(AP) — Missouri guard Max Copeland looked toward the ground, sucking on a toothpick and thinking about whether the Tigers have revenge on their minds as they start conference play.
"I'd be lying if I said that feeling wasn't there, because it is," he said. "But at the same time, we can't let vengeance be a distraction. This is about the 2013 season. This ain't about the 2012 season."
The Tigers had a forgettable first year in the Southeastern Conference. Limited by injuries, Missouri finished 2-6 in conference and 5-7 overall, failing to extend its school-record bowl streak to eight seasons.
Now healthy, the Tigers (4-0) appear to have righted the ship. They rank in the top three in the SEC in scoring (45.5 points per game), rushing yards (262.2 ypg) and passing yards (286.8 ypg), reminiscent of the high-octane Missouri teams that compiled 48 wins from 2007-2011 in the Big 12. Defensively, they've limited opponents to 21 points per game and have forced 10 interceptions.
Still, questions persist.
Missouri is the only SEC school yet to have played a conference game, but that will change once it travels to Vanderbilt (3-2, 0-2 SEC) on Saturday. Center Evan Boehm remembers how his teammates felt after playing their last SEC game, a 59-29 drubbing at Texas A&M last Nov. 24 that ended their season.
"We were all upset," he said. "We were all hungry. Last year left a bad taste in your mouth and you want to get rid of that."
To accomplish that, coach Gary Pinkel said the team must concentrate on football and not on the distraction of trying to earn respect.
Quarterback James Franklin is averaging a career-best 282.2 passing yards in addition to nine touchdowns and three interceptions. He's also rushed for 53.8 yards per game, 82.3 percent of which have come in second halves to help salt games away.
"I think we've really just been working on finishing and not slacking off toward the end," he said. "Because sometimes, if we had just even a little bit of a lead going into the end of the game (last year), we kind of let up a little bit."
Franklin is one of four Missouri players to have at least 215 rushing yards this year, the only team in the country to feature such balance. Overall, Missouri has 1,049 yards on the ground and averages 6.2 per attempt. That's more than 63 percent of its 1,662 rushing yards in 2012, when it only gained 3.7 per attempt.
Running the ball helps the Tigers utilize their play-action passing, which they have turned to more often with new offensive coordinator Josh Henson. There's more time for receivers to get downfield, as Dorial Green-Beckham did for a 68-yard touchdown reception in last week's 41-19 win against Arkansas State.
"If you get a quick gain and (the quarterback) drops back the whole time, the pressure on the offensive line to perform all the time is significant," Pinkel said. "When you do play action, that slows down the rush. When you move the quarterback around, as far as sprinting out or bootlegs and things like that, that slows it down."
Pinkel and Henson will now see if their reinvigorated team can sustain its performance in the SEC.
"We love being the underdog," said running back Henry Josey, who made his own comeback on the field. "We love people still wondering about us, if we're really the team that we're showing up to be. So we're ready to just get out there and prove it."
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