As the days tick down closer to Missouri's trip to face Kentucky on Saturday, it looks as if coach Gary Pinkel might have a tough decision on his hands.
Does he play quarterback James Franklin or not?
On Monday, Pinkel, whose Tigers (8-1, 4-1 SEC) are ranked eighth in the BCS standings, said Franklin could return from his shoulder injury as early as Saturday. He even thought Franklin could have played in a limited role for the Tigers in their 31-3 victory over Tennessee last week.
While that is great news for the Tigers, who currently control the SEC East Division, maybe it wouldn't be so bad if Pinkel let his starter sit this weekend out.
Mizzou has a lot to play for this month and backup Maty Mauk has been impressive in three starts since Franklin went down in the fourth quarter of the Tigers' victory over Georgia. In his three starts, Mauk has thrown for 707 yards with five touchdowns and two interceptions. He's 2-1 and would likely continue his trend upward against a Kentucky defense that ranks 12th in the SEC in total defense (421 yards allowed per game) and is last in the SEC in yards allowed in conference games (492.5).
The Wildcats are giving up a league-worst 9.6 yards per pass play in league games. And Kentucky is in last place in the SEC East with an 0-4 league record (2-6 overall).
It would be great for Franklin and the Tigers if he could trot onto the Commonwealth Stadium field ready to add to his 1,577 passing yards and 14 touchdowns. It would probably be beneficial for him to get some game reps before the last two weeks of the regular season, but with an offense that has averaged 468.7 yards and 30.3 points with Mauk as the starter, the Tigers might want to save their main man until the meat of November arrives.
Mauk has been good since taking over for Franklin, but there's no question that Missouri is just a better team with the veteran Franklin running things. This isn't a knock on Mauk at all, but the two biggest games of the season are coming up at the end of November, and this team would be in better hands with its true starter under center.
You don't want to risk further damage to his throwing shoulder in a game that is winnable without him. After Kentucky, the Tigers have a bye week (more time for Franklin to rest) before traveling to Ole Miss (5-3, 2-3) on Nov. 23 and hosting No. 15 Texas A&M (7-2, 3-2) on Nov. 30.
Why not give Franklin more time to rest before the two games that will largely determine the Tigers' bigger goals? This is a team looking to win the SEC East and play in a BCS bowl game. Mauk has been impressive, but this is still Franklin's squad and there's nothing wrong with wanting to put the season on his back, not Mauk's.
We all know that in this league, no victory is truly a given. We've seen crazy things happen plenty of times in the SEC, but Mizzou would be in very good hands playing Mauk against a struggling Kentucky team. Bringing Franklin back now could serve as more risk than reward.
Waiting a couple more weeks won't be the end of the world -- or the season -- for the Tigers.