From time to time I appear on Paul Finebaum’s show on the SEC Network. And for while now Paul and I have had an understanding: During the course of our discussion, one of us has to say something nice about Missouri football. Because if we don’t somebody, somewhere, is going to play the “Missouri doesn’t get any respect” card.
I don’t agree with it, but I understand where that attitude comes from. For when Missouri and Texas A&M joined the SEC for the 2012 football season, the prevailing narrative was: “Well, Texas A&M will fit in right away.” The Aggies looked like an SEC team trapped in the Big 12.
And Missouri? Conventional wisdom said that it was going to take a little while for them to get up to speed on being a part of the SEC culture.
Texas A&M has certainly proven to fit right in. The moment the Aggies and Johnny Manziel went to Tuscaloosa and upset No. 1 Alabama 29-24 in 2012 it was clear that they were going to be very much at home in the SEC.
But the second part of that narrative–that Missouri would have a longer adjustment period–could not have been more wrong. After a first football season (5-7, 2-6 SEC) where the Tigers were just decimated by injuries, Missouri has posted two straight SEC East titles and consecutive appearances in the conference championship game in Atlanta.
Missouri lost both of those SEC championship games but it should be noted that one was against No. 3 Auburn, which came within 13 seconds of winning the 2013 BCS national championship. The other was against No. 1 Alabama, which reached the first College Football Playoffs in 2014.
Missouri’s accomplishments the past two seasons are a matter of record. The Tigers have received ample praise for going 14-2 in their last 16 regular season SEC games. Gary Pinkel, set to begin his 15th season as head coach at Mizzou, was named the SEC Coach of the Year in 2014.
When he came into the conference everybody who knew football knew that Pinkel was a very good coach. In five of the past eight seasons his teams have won at least 10 games and a division championship (three of those were in the Big 12).
“You don’t have to take my word for it. The record is pretty clear. Gary Pinkel is an excellent football coach,” said Alabama’s Nick Saban, who was Pinkel’s teammate at Kent State. “His teams are tough. They are consistent. They are difficult to prepare for.”
But here is what I’m getting from Missouri fans–at least those who have reached out to me. All of the praise Missouri has received for the past two seasons in the SEC has been AFTER the fact. They seem to be upset that we’re not showing Missouri enough love BEFORE the season starts. And that preseason love–in the minds of many fans–equates with respect–or a lack thereof.
Again, I don’t agree with that point of view. Respect is earned by what a team accomplishes on the field. What people say about you before the season starts is just talk. It doesn’t mean anything. But here, I think, is what some Missouri fans see:
When Missouri joined the SEC, it had finished first or second in the Big 12 North for six of the past seven seasons. In 2007 Missouri was 12-0 and ranked No. 1 when it met Oklahoma in the Big 12 championship game. A win there would have put the Tigers into the BCS national championship game. Missouri lost the Big 12 championship 38-17 but the point, Missouri fans make, is this: The Tigers had been to six straight bowls and had won a lot of games in the Big 12 before they joined the SEC. They weren’t exactly newbies to the sport.
Here is something else they see:
In 2012 Missouri was picked to finish fourth in the SEC East behind Georgia, South Carolina, and Florida. The Tigers actually received a couple of first-place votes. Missouri went 5-7 (2-6 SEC) after losing three starting offensive linemen before the season even began.
In 2013 Missouri was picked to finish SIXTH in the East, ahead of only Kentucky. Instead the Tigers, with a defensive line that included Kony Ealy and Michael Sam, plus an offense that had big-time wide receivers like Marcus Lucas, L’Damian Washington, and Dorial Green-Beckham, went 7-1 in the SEC. Those seven wins included a 41-26 victory over Georgia in Athens and a clutch 28-24 win over Texas A&M to clinch the division. The only SEC loss was at home to South Carolina, 27-24 in double overtime, in a game Missouri led 17-0 going into the fourth quarter.
But when the SEC media assembled again in the summer of 2014, they picked Missouri to finish fourth behind South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida. Again, Missouri went 7-1 (the only loss was to Georgia 34-0 in a game that featured five turnovers by the Tigers). A lot of people counted Missouri out after that loss but the Tigers came back to win six straight SEC games–including road wins at Texas A&M and Tennessee–to clinch the division for the second straight year.
So now what? Will the pundits FINALLY show Missouri some love when the preseason polls come out this summer? Will the Tigers finally be picked to win the SEC East before the fact?
Georgia, which returns four of five offensive linemen and one of the deepest backfields in the conference, will likely be the preseason choice. Tennessee, which now has some quality depth in the third season under Butch Jones, should also get a bunch of votes. South Carolina has an uncertain defense while Florida has an uncertain offense. Kentucky is getting better but needs to improve on defense. Vandy has too many issues to list here.
So I can see Missouri being picked third. There are still a lot of questions about this team. Such as:
**–Can quarterback Maty Mauk, who is 14-4 as a starter, finally learn to stay in the pocket? He is fun to watch and makes some big plays like this one in the SEC Championship game against Alabama:
But he also makes plays that leave you shaking your head. His completion percentage the past two seasons has been 51.1 and 53.4. That’s not good enough.
**–Can Mizzou, for the second straight year, replace a couple of pros on its defensive line? Last year it was Ealy and Sam. This year it is Marcus Golden (20 TFL) and Shane Ray (22.5 TFL). There is still a lot of talent there for new defensive coordinator Barry Odom.
**–And speaking of defensive coordinators: Dave Steckel had been with Pinkel for 16 years when he took the head coaching job at Missouri State last December. A big part of Missouri’s success the past two seasons has been because of defense. How is that going to work out?
**–Can Missouri possibly replace the production of wide receivers Bud Sasser (77 catches, 1,003 yards) and Jimmie Hunt (40 catches, 698 yards)?
**–Running back Russell Hansbrough (205 carries, 1,084) returns but his running mate, Marcus Murphy (177 carries, 973 yards) is gone. Hansbrough is big-time but who is going to step up and help him?
To be fair Missouri, like every team in the SEC, had a bunch of questions this time last year. But the Tigers figured it out and won the division. Maybe they can do it again.
But can we pick them to win the SEC East? Return to this space on May 15 to find out.
COMING MONDAY: SOUTH CAROLINA