Give an 'A' to Missouri's 'D'

2010-10-17T00:00:00Z 2010-10-17T08:00:31Z Give an 'A' to Missouri's 'D'BY BRYAN BURWELL
October 17, 2010 12:00 am  • 

No one who isn't properly armed with their own exotic computer program and accompanying customized pocket protector can reasonably predict where the unbeaten Missouri football team will be ranked when the first official Bowl Championship Series standings are revealed later Sunday.

But even an avowed BCS hater like me can comprehend that these surprising Tigers picked the perfect time to put together their best all-around game of the year, smoking Texas A&M on Saturday, 30-9, in the sort of performance that provokes those BCS computers to whirl and click and spit out all sorts of excitable (and thoroughly incomprehensible) data. Four hundred seventeen net yards on offense, 361 in the air, lots of exciting ESPN highlight-reel plays by an array of slick receivers flying all over the field.

But it's the stuff that the Top Plays probably won't get dizzy about that sparks my interest.

Missouri's defense might be the best thing about this impressive young team.

Last month when they opened the season with an easy win over Illinois, a lot of the MU defensive players were telling anyone who would listen that this group was different than anything we've seen in the recent past in Columbia. Which is to say, they finally have a secondary that can honestly cover people.

Lock 'em down, actually.

Did you see all those nasty, relentless, bring-the-house blitzes that defensive coordinator Dave Steckel kept dialing up? This is a defense that finally has defensive backs who can cover anyone you put in front of them, which gives Steckel the freedom to release his blitzing linebackers and safeties. When was the last time you saw a Missouri defense that fearlessly left its cornerbacks in single coverage against game-breaking receivers such as A&M's big-play monster Jeff Fuller? Did you see the way freshman cornerback Kip Edwards, and seniors Kevin Rutland, Carl Gettis, Jasper Simmons and Jarrell Harrison were swarming on the A&M receivers Saturday?

Are they really this good? Are they really a Top 15, maybe even Top 10 team with legitimate aspirations for not only the Big 12 North title, but the league championship too? Is it possible this unheralded bunch could turn out to be the best team Gary Pinkel has had since he showed up in Columbia?

"I don't know how many superstars we've got, how many great, great, great players. (But) we've got a lot of good players, I guarantee you that," Pinkel said. "When we play well as a football team we're pretty good."

I don't really know how good this team is. But this is an under-the-radar team that has put itself in an unexpected position to make the rest of the season quite relevant.

A few weeks ago, did anyone outside of the Mizzou locker room believe that this approaching two-week stretch on the schedule would shape up to be so potentially rewarding?

They took care of business at A&M, and now they play 6th-ranked and unbeaten Oklahoma next Saturday night in Columbia, then travel to Lincoln the following week to face the 5th-ranked Cornhuskers, who just fell from the unbeaten ranks with a 20-13 upset loss at home against Texas.

The way things work in college football, this is the start of a playoff run for Mizzou right now. Win both games and you shoot up those BCS standings. Win both games and you control your Big 12 destiny in a year when there don't appear to be any real superpowers in the conference. OU is very good, but they aren't the invincible Sooners of the past few seasons.

Nebraska revealed its offensive flaws against Texas, and suddenly Mizzou looks like it has no reason to feel anything but confident. I could be wrong, but this MU team has the chance to do something the heralded Chase Daniel-Jeremy Maclin era teams couldn't pull off.

The difference between all those other highly regarded teams that couldn't get Pinkel that crystal Big 12 championship trophy is defense. Yes, he does have a star quarterback who will surely be playing on Sundays soon, and the deepest collection of receivers since Mizzou shifted to the spread offense. But this year's squad has a nasty defense that can stop people just as well as the offense can put points on the board. This year's Missouri defense might finally have the kind of athletic talent across the board to go up against an Oklahoma and have a chance.

If Aldon Smith returns to the defensive lineup this week, that gives Steckel another weapon to utilize. Without his stud defensive end in the lineup, Steckel has been far more aggressive with the blitzes to provide pressure. But if Smith returns, he is a one-man wrecking crew on the edge and also coming from the tackle slot when the Tigers go with that four-end rush on passing downs.

This is the first time that Steckel has had so many options, so many tools to work with. This is the first time he has been able to comfortably leave his secondary out there on its own and not wonder when the sky will fall.

Those other Missouri teams were far more flashy. But this could be the year that Pinkel finally taps into the offensive style and defensive substance to make some real noise.

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Bryan Burwell

Bryan Burwell covers a wide spectrum of sports as a columnist for the Post-Dispatch.

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