At the beginning of the year, few expected Missouri and Texas Tech to be among the ranks of the undefeated by the time Week 9 of the college football season rolled around.
But here they are in national-title contention on Oct. 26, albeit with several more difficult challenges before all is said and done.
Both programs are involved in high-profile matchups this weekend, starring in games with ranked vs. ranked teams. So with that, let’s take a look at these two unlikely teams, how they got here and the latest hurdle on their schedule…
South Carolina at Missouri, 6:00 p.m. CT on ESPN2
It isn’t necessarily surprising Missouri got through the non-conference part of their schedule unscathed with home wins against the likes of Murray State, Toledo and Arkansas State, although a road win at Indiana looks better than perhaps many expected.
To stay undefeated through the early portion of their SEC slate, however, has been nothing short of remarkable.
A win at Vanderbilt was a nice start. A win at Georgia ruined the Bulldogs’ championship hopes. And to beat Florida at home without the Tigers’ starting quarterback has continued the magical run.
A lot of attention has been on how backup Maty Mauk has replaced an injured James Fraklin, who was hurt in the win over Georgia. But the attention hasn’t been undeserved. Mauk filled in capably in the win over the Gators.
Perhaps even more impressive is how Missouri defensive line has performed this season, which many didn’t expect after losing first round draft choice Sheldon Richardson last season. Defensive ends Michael Sam, Markus Golden and Kony Ealy have all taken turns being named the SEC Defensive Lineman of the Week at one point or another so far this year.
The Tigers have racked up the most sacks in the SEC this season with 23, nine coming from Sam.
In the battle of Columbias, South Carolina visits Missouri on Saturday and, of course, the Gamecocks would be bolstered by solid play from defensive end Jadeveon Clowney.
But the outcome out of the game might be more directly impacted by the presence of Cocks quarterback Connor Shaw, who sprained ligaments in his knee last weekend. Dylan Thompson is a good backup, but Shaw has finally shown to have NFL-caliber talent in 2013.
Prediction: There’s a loss for Missouri in there somewhere with upcoming games against Tennessee, Mississippi, Texas A&M and perhaps the SEC championship left on the schedule, but they’re capable of beating South Carolina at home to really start getting the public believing in them. Credit Gary Pinkel for a campaign that puts him in Coach of the Year discussion. Tigers win 31-28.
Texas Tech at Oklahoma, 2:30 p.m. CT on Fox
Texas Tech’s schedule has, without a doubt, been less daunting than Missouri’s up to this point, but coach Kliff Kingsbury seems to have that indescribable “it” factor going for him.
Wins over SMU, Stephen F. Austin, Texas State, Kansas and Iowa State hardly come as surprising, but victories vs. TCU and at West Virginia offer a little more clout.
Still, the toughest games have yet to occur and it’s hard to imagine the Red Raiders winning out when they have to face the Big XII’s elite in November and what remains of October.
In fact, it will be incredibly tough to beat Oklahoma in Norman on Saturday, as Texas Tech’s No. 2 nationally ranked pass offense (416.4 yards per game) collides with the Sooners’ No. 1 ranked pass defense (149.7 ypg).
Tight end Jace Amaro, wide receiver Eric Ward and the rest of the Red Raider receiving corps will find difficult lining up across from the 6-0 frame of cornerback Aaron Colvin and the Sooners’ press defense.
Prediction: Texas Tech suffers it first loss of the season to an Oklahoma team looking to get the bad taste of a loss to Texas out of its mouth. Sooners win 35-30.
Where College GameDay Is At
ESPN’s pregame show will originate from the Memorial Quad of Oregon’s campus as the Ducks play host to UCLA at 6:00 p.m. CT on the Worldwide Leader.
It’s the fifth consecutive year GameDay has traveled to Oregon, a record for any one university and a tribute to the program that Nike owner Phil Knight funded, Chip Kelly built and Mark Helfrich has continued.
In last week’s column, the mastery of quarterback Marcus Mariota was detailed, but the Oregon defense is deserving of credit for a unit that frequently gets overshadowed by the uptempo offense. After all, it leads the Pac-12 in scoring defense, limiting opponents to just an average of 17.3 points per game.
The defense is led by cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, who has two interceptions and is a potential first round draft pick, and defensive end Taylor Hart, who has three sacks despite being the focal point of opposing offensive lines.
The Bruins boast some pretty good defensive players of their own, including linebacker Anthony Barr, who’s also a going to be a first round draft choice come the spring.
It would hardly come as a surprise if the entire linebacking corps at UCLA eventually ends up in the NFL, starting with Barr, but also including freshman Myles Jack, junior Eric Kendricks and senior Jordan Zumwalt.
They’ll have their work cut out for them in trying to stop Oregon running back De’Anthony Thomas, who looks to play for the first time since September, which will make the job of the Bruins even tougher than it is already.
Prediction: Jim Mora is doing a fine job at UCLA but going on the road for a second straight week and beating Oregon in Autzen isn’t going to happen. Ducks cruise 42-21.
What Happened Before Saturday
Consider this “The Wisconsin Connection” section of the column too, since Wisconsin is on a bye this weekend but BYU visiting the Badgers in two weeks.
The Cougars beat Boise State 37-20 on Friday night, basically in control of the game from the start. At one point, the lead was 31-6 midway through the third quarter.
For Boise State, it continues a drop from national relevance, having already lost its third game this season, something they hadn’t done 2007.
There’s still an opportunity for the Broncos to win their division of the Mountain West conference, but even that seems like a letdown after years of being a BCS-buster.
The state of Wisconsin was happy to see BYU win to improve its record to 6-2, which will look better on the Badgers’ résumé if they are able to beat the Cougars in Camp Randall Stadium on Nov. 9.
If not for a rather inexplicable loss to Virginia in the season opener, BYU is having itself a rather nice season with skins on the wall including Texas, Georgia Tech and a previously undefeated Houston team. They’re now on a five-game winning streak.
With its win last night, however, BYU already accepted a bid to the Fight Hunger Bowl in San Francisco, their fate sealed. What that will do to their motivation going forward remains to be seen.
Will they head to Madison in two Saturdays wanting to prove they can beat a ranked team on the road? Or has their fire been extinguished?
Brian Carriveau is the author of the book “It’s Just a Game: Big League Drama in Small Town America,” and editor of Cheesehead TV’s “Pro Football Draft Preview.” To contact Brian, email email@example.com.