COMMENTARY | When the brass at the University of Missouri decided to jump ship and cut ties with the Big 12 conference, the leaders of the school longed for an opportunity like the football team faces in the last week of the regular season in 2013.
Mizzou plays host to their old Big 12 rival Texas A&M and the Aggies high profile, Heisman winning quarterback Johnny Manziel in the national spotlight with a chance to play for a SEC Championship in just the school's second season in the conference at stake.
It is an exciting time for Mizzou fans, who have seen the team compete and fall short of a pair of Big 12 championships in recent history before the move to the SEC.
Even the most loyal of Mizzou fans did not expect for head coach Gary Pinkel to have the Tigers ready to compete for a championship in the SEC so quickly. The success has invigorated the fan base and the foresight of the school's leadership has proved to be correct.
But the job at hand is not complete. Mizzou fans should not book their tickets to Atlanta just yet.
Texas A&M and Johnny Manziel, despite getting clobbered just a week ago on the road against a very good LSU team, present Mizzou with a variety of challenges. Just last year, the Aggies put a 59-29 whooping on the Tigers while gathering 647 yards of offense. Manziel will be looking for a similar performance to boost his current Heisman resume and Texas A&M will be looking to boost its bowl credentials with an impressive road victory.
Last year's Texas A&M dominance is a thing of the past as this is a very different Mizzou team. This is a game Mizzou can win. It is a game that the Tigers should win. Here are three keys to a Mizzou victory over Johnny Manziel and the Texas A&M Aggies.
Pressure and contain Johnny Manziel. The talented quarterback has a unique skill set. Manziel can make all of the throws from the pocket and if given time, he can pick apart any defense. Mizzou's impressive pass rush, led by Michael Sam and Kony Ealy, must do it what it has done all season long and apply pressure on Manziel and get to the quarterback.
While getting pressure on Manziel is imperative, containing the dual-threat quarterback once he escapes the pocket is even more important. Manziel is electric when given the opportunity to use his legs. He can create and find open receivers down field and if everyone is covered, he can run the ball with the best of them as well.
Mizzou's interior defensive line must bottle up Manziel and the Mizzou linebackers must not fall for his phantom pump fakes and quick juke moves. If Mizzou can tackle Manziel in the open field, the Tigers should be able to limit the A&M offense.
Keep Mike Evans in front of the secondary. Manziel's favorite target is the enormous Mike Evans, who at six feet, five inches and 215 pounds is an absolute monster. The Mizzou secondary must focus on keeping the sophomore talent in front of them and must match the physicality of the bruising wideout. Is the Tigers let Evans burn them, then A&M could be in for massive day offensively.
Pound the football at the soft Texas A&M defense. The Missouri running attack has been one of the most prolific in the SEC all season thanks to the three-headed monster of Henry Josey, Russell Hansbrough and Marcus Murphy. All three Missouri tailbacks are averaging over six yards per carry and the trio has found the end zone on 24 occasions in 2013.
Mizzou should be able to take advantage of a Texas A&M defense that is not very stout overall and is particularly vulnerable against the run.
By running the ball effectively, Mizou should be able to chew up some clock and keep the ball away from Manziel and the prolific Aggies offense. Mizzou should be able to book some points too as the Aggies rank 89th in the country in points allowed, surrendering over 31 points per contest to opponents.
The game and atmosphere between these former Big 12, and now SEC cross-division rivals, should be intense, exciting and fun. There figures to be plenty of offense and fireworks with plenty at stake for both sides.
If Mizzou is able to contain the Manziel and Evans combination and dominate the time of possession, the Tigers should have no problem beating Texas A&M and earning a shot at winning a SEC Championship.
Corey Rudd is owner/editor of StlSportsMinute.com and co-host of Fan Interference on CBS Sports 920 AM in St. Louis. Rudd writes about the St. Louis Cardinals, St. Louis Rams and Missouri Tigers football team as a contributor for Yahoo Sports. You can follow him on Twitter here.
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