Time for Missouri’s run atop SEC East to end?

Missouri pass rusher extraordinaire Shane Ray (56) won't be around to torment South Carolina when the teams play this season. (AP Photo/L.G. Patterson)

COLUMBIA — This is year the magic runs out, isn’t it?

Has to be. There will be no Shane Ray and Markus Golden wreaking havoc on opposing backfields. There will be no Bud Sasser leaping to catch deep balls, no more Marcus Murphy slashing through defenses. They’re all gone. And this mystifying two-year run of Missouri atop the SEC’s Eastern Division has to come to an end as well, right?

Head coach Gary Pinkel probably sits back and laughs at that (if he laughs at anything). The Tigers have won the East the past two years despite a deluge of preseason projections to the contrary. Once again, Missouri is picked to finish in the middle of the pack in the division. Mizzou probably has the league right where it wants it.

Still, on paper, this Missouri team doesn’t exactly stack up to those of the past few seasons, especially last year with those terrific defensive ends in Ray and Golden, and perhaps the most underrated receiver/tailback combo in the league. Sure, quarterback Maty Mauk is back, but as we saw last year, that can be a mixed blessing. It’s finally time for the Tigers to take a step back, isn’t it?

Maybe. Mauk is still experienced, Russell Hansbrough is still the best rusher in the SEC that nobody’s heard of, and Pinkel can still X-and-O with anyone. The Tigers have won the East the last two years despite seemingly crippling losses to divisional opponents, including a blowout by Georgia last season and the double-overtime Miracle at Missouri when USC last visited Faurot Field.

There’s no head-and-shoulders favorite in the East this year. With a little help, who knows — maybe Missouri can keep the magic going one more year.

Head coach: Gary Pinkel (113-66 in 14 seasons at Missouri, 187-103-3 in 24 seasons overall)

Returning starters: 13 (seven on offense, six on defense)

2014 record: 11-3 (7-1 SEC, first in Eastern Division)

Scoring offense: 27.8 points scored per game (72nd nationally)

Scoring defense: 21.1 points allowed per game (19th nationally)

Series: Missouri leads 3-2

Opposing beat writer: Dave Matter, St. Louis Post-Dispatch (@dave_matter)

Last meeting: Missouri 21, South Carolina 20 on Sept. 27, 2014 at Williams-Brice Stadium. Up 20-7, the Gamecocks were 7:25 away from moving to 4-1 and taking complete control of the SEC East. Then came the bomb from Mauk to Sasser, and USC suffered the first of three fourth-quarter collapses which left it scrambling to manage a winning record in the season’s final weeks.

1. Gary Pinkel got re-upped. Back-to-back SEC East titles led Missouri to extend its head coach’s contract through 2021, and raise his base salary from $3.2 million to $4.02 million. That’s enough to make him the fifth-highest-paid head coach in the league, and it will certainly buy a lot in Columbia, Mo. By the way, did you realize Pinkel ranks fourth in wins among active FBS coaches? Me neither.

2. Replacing Ray and Golden won’t be easy. Those two managed off-the-charts production despite playing almost every down, and filling those cleats won’t be simple. Sophomore Charles Harris appears to be set at one defensive end, but the other became more of a question mark when sophomore Marcus Loud was dismissed in May. Harris enters the season as Missouri’s lone DE with previous experience in a Division I game.

3. And yet, Mizzou produces guys ready to step up. Golden and Ray did it after Michael Sam left, Sasser did it after Dorial Green-Beckham was booted, Mauk kept it going after James Franklin moved on. This year: watch out for receiver Wes Leftwich (who caught a key pass in the rally at USC) and Hansbrough, whose rushing could help Mauk cut down on mistakes. Maybe. In theory. OK, we’ll see.

Week before: UCF

Next week: LSU

On the horizon: Vanderbilt