Mizzou looks to be competitive early in SEC

HOOVER, Ala. — Gary Pinkel enters the gym before his

players each morning — at 5:30 a.m.

It’s a personal drive that has made an impression on the Missouri Tigers, who

heaped praises on their head coach behind the microphones at SEC Media Days.

It’s a contagious energy.

“He’s disciplined himself, and that carries on into our football

program,” senior wide receiver T.J. Moe said.

That hit-the-ground-running mentality will prove necessary for Pinkel’s program

this season as it jumps into the SEC fray for the first time. The 12th-year

Missouri coach’s steely persona remained undeterred by media questioning this

offseason. His team is immersed in what they call ‘The SEC Transition,’ a

mission Pinkel revealed a couple months ago at a welcoming party for Missouri

and Texas A&M in Atlanta.

He consistently talks of his program’s recent success. He

certainly appears unwavering. Not once has he relinquished that, “Man,

these teams sure are gonna be tough to beat.” That would send the wrong

message.

“I’m definitely ready to get down to business, get down to the conference

games and prove myself,” cornerback E.J. Gaines said. “I wouldn’t

expect anything else from a new conference. If someone came into the Big 12

they would have stuff to prove.”

Missouri’s players have rarely known failure — they were successful in high

school, they’ve been successful under Pinkel. So now, all of a sudden, they’re

supposed to tremble in the shadow of a looming Southeastern Conference? It’s

not in their nature.

Perhaps, there are reasons for some optimism.

The Missouri backfield, if healthy, promises to be formidable. Overall, the

Tigers moved the ball with ease in 2011, finishing with 6,182 total yards as

the 15th-rated offense. James Franklin accounted for more than 3,500 yards

passing and rushing the ball last season, including an impressive 36 trips to

the end zone. He is coming off a shoulder injury, but if he returns to full

strength then he should once again be one of the best dual threat quarterbacks

in the country.

“We expect, without question, for him to be a 100 percent,” Pinkel said. “The

trainer told us that two weeks ago. It will be interesting to see in August as

he’s throwing more consistently over and over again, repetition-wise to see his

accuracy, which I think really improved a whole lot last year as the season

went on.”

Missouri’s defense also held up against the onslaught of Big 12 offenses last

season, allowing a respectable 309 total points — good enough to rank 49th in

the country. But top SEC teams feature top-10 defenses nationally, and those

that don’t are often left beaten and bruised.

Will Missouri be competitive? Possibly. The Tigers were fortunate enough to

avoid the SEC West, which includes Alabama and LSU. Mizzou is in the same division

with Florida and Tennessee, but they are not the Gators and Volunteers of old.

A fourth- or fifth-place finish in the conference is not a wild stretch of some

Tiger fans’ imagination.

But it comes back to the tone that Pinkel sets. No matter how they slice it, the

Tigers will find themselves in a few games when they are overmatched

talent-wise. The Tigers’ response to such adversity, if their coach has any

influence over it, will not be one of panic.

“If we’re not doing something right, we start the whole practice over,”

Moe said. “We’ll get through the warm-up, (Pinkel will) put us through the

first drill, and if he doesn’t like it, we’ll start the whole thing over.

“We’re gonna be disciplined. We’re not gonna jump

offsides. We’re not gonna have any false starts. We’re not gonna have any

holding penalties.”

That authoritative approach, according to Moe, will pay off in 2012.

In fact, in Tiger lore, SEC-centric sentiments have trickled out in extreme

measures, drowning out the accomplishments of other conferences and setting up

a scenario for many traditionalists to be unpleasantly surprised with how

competitive Missouri will be this season.

“I think they are underselling the Big 12 a little bit,” Moe said. “Recently

the SEC’s been dominant, that’s true, they’ve had a lot of teams.”But

again, it’s not all 12 teams dominating everybody. It’s one or two guys that

are steamrolling through everybody and everybody else is kind of average. Not

average, but they’re not killing everybody.”

That’s easy to say from afar, and Missouri knows that. It has instituted the

heralded ‘SEC Transition’ for this exact reason, because it is a transition —

a major one.

At the end of the day, talk, hype, promises and expectations mean very little

once the lights flicker on. The Big 12 will be a distance speck in the past, as

Georgia or South Carolina or LSU will be an oncoming object in the future.

As Pinkel preached Tuesday, all that will matter will be the results.

“Bottom line, you got to go out and prove yourself.”