Missouri’s Southeastern Conference debut under the lights at Memorial Stadium against Georgia is more than seven weeks away. But don’t allow the calendar to fool you. The Tigers are under inspection now. The magnifying glass of the country’s elite league was focused on coach Gary Pinkel, cornerback E.J. Gaines, wide receiver T.J. Moe and offensive lineman Elvis Fisher during the three-ring extravaganza otherwise known as SEC Media Days on Tuesday at the Wynfrey Hotel in Hoover, Ala.
Fellas, you’re not in the Big 12 any more.
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That became obvious a dozen questions into Pinkel’s address, which served as both an introduction and a sales pitch. (He called Memorial Stadium the self-labeled “The Zou” twice.) Someone asked him if his program carries a chip with those shoulder pads because it has been told it played junior-varsity football – yes, “JV” was the term used – before receiving an invite to strap it up within a conference that has snatched the past six BCS championships.
If you weren’t already well acclimated, Mizzou, welcome to the Big League.
“I don’t think it’s a chip necessarily,” Pinkel said. “To me it’s being a competitor. As a competitor, you get challenged a little bit. … Bottom line, you got to go out and prove yourself. I’m fine with it. I have no problem with it. (I’m) not going to make any predictions. Never have, never will. You have to go out and compete and earn respect and win. Only way you’re going to get respect is winning games.”
For the Tigers, it will come to that. Victories will be their currency to be viewed as more than a cute fascination in the coming years.
Make no mistake: the program’s growth within this new frontier will be a process. It will take time. Many pundits have pegged them as third- or fourth-place finishers in the weaker SEC East. Most say stumbles are expected this season. They say a three-month baptism by fire will grow hotter by the week with a conference slate that includes South Carolina (likely loss), Vanderbilt (winnable), Alabama (likely loss), Kentucky (winnable), Florida (tossup), Tennessee (tossup) and Texas A&M (tossup) after the Bulldogs (likely loss) make their first trip to Columbia, Mo.
But there will be time in the days ahead to analyze Missouri’s chances to surprise. The Tigers start their SEC life with a 19-8-1 record against their conference mates – a mark that’s as relevant as former interim Big 12 commissioner Chuck Neinas’ thoughts on Missouri’s updated turf design.
No, SEC Media Days are about the here and now. They’re about the show. Tuesday’s session gave the Tigers a glimpse of what an existence on college football’s red carpet looks like.
There was optimism. Possibilities seemed endless. Throughout the afternoon, thoughts on the transition were never far from players’ minds.
“I feel like it just all came at the perfect time,” Gaines said. “New everything – new conference, new stadium, a new team. It’s just exciting to come in and to see the things that have been done for this football team.”
“We’re as excited as anybody,” Moe said. “We’re the ones that actually have to go out there and do it, so you obviously need time to prepare, but we’re as ready as anybody to do it.”
“I think that’s a great personal challenge in itself, just going against the best talent,” Fisher said. “I’ve been against some great talent in the Big 12, and I’m sure I’ll go against some even better talent in the SEC.”
Yes, there were many glowing remarks throughout the day from the black-and-gold contingent. But there was serious talk as well. Here’s some news that arrived with Missouri’s time in the spotlight:
• Pinkel announced that quarterback James Franklin, who underwent surgery on his right shoulder this spring, is expected to make a full recovery in time for the season opener against Southeastern Louisiana on Sept. 1. Franklin, who threw for 2,865 yards with 21 touchdowns and 11 interceptions last season, sat out spring practices with a slight labrum tear.
• Pinkel told reporters that Henry Josey is making progress in rehabilitation but admitted it’s doubtful that the running back will play this season. During a victory over Texas on Nov. 12, Josey sustained a gruesome left knee injury in which his MCL, ACL and patellar tendon were torn. Josey ran for 1,168 yards with nine touchdowns last season before being sidelined.
“I’d be disappointed if we were intimidated,” Pinkel said of his program’s SEC move. “We played in a pretty good football league ourselves (in the Big 12). We understand the great league we’re coming into. It’s all going to play out. We all know how it works. It’s in the process. How is Missouri and Texas A&M going to do in the SEC – there’s going to be an analysis every single week. You have to go out and play and compete. That’s the way it should be. It’s going to be decided on the football field. We’re excited about doing that.”
Officially, the excitement kicks off Sept. 8. But why wait that long?
As of Tuesday, Missouri’s inaugural SEC season is on.