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After Missouri pulled off a 36--27 upset of BCS No. 1 Oklahoma last Saturday and Tigers fans turned Faurot Field into a sea of black and gold, Sooners quarterback Landry Jones was asked about the team he had just faced. "They did a good job," he said. "Missouri's a great defense."
It is uncertain when was the last time the word great was used with a straight face to describe the Tigers' D, but the adjective is applicable now. Better known for the high-wattage teams of quarterback Chase Daniel that could score on anyone but could rarely stop anyone (even in its breakthrough 12--2 season of 2007, Missouri was just 38th in scoring defense), the Tigers now rank fifth in the country in points allowed (13.1 a game). As a result of this newfound stinginess, No. 7 Mizzou (7--0) has gone from national afterthought to national-title sleeper.
What has been the difference in the D? Three of the team's four starting defensive backs, including both corners, are seniors; the fourth is a junior. The experience allows second-year coordinator Dave Steckel, a former Marine who drills his players with the precision of a sergeant, to play more press coverage on the outside while blitzing on the inside.
And Steckel often doesn't even have to blitz to put pressure on the quarterback. The Tigers have four athletic ends—Brad Madison, Michael Sam, Aldon Smith and Jacquies Smith—who, when all healthy, have lined up together on passing downs in a package Aldon Smith has nicknamed Candy.
The results have been sweet. The team already has 11 interceptions (three more than all of last season) and 21 sacks, which is the best in the Big 12 and tied for ninth nationally. The Tigers have been particularly ferocious inside their own 20-yard line. Already tops in the nation in red-zone efficiency by allowing just eight of 15 drives inside its 20 to end in points, Missouri denied the high-scoring Sooners points on three of their six trips in the red zone.
Perhaps the biggest red zone stop was the interception by Aldon Smith. The Big 12 Defensive Newcomer of the Year in '09, Smith had missed the previous three games with a fractured fibula, but his first-quarter pick set up a Tigers TD. "Keep sleeping on us, please," he implored the media after the win. "We're still trying to let you people know that we're for real."
Consider a nation awakened, thanks to a defense that is a Paper Tiger no more.
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Stewart Mandel gives his picks for the week's biggest games every Friday at SI.com/cfb