Quarterback James Franklin is returning to the starting lineup in time for Missouri’s final push toward the SEC championship game.
The No. 8 Tigers will need to get past two ranked teams to make it to Atlanta, beginning with a visit to No. 24 Mississippi on Saturday night.
Franklin hasn’t started the past four games because of an injured right shoulder, but Missouri (9-1, 5-1) has remained atop the SEC East by winning three of four with freshman Maty Mauk under center. The lone defeat, 27-24 in overtime to South Carolina on Oct. 26, kept the Tigers from an easy path to the conference title game.
The Gamecocks have finished 6-2 in the conference and need just one slip-up from Missouri to head to Atlanta. The Tigers end the regular season with a home game against No. 9 Texas A&M and reigning Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel on Nov. 30.
Franklin will try to keep his team in position for a trip to the SEC championship game - in only its second year in the conference - by picking up where he left off.
The senior threw for 1,577 yards, 14 touchdowns and three interceptions before getting injured in the fourth quarter of a 41-26 win at Georgia on Oct. 12, surpassing his 2012 performance in three fewer games.
Franklin played in two late series in the Tigers’ most recent game, a 48-17 rout of Kentucky on Nov. 9, but handed the ball off on each of his five snaps.
“He looks really good. He looks just like he left off before the injury,” coach Gary Pinkel said. “He’s excited about being back, and the team is excited about getting him back too. I obviously want him to do really well. He had some adversity and battled through it and we are excited to have him in.”
Missouri will likely face another challenge with a trip to Ole Miss (7-3, 3-3). The Rebels knocked off then-No. 6 LSU 27-24 on Oct. 19 as part of their current four-game win streak.
Ole Miss has averaged 42.8 points during that run and topped 500 yards in each game, but the last three have been against teams that have a combined 9-22 record. The Rebels broke a school mark with 751 yards in a 51-21 victory over Troy last Saturday.
Ole Miss has played well this season against some of the top teams in the SEC and the nation. It lost by a combined 11 points to Auburn and Texas A&M in October, and a 25-0 defeat to top-ranked Alabama on Sept. 28 is the Rebels’ only lopsided one this season.
“With the schedule we have played, looking back on it, we have had our share of tests, and this will be another one Saturday night,” coach Hugh Freeze told the school’s official website.
The Rebels will have some help for that challenge with running back Jeff Scott back to full health. Scott rushed for 54 yards on 11 carries against Troy after missing three games with a deep thigh bruise.
He had 424 yards in his first five games before getting injured against Texas A&M on Oct. 12. Scott and Ole Miss, though, will next face the SEC’s second-best rushing defense.
Missouri is allowing 111.9 yards per game on the ground but has been vulnerable through the air, ranking last with 274.9 yards allowed. That would appear to be good news for Rebels quarterback Bo Wallace, fourth in the league with 266.4 passing yards per game, but the Tigers also lead the SEC with 34 sacks and 17 interceptions.
Michael Sam’s 10 sacks top the conference, and E.J. Gaines is tied with Ole Miss’ Cody Prewitt and two others for the SEC lead in interceptions with four. The Tigers have forced at least one turnover in 40 consecutive games, the nation’s longest active streak.
“Very few people have been able to line up and just run the ball effectively (on Missouri). They get you one dimensional,” Freeze said. “Those ends are quick and cause problems in the backfield.”
Ole Miss is facing Missouri for the first time since a 38-25 home loss Sept. 8, 2007. Pinkel will try to earn his 100th win with the Tigers in this visit and move within one of matching Don Faurot’s school record.