that,” Ebner said about the SEC being a faster conference. “We play against fast guys. The Big 12 is not a bad conference. They’ve got a lot of skill guys, especially [with] all those spread offenses. Those guys can fly.”

The defense’s toughness will be constantly judged, but the offense will continue to receive the most attention this fall. Yost said change will be considered week-to-week, and until then, the plan is to make defenses answer to them, not the other way around.

“We try to do as many things as we can that defenses don’t like," he said, "and try to put the onus on them to handle us and react to us as opposed to we react to what they do.”
James Franklin understands that from the outside, Missouri's wide receiver corps doesn't appear to be very polished.

Three starting pass-catchers from 2011 are gone and the leading returning receiver (T.J. Moe) caught 54 passes last year. After that, Missouri's returners have just 77 career catches combined.

[+] EnlargeT.J. Moe
Photo by Scott Rovak/US PresswireT.J. Moe, Missouri's top returning receiver, caught 54 passes in 2011.
But for Franklin, who enters his second year as Missouri's starting quarterback, he's fine with the personnel he's passing to. Players might not have excelled in games, but he saw the talent and potential just about every day in practice last fall.

"Thankfully, it's been good to have so much depth at receiver," Franklin said.

"There's just not enough positions on the field to play them all."

There will be plenty of room in 2012.

Moe already has his place carved out in Missouri's starting lineup, but he isn't the only one defenses will have to account for. Junior Marcus Lucas showcased his deep threat skills last year and will see his role expand on the outside this fall, Franklin said. He's also expecting bigger things from outside threat L'Damian Washington, who caught 25 passes in 2011.

But those are names that people are familiar with. Franklin said there is still a heap of players who should gain more attention this fall.

There's Bud Sasser, who Franklin said really caught his eye during 7-on-7 drills but is dealing with a hamstring injury, Jimmie Hunt, who caught one pass for a 54-yard touchdown and has the ability to challenge as one of Franklin's deep-threat targets, and tight end Eric Waters, who is now out of Michael Egnew's shadow.

Franklin said he was impressed by the way his receivers and tight ends performed during 7-on-7s, but he was also thrilled by how fast the chemistry started to develop with them. Chemistry, Franklin said, will boost Missouri's passing game going after losing key components from a year ago.

"Obviously, we don't have telepathy," Franklin said, "but we know what the other guy is going to do in any given situation."

What else will help is having a big, talented youngster in top wide receiver prospect Dorial Green-Beckham coming in this summer. The hype machine has been pumping away when it comes to Green-Beckham and Franklin can't help but be excited about the chance to work with the 6-foot-6, 220-pounder.

Franklin said bringing Green-Beckham in will improve Missouri's passing game in multiple ways. First, he's a bigger, faster target for him to use vertically. Secondly, he's going to grab a lot of defensive attention. He can be used as a decoy at times, which should help open things up for other players.

"Really, it opens up everyone on the field to where [the defense] is going to have to start playing each side evenly, as if everyone were the same, and that's going to open up those opportunities because we have a lot of good route runners and a lot of good playmakers," Franklin said.

It's also going to push the handful of receivers already on campus. Franklin said there are some players who are a little worried about Green-Beckham coming in and taking playing time, but he's seen that motivate players to work just a little harder.

The Tigers will face a few more questions as they make the transition to the SEC, but Franklin assures the passing game won't be an issue this fall.

Big 12 position rankings: Receivers/TEs

February, 14, 2012
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We're continuing our look at the postseason rankings for each position in the Big 12. Here's a look back at where the receivers ranked in the preseason.

In this position, unlike quarterback, depth is a major, major factor in these rankings.

More postseason position rankings:
[+] EnlargeJustin Blackmon
Doug Pensinger/Getty ImagesJustin Blackmon highlighted Oklahoma State's deep group of receivers this season.
1. Oklahoma State: The Cowboys boasted two-time Biletnikoff winner Justin Blackmon, but he wasn't the only weapon. The Cowboys had nine (!) receivers with at least 19 catches and 200 yards receiving this season. Insane. Life is good with Brandon Weeden at quarterback.

2. Baylor: Kendall Wright actually outperformed Blackmon and Ryan Broyles on the stat sheet, catching 108 balls for 1,663 yards. The Bears didn't have the insane depth of OSU, but the trio of Wright, Terrance Williams (59 rec, 957 yards, 11 TDs) and Tevin Reese (51 rec, 877 yards, 7 TDs) were all in the Big 12's top seven receivers.

3. Texas A&M: Ryan Swope emerged to become one of just four Big 12 receivers to notch 1,000-yard seasons. Jeff Fuller's season was disappointing, but he still finished eighth in the league in receiving, and Uzoma Nwachukwu was in the league's top 15 in receiving.

4. Oklahoma: The Sooners weren't quite as solid as they thought to begin the season. Broyles was as advertised, though his Biletnikoff-contending season was cut short by a torn ACL. The unit was productive, but came down with the drops late in the season. Broyles and Kenny Stills were both in the league's top seven in receiving, and Jaz Reynolds caught 41 passes for 715 yards to crack the top 10.

5. Texas Tech: Tech's top target, Darrin Moore, battled injuries all year, but Eric Ward emerged as the team's most consistent target, catching 84 passes for 800 yards and 11 scores. Alex Torres missed two games, but added 616 more yards.

6. Missouri: The Tigers' receivers had their production dip with a dual-threat passer in James Franklin who ran the ball more than his predecessor, but they were still pretty good, despite lacking a true big-time threat. T.J. Moe caught 54 passes for 649 yards and four scores. Tight end Michael Egnew added 50 grabs for 523 yards and three scores. L'Damian Washington, Marcus Lucas and Wes Kemp had unremarkable individual seasons, but their production added up to a good year for Mizzou's receivers.

7. Kansas State: Kansas State was better than most thought to begin the season, but the ground-based offense limited their receivers' ability to finish with big production. Chris Harper (40 rec, 547 yards, 5 TDs) led the group. Tramaine Thompson and Tyler Lockett showed some good promise, too.

8. Texas: The Longhorns could get really good, really fast at this spot. The uncertainty/struggles at quarterback limited this group, but Jaxon Shipley and Mike Davis could both mature into absolute stars. For now, though, they didn't quite crack the top 15 in the Big 12 in receiving. Both topped 40 catches and 600 receiving yards.

9. Iowa State: Darius Reynolds' size downfield will be missed, but Aaron Horne and Josh Lenz are tough covers working the middle of the field. Reynolds caught seven touchdowns, and Horne and Lenz both topped 38 catches.

10. Kansas: Yikes. The Jayhawks didn't have a receiver in the league's top 20, but D.J. Beshears led the team with 40 grabs for 437 yards and three touchdowns. He was the only Jayhawk in the Big 12's top 32 in receiving.

Kicking it with Missouri's T.J. Moe

February, 7, 2012
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T.J. Moe, who’s led Missouri in receiving each of the past two seasons, is like most in the Show Me State.

He knows making the jump to the SEC will be an adjustment for the Tigers. How much of an adjustment remains to be seen.

He’s sure eager to find out.

Moe, a rising senior who grew up just outside St. Louis, took some time this week to discuss Missouri’s move to the SEC and what it means for both sides.

[+] EnlargeT.J. Moe
Photo by Scott Rovak/US Presswire T.J. Moe said he's confident that Missouri's spread offense will give the highly regarded SEC defenses reason for concern.
Were you a big college football fan growing up, and do you have any memories of the SEC?

T.J. Moe: I wasn’t a big college fan until I got to high school. When I was growing up, I was a Rams fan. They were winning Super Bowls, and my family had season tickets. Brad Smith is the one who lifted Missouri off the ground and made them exciting to watch. I don’t even think I went to a Missouri game until my sophomore year of high school. I really didn’t know much at all about the SEC growing up. I knew SEC schools were good. I just wasn’t exposed to them a whole lot because I was watching Missouri and the Big 12.

How big of a step do you think it will be for Missouri in the SEC?

TJM: I think it’s going to be a rigorous transition because of the bottom teams in the SEC. They’re basically what the mid-tier teams were in the Big 12. The top teams in the Big 12 are every bit as good as the top teams in the SEC. But we get to play Kansas every year in the Big 12, and there’s no Kansas in the SEC. It’s almost like you have off weeks in the Big 12. You can’t say that about the SEC. You have to bring your “A” game every week.

Are you ready for the brand of defense they play in the SEC, and how will that affect you?

TJM: Offensively, I don’t think we have to change a thing. They have to cater to what we do. We have top athletes and pass-rushers in the Big 12, so we’re used to that. At the same time, there aren’t a lot of offenses in the SEC that do what we do.

What about the adjustment on defense?

TJM: The big change for the defense is that we’re used to playing against the Colt McCoys and Brandon Weedens, the top quarterbacks. Now, we’re going to be playing against the Trent Richardsons of the world instead.

Do you buy the theory that what separates the SEC from other conferences is the quality, depth and athleticism in the defensive line?

TJM: It’s not like we didn’t have big guys who were athletic and could run in the Big 12 on the defensive line. We had some of those guys on our team, guys like Jacquies Smith, Brad Madison and Dominique Hamilton. So we have big, fast athletes on the defensive line, too. The difference might be that the SEC has a first, second and third string of those guys, and we might only have a first and maybe a second string of those guys.

What’s been the general reaction of your teammates about starting play this coming season in the SEC?

TJM: Everybody is excited. There aren’t a lot of players who can say they played in two conferences. I’ve been asked almost every day for 10 months about what I thought it would be like playing in the SEC. I’ll finally be able to answer that question after this season. I know a lot of people say that the SEC is the dominant conference, and I think that’s debatable. Yes, they’ve won six straight national championships. But if Colt McCoy doesn’t get hurt so early (against Alabama in 2009), Texas wins that game and maybe wins it handily. And this year, Oklahoma State didn't even get the opportunity to play in the game. What I do know is that you have to bring it week in and week out in the SEC.

What are you most looking forward to about the whole SEC experience?

TJM: Just seeing all the different stadiums and campuses. It’s similar to high school football in the state of Texas. All they do in Texas is play football. You never hear about anything else. That’s sort of the like the SEC. Kentucky is about the only school known for basketball. I couldn’t name a Georgia basketball player in the last 50 years, but I could name a bunch of Georgia football players.

What are you going to miss most about the Big 12?

TJM: Beating up on Kansas every year and the fact that I never got a chance to beat Nebraska. You make friendships with some of the other players around the league. I’ll miss that, too. But I’m more excited to be going to the SEC than I am upset that we’re leaving the Big 12.

Who do you think will be Missouri’s big rival in the SEC?

TJM: It has to be Arkansas. People around here do not like Arkansas, and the people in Arkansas aren’t real happy about Dorial (Green-Beckham’s) decision. He’s getting a lot of hate mail from them. But it’s more than that. People here just don’t like Arkansas, and I don’t think they’re real fond of us, either. The only thing I really know about Arkansas is when Missouri beat them by 30 points (38-7) in the (2008) Cotton Bowl.

Instant analysis: Missouri 41, UNC 24

December, 26, 2011
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A mid-level bowl game on a rainy day in a location few consider a vacation spot led to a small crowd. But Missouri looked like it wanted to be in Shreveport, La., on Monday afternoon, dominating this game, and earning a solid win in the AdvoCare V100 Independence Bowl over North Carolina, 41-24.

How the game was won: Missouri was the aggressor from the start, pounding North Carolina with a relentless running game and hitting simple throws when necessary. The Tigers scored on all five of their first-half drives and raced to a 31-10 halftime lead. Missouri forced a pair of first-half turnovers after allowing a touchdown on the opening drive. The rout was on early.

Turning point: North Carolina turned the ball over on consecutive snaps and when it looked up, Missouri led, 31-7. Giovani Bernard fumbled near midfield and Missouri marched 40 yards for a touchdown. Bryn Renner threw a perfect pass to Dwight Jones, but a hit jostled loose the ball, which ended up rolling off Jones' back and into Missouri linebacker Zaviar Gooden's hands. Missouri used seven plays to go 59 yards for a score and a 31-7 lead.

Stat of the game: Missouri's running game really couldn't be stopped in the first half. The Tigers outrushed North Carolina, 192-13. Bernard, an All-ACC first-teamer, had just 12 yards on eight carries in the half. The Tigers finished with 337 rushing yards -- just the third time this season the Tigers topped 300 yards on the ground. They did it against UNC, who entered Monday's game with the nation's No. 14 rush defense, allowing just more than 106 yards rushing per game this season.

Player of the game: Franklin. Missouri's sophomore quarterback was at his best, utilizing his underrated arm and great legs, and helping the Tigers keep solid balance. He finished with 142 yards rushing and 132 yards passing, accounting for three touchdowns.

Worst omen: Truman the Tiger. Mizzou's mascot shattered the crystal Independence Bowl trophy just hours before the game, but bowl officials told media at the game they hustled to find a replacement trophy from a "local jeweler." Missouri isn't expected to be forced to foot the bill for the trophy, which cost a "couple thousand bucks, at least," but the omen didn't seem to bother the Tigers in the bowl win.

Stat of the game II: Truman the Tiger fumbles: 1. Missouri Tiger fumbles: 0.

Unsung hero of the game: Missouri's offensive line. North Carolina's defense is littered with NFL talent, highlighted by defensive end Quinton Coples. The Tigers O-line blew them off the ball from the start, clearing huge holes and giving Franklin tons of time to throw.

Best call: Missouri gave up a 22-yard touchdown pass on the opening drive, but came back with a trick play you know it was itching to unleash. Facing a second-and-4 on the UNC 40, Franklin flicked a pass to his right, back to former high school quarterback and the team's leading receiver, T.J. Moe. He flung it downfield to a wide-open Wes Kemp for a 40-yard, game-tying touchdown. The trickery worked to perfection, and the execution was perfect, too.

What it means: Missouri will head to the SEC with some good momentum off a pretty average season. The day in Shreveport finished with an S-E-C chant from the Tigers fans who made the trip. The Tigers will face a huge challenge in a new conference next year, while North Carolina begins a brand-new era in the ACC. Interim coach Everett Withers is headed to Ohio State as a co-defensive coordinator, and former Southern Miss coach (and Oklahoma State offensive coordinator) Larry Fedora will now take over in Chapel Hill. The Tar Heels have constantly underachieved under Butch Davis with lots of NFL talent, and Fedora will try to change that.

Record performance: North Carolina quarterback Bryn Renner broke Chris Keldorf's school record, set in 1996, for touchdown passes with his 24th of the season on the opening drive. That ball was caught by Dwight Jones, his 12th of the season, which tied Hakeem Nicks' school record set back in 2008.

Record performance II: Missouri's 31 first-half points were a Mizzou bowl record, and also an Independence Bowl record. The Tigers made it look easy.

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