How will Missouri do in its first season in the SEC? At last, it's almost time to find out.
By ANDREW ASTLEFORDFS Midwest
COLUMBIA, Mo. – It's a beginning's end, and
Missouri coach Gary Pinkel is picking apart his team with a surgeon's precision. He's standing near an end zone Thursday at Memorial Stadium after the last preseason scrimmage – nine days before the opener against Southeastern Louisiana – and he's checking off areas where the
Tigers must improve.
"I don't think the continuity of our 'one' offense or 'one' defense is where it needs to be or every kicking area (is) fine-tuned yet," he says. "But we've got some work yet to do. I told the team that. I always tell them as it is. We'll look at some of the competition – who is our third guard, who is our fifth guard, who's our third tackle, who's our fifth tackle, that type of thing. We do that with every position. Those things will sort themselves out."
The sorting-out process in Missouri's Southeastern Conference transition continues. An overhaul that included slicing Big 12 ties began long ago, of course, and there have been a variety of stages since.
There was anticipation when confetti tumbled on campus after the announcement last November. There was curiosity when Pinkel and three players – junior cornerback E.J. Gaines and two seniors, left tackle Elvis Fisher and wide receiver T.J. Moe – were shuffled before the league's media in Hoover, Ala., in July. There was progress when junior quarterback James Franklin took the field at the start of preseason camp earlier this month after injuring his right shoulder in spring drills.
Thursday brought some closure to the preview. Finally, it's time to toss the no-touch green jerseys and power up the scoreboard. Finally, it's time to record the Tigers' history in this era.
Missouri, meet your new reality.
Pinkel offered a dose of necessary humility before game week starts in full next Monday. The coach's hardscrabble message was consistent with his style, one that has become a signature of his 11 previous seasons here.
Pinkel's view in saying there's room for the Tigers to grow should be expected. After all, it's true. No program in the country – not even juggernauts in Baton Rouge and Tuscaloosa – knows how work in late August will translate into September results and beyond. It's all unknown.
"I'm definitely meshing with the offense a little better," says Franklin, who finished 7-of-12 passing for 80 yards Thursday. He also ran for 30 yards on two carries with a touchdown. "We are feeling good coming out of this scrimmage. Yeah, we had a couple mistakes. For the most part, I think we felt good for how it happened."
Franklin and others might be feeling good, but the questions surrounding Missouri will grow louder in the coming weeks. Are the Tigers ready for a schedule that includes
Georgia, Alabama and South Carolina? Are they deep enough to handle SEC speed? How much of a learning curve will there be?
Much will be discovered in the coming months, but don't be surprised if Missouri becomes a middling SEC East finisher like many pundits expect. The group lacks the skill that was found among the best squads of the program's recent past: Franklin doesn't have Chase Daniel's command; there are no elite tight ends like Chase Coffman or Martin Rucker wandering the sideline; freshman wide receiver Dorial Green-Beckham's talent is intriguing, but he's too young to rival Jeremy Maclin's impact.
No, the fireworks of 2007 won't be found this fall. But perhaps they don't have to be. Foundations aren't built in one year, and this season should be viewed as a start.
"I think, overall, we've got a lot of guys who moved themselves up in position to play at the highest level to win a championship," Pinkel says. "I think some guys are getting closer. But, certainly, we've got the makings of a good football team."
That sounds about right. Expect good, not great from the Tigers this season. Expect no fewer than seven victories, which would be their eighth consecutive campaign with at least as much. Expect inconsistency. Expect an upset that snatches headlines (against Georgia or South Carolina) and a loss that causes heads to shake (against Vanderbilt or Kentucky). Expect another bowl, which would be their eighth straight.
Expect it all, because this season has a retro feel to it. There's an unknown involved, not unlike when Pinkel arrived here from Toledo before the 2001 campaign.
Old rivalries are gone. New ones wait to be made.
How will Missouri do? At last, it's almost time to find out.
"You have to play well each and every week," Pinkel says.
"Overall, personnel-wise, I think we're doing OK."
We'll learn soon enough.
You can follow Andrew Astleford on Twitter @aastleford or email him at email@example.com.