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Missouri’s 7-0 start silences SEC skeptics

Missouri running back Henry Josey dives for touchdown during second half an NCAA college football game against GeorgiSaturday Oct. 12

Missouri running back Henry Josey dives in for a touchdown during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Georgia Saturday, Oct. 12, 2013 in Athens, Ga. Missouri won 41-26. (AP Photo/John Bazemore

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Updated: November 26, 2013 6:48AM

Missouri averaged a hair under 10 victories over its final five seasons in the Big 12, but do you know what it has never done under 13th-year coach Gary Pinkel? Get off to a 4-0 start in conference play. Or begin a season 8-0 overall. Matter of fact, those things haven’t happened at the school since 1968 and 1960, respectively.

Times are changing fast at the stadium known as the Zou. After a disappointing 2012 in which they went 2-6 in their first SEC action and 5-7 overall, the Tigers have turned the tables on the baddest league in the land. They’ve proved to doubters all over the South that Texas A&M wasn’t the only non-elite Big 12 program that could survive and thrive in an even more treacherous neck of the woods.

Mizzou has arrived in a big way, beating every opponent by at least 15 points. Seven dustups, seven bust-ups — three of them against Vanderbilt, Georgia and Florida, each of which was expected to finish ahead of the Tigers in the SEC East.

The Georgia and Florida games gave Mizzou consecutive victories over Top 25 opponents for the first time in 37 years. And now the Tigers are slim favorites to make it three in a row, with South Carolina visiting from what might soon be knows as the SEC’s “other” Columbia.

Bulldogs, Gators, Gamecocks — the preseason tri-favorites in the East. The terrifying trio that was supposed to run roughshod over the rest of the division and maybe even make Alabama and the SEC West flinch for a change.

Perhaps Steve Spurrier, Jadeveon Clowney and South Carolina will strike a blow for SEC order and squash this Tigers uprising. Perhaps the Gamecocks will make like it’s 2012 — when they hammered Mizzou by three touchdowns — all over again.

Don’t bet on it.

“We come in every game expecting to win,” sophomore linebacker Kentrell Brothers said. “Any player that comes in thinking that we are going to lose or anything like that shouldn’t be on the team.”

Any player should also realize that consecutive victories over Top 25 teams are necessary just to get anywhere in the SEC. Nine of the league’s teams have been ranked. The Tigers still have three of them to go — and a fourth, likely (gulp) Alabama, if they make it to the league title game.

“We do not care whom we play,” Pinkel said, “and we are going to try to play our best football. We’ve only got 12 shots at this. Our players are aware of one thing, and that is keep playing and good things are going to happen.”

They’re happening in part because Mizzou has more playmakers than most around the SEC realized. A year ago, the Tigers were looked upon as just another of college football’s spread-option, dink-and-dunk teams. In other words: soft. This season? A Henry Josey-led ground game is churning out 234.4 yards per game, second-best in the conference. That’s big-boy football.

The Tigers have some defensive backs who could play for nearly anybody. You’ll never guess what college team has more interceptions than Mizzou’s 14. That’s because there isn’t one.

By the way, how about Clowney? The Gamecocks’ superstar defensive end has two sacks already this season.

Mizzou’s Michael Sam has three three-sack games. Yes, you read that right.

If South Carolina learns about all of this the hard way, the Tigers will be 8-0 — again, for the first time since 1960. They were unranked to start that season, too, but they ascended all the way to No. 1 in the polls. The dream died short of a national title and that’s likely to happen in 2013 as well. A No. 1 ranking at any point would be a shocker. Anything better than getting creamed in the SEC title game would be a shocker, too.

But who are we kidding? At the Zou, all would agree the season has already been a smash hit.


Twitter: @slgreenberg

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