Pinkel’s Tigers will continue to battle next season and beyond

Missouri's recent success indicates that the Tigers have embraced Gary Pinkel's focus on ignoring distractions and remaining consistent.

Kim Klement/Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Missouri’s successful season should serve as a reminder of just how far Gary Pinkel has taken this football program.

Even the idea of the Tigers as favorites in a New Year’s Day bowl game would have been unthinkable a decade ago, when simply making the postseason counted as a huge accomplishment. A winning record in the Big 12 felt like a reasonable goal for Mizzou as it floundered in mediocrity with only occasional glimmers of hope for more.

Pinkel couldn’t even best that .500 mark in conference play his first six seasons, when the Tigers went 3-18 against Kansas State, Nebraska, Texas and Oklahoma. Then, in 2007, Mizzou broke through with a 12-2 season that included wins over Nebraska and Kansas State, earning the first of five division titles in eight years.

During that unprecedented stretch, the Tigers went 75-31 for a .708 winning percentage, better than 20 of the 24 schools they’ve played against in the Big 12 and SEC. A convincing Citrus Bowl win over Minnesota on Thursday put a fitting cap on the run for now, though rest assured Pinkel and his players have no intentions of slowing down.

"We battle," coach Gary Pinkel told reporters in Orlando after the game. "This is kind of the scenario that went throughout the year. Everything doesn’t work out like you want it to, but we battled."

That was truer than ever this season thanks to a mediocre offense led by a wildly talented, mercurial quarterback in sophomore Maty Mauk. But really, the same sentiments could describe most of Missouri’s unexpected rise.

It’s well documented that record-setting quarterback Chase Daniel first led the Tigers to new heights after being mostly ignored by the University of Texas in high school, despite the fact that he won two Texas state titles about two hours up the road from Austin. Few blue-chip prospects have come to Columbia, a trend unlikely to dramatically change anytime soon.

Even in the SEC with all the wins and much-improved facilities, Missouri’s 2015 recruiting class doesn’t crack the top 30 in the country and ranks 12th in the conference, according to ESPN, Rivals and 247Sports. Instead, Pinkel and top-notch assistants such as defensive coordinator Dave Steckel and longtime defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski convinced student-athletes to fully buy into the program’s philosophies as they develop into standouts.

They’ve done more than just mold athletes into the Mizzou system, with players such as Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Jeremy Maclin and San Francisco’s Pro Bowl linebacker Aldon Smith leading a long list of Tigers making names for themselves in the NFL. Junior defensive end Shane Ray figures to leave early this season and become the next top 10, maybe even top five, draft pick out of Mizzou, with his counterpart Markus Golden not too far behind.

Neither defensive end even started a year ago, and they headlined a group of players with significant experience stepping into bigger roles that also included strong safety Braylon Webb, 1,000-yard receiver Bud Sasser and 1,000-yard rusher Russell Hansbrough. Meanwhile, underclassmen such as sophomore linebacker Michael Scherer and sophomore defensive tackle Harold Brantley emerged as first-year starters and future leaders of a program that has found the right formula for individual improvement in the offseason.

"I can’t say enough about my staff, my players," Pinkel told reporters in Orlando. "That’s 23 wins in the last two years, the best back-to-back (seasons) in the history of the University of Missouri. That was also coming off of a 5-7 year, when things were kind of dismal, things weren’t very good."

Since then, the Tigers haven’t lost on an opponent’s field, an astonishing 10-game streak matched only by College Football Playoff participants Florida State and Ohio State. It serves to show Missouri has embraced Pinkel’s focus on ignoring distractions and remaining consistent.

Sure, the school’s all-time winningest coach still has some holes on his resume. The Tigers haven’t stopped chasing that elusive conference title and even during the past eight years, they’re just 3-14 against top 10 teams.

Next year will present some new challenges with a tougher schedule that includes a matchup with BYU in Kansas City, as well as interdivisional games against suddenly tough Mississippi State and an Arkansas program that appears to be on the rise under Bret Bielema. The departures of Steckel, three All-SEC selections and Golden could leave big holes to fill on defense, and all-purpose back Marcus Murphy leaves along with nearly all of Missouri’s production at wide receiver.

Just don’t be surprised if Pinkel and the Tigers find a way to keep winning.

You can follow Luke Thompson on Twitter @FS_LukeT or email him at lukegthompson87@gmail.com.