Defense carries Missouri to East lead

Quietly, the Missouri Tigers are atop the SEC East standings and control their destiny. This was supposed to be Georgia or South Carolina's division to lose, but thanks to some great play by the Tigers' defense in SEC play, Missouri is staring at back-to-back trips to the SEC championship game.

It hasn't been very pretty when the Tigers have had the ball, but there's no denying that the defense has rebounded tremendously after giving up 241 rushing yards in that embarrassing home loss to Indiana.

We all figured the Tigers wouldn't be very relevant in the SEC after that loss, and while the offense has actually gotten worse since that game, the defense has been one of the SEC's best. In five conference games since the Indiana game, the Tigers have allowed an average of 299.6 total yards of offense per game, good enough for second in the SEC in league play. The Tigers have actually allowed an SEC-low 3.99 yards per play against conference opponents.

How's that rush defense that was so bad against the Hoosiers? Well, it's giving up a league-low 2.9 yards per rush and is second in the conference allowing 121.6 yards in SEC play. Mizzou has forced only eight turnovers during that span, but according to ESPN Stats & Information, teams are scoring on just 24.2 percent of their drives against the Tigers and are punting on 50 percent of them.

Yes, all of that occurred during a stretch that involved a crushing 34-0 loss to Georgia at home.

“I don’t think there’s anything magical there," coach Gary Pinkel said of Mizzou's defensive improvements. "I think we stay positive and we always focus on getting better in practice. The experience of playing over and over again -- game in and game out against good competition -- either makes you better or worse and it’s made us a better football team.”

While Mizzou's offense went from averaging 430 yards in nonconference play to a paltry 250.2 yards of offense and a league-low 4.05 yards per play against SEC teams, the defense has been there to pick up the pieces. The last time Mizzou's defense was on the field, it dominated Kentucky's improved Air Raid offense, holding the Wildcats to just 260 yards and allowing quarterback Patrick Towles to throw for just 158 yards.

In a year in which most of the attention was supposed to be paid to the offense, Mizzou's defense has carried the Tigers to the top of the East.

Instead of Maty Mauk leading this team with his arm, it has been defensive end Shane Ray leading the team with his freakish ability to harass quarterbacks just about every time he puts his hand in the ground. The redshirt junior leads the SEC with 12 sacks, a school record, and 16 tackles for loss. He has five multi-sack games this year.

As a team, Mizzou is near the top of the SEC with 31 sacks and 69 tackles for loss. The pass-rush led by Ray and senior Markus Golden has guided that, but the Tigers are also getting better play inside, especially from nose guard Harold Brantley, who has four sacks this season.

“We have more guys making plays," Pinkel said.

All that remains for Mizzou are three games against SEC opponents -- Texas A&M, Tennessee and Arkansas -- that have a combined conference record of 4-12. The road to Atlanta is firmly in the hands of the Tigers, but that first stop at A&M will be interesting for the defense.

The Aggies just dismantled Auburn's struggling defense for 453 yards, 277 passing yards and four touchdowns from new starting quarterback Kyle Allen. Both teams provide difficult matchups for each other, but A&M coach Kevin Sumlin understands he has a much more difficult challenge this weekend than what he saw on the Plains.

“They’re one of the top defenses in our league, and it’s because of scheme and because of talent and how they play," Sumlin said.

The offense might not exactly be pulling its weight right now, but the defense has been outstanding. The offense will have to get better if the Tigers want to get through the next three games unscathed, but the defense doesn't appear to have a problem with shouldering most of the responsibility.