(Missouri Football App) – Mizzou has had plenty of time to listen to how unlikely their run to Atlanta has been. Finishing below .500 last year with two conference wins in the (relatively) friendlier SEC East had many wondering if Missouri had fallen into the deep end without the proper swimming chops.
On the back of a terrifying defensive front, and finally healthy enough to handle the gauntlet of the SEC schedule, the Tigers have surged into title contention.
If there was any point this season at which that outcome seemed more unlikely than the beginning, it was in the second half of Week 7’s contest at Georgia.
When senior quarterback James Franklin- then on pace for a historic season- went down, the earth nearly quaked from the force of all the sagging shoulders of Tiger fans.
Enter Maty Mauk, the most highly-recruited high school quarterback in decades. With a string of wins already, the hopes of a redemptive season for Missouri were suddenly in the hands of a redshirt freshman.
Mauk stepped into the role without fear, completing three passes in three attempts in Athens, then racking up 933 yards and 10 TDs as a starter in four games.
The Tigers went 3-1 over that stretch, dropping only a three-point loss to South Carolina in two overtimes.
“To have a Maty Mauk, a redshirt freshman, going on that stage and to play the way he did and then the next four games, we are very, very fortunate to have a guy play at that level,” Gary Pinkel said Friday in Atlanta. “I feel blessed.”
Pinkel and his staff have had a string of top-level quarterbacks in the last decade. After Mizzou legend Brad Smith, Heisman finalist Chase Daniel took the team to a number one ranking and a shot at the title. Blaine Gabbert led the Tigers to three bowl games.
The ability to recruit dynamic passers has been crucial to maintaining Missouri’s place as a competitive program.
The staff’s scouting and recruiting aptitude was personified by James Franklin and – in what was the most crucial stretch of games this season- Mauk.
“You look at talent, you look at release, you look at throwing- all of those things. But one of the things I look for is a gut feeling about the intangibles,” said Pinkel. “Is he a great competitor? Does he have great mental toughness? I don’t care if you can throw a ball from here back to Columbia. If you’re not mentally tough, physically tough- if you’re not a tenacious competitor, we probably won’t recruit you.”
Both signal callers have remained ice cold under pressure this season. While Franklin is a senior and somewhat expected to exude composure, the fresh-faced Mauk surprised many by handling the heat like a seasoned veteran.
Pinkel added that the team around him was finally healthy, and able to aid him through his debut as a starter.
“Except for [the quarterback] position, we’ve stayed remarkably healthy this year as compared to the last couple of years,” he said. “Because of the health of our team, it allowed him to play and certainly gave him the best chance to be successful. I think all of those guys stepped their game up a little bit. Made great catches, gave him a little extra time to throw.”
Mauk will likely have seen his last meaningful action of 2013, but if the brief preview of his abilities proves sustainable, he may be back in Atlanta before we know it.