SEC foothold won’t be easy for Missouri, A&M

ATLANTA — There’s a conspicuous billboard off Interstate 85 heading into Atlanta, tinged in black and gold, announcing the arrival of a new addition.

The University of Missouri’s athletic department placed such outdoor advertisements all over the South, from Atlanta to Dallas and back to Jacksonville, Fla. Each offers a similar message: “Proud to be SEC.”

For one of the two newest members of the NCAA’s preeminent athletic conference, it is a fitting marketing ploy. The Tigers, along with fellow incomer Texas A&M, will need every effort they can muster to establish a foothold in the Southeastern Conference—the same conference that has captured the past six BCS football titles and houses reigning NCAA basketball champion Kentucky.

From the soundbites readily available at Wednesday evening’s SEC welcoming party held for both universities at the JW Marriott in Atlanta, those efforts will be made without hesitation.

“There’s a transition that takes place. I call it ‘The SEC Transition,'” Gary Pinkel, Missouri’s head football coach said. “It’s ongoing, but we’re working very hard to compete in there.”

The jittery excitement among the administrators, coaches and fans present was evident—and understandable.

Administrators will reap the financial rewards for years to come. Coaches will pitch championships and prestige to the country’s top recruits. Fans will find conference bragging rights easy to come by.

All was grand as Tiger and Aggies fans piled in to hear their respective coaches and administrators talk of opportunity and competition and potential.

“On behalf of six million people in the state of Missouri … we can not tell you how excited we are to be members of the Southeastern Conference,” Missouri athletic director Michael Alden said in his prepared speech. “Our enthusiasm, certainly, is born out of tradition and great success of the SEC, but it’s also born out of a tremendous respect for the leadership.”

But the luster exemplified in the gold-plated decor in the Buckhead hotel’s grand ballroom will wear off in the coming months. June will slowly ebb into July and eventually September, training camps will transform into gamedays and the bulk of an SEC schedule will eventually prove to be a daunting task.

The truth is that those billboards are aimed at improving the future. The present is a bit murkier. It is hard to envision a Texas A&M team that just endured a head coaching change—though new coach Kevin Sumlin brings ample amounts of promise—heading into Tuscaloosa, Ala. on Nov. 10 and beating the defending national champs. Missouri will need to stave off the likes of South Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee to stay afloat in the conference race.

Missouri coach Gary Pinkel is the first to point out that his program is one of the few BCS teams to win at least eight games over that past six seasons. But that was in the Big 12. There is a marked difference.

To add context, his Tigers are 12-14 against ranked opponents over that same six-year span. The Aggies have been even worse, tallying a 7-19 record against top-25 teams in that same stretch. Now there are even fewer cupcakes in the kitchen.

There might be a light at the end of the tunnel, but it is hard to see it behind the oncoming train that is Nick Saban, Les Miles and the rest of conference’s collective heavyweights.

Considered two of the winners in the ongoing conference realignment bonanza, Missouri and Texas A&M will likely take these early lumps with quiet pleasure. If this is the price to pay for future success, they’ll gladly buy in bulk.

But no such doubts crept up the marble stairs and into the corridor packed with those clad in tiger-print dresses or others yelling, “Howdy,” to complete strangers dressed in matching burgundy attire. No, optimism abounded Wednesday evening in Atlanta. If anything, the university marketing videos and hotel cash bars made sure of that.

But there will come a time in the upcoming season when those same fans and administrators will look at one another thinking, “What have we gotten ourselves into?”

Sumlin got a kick out of the smattering of fans that gathered to meet and greet their new opponents, giving particular credence to “the LSU guy in the back” who had apparently given him the only SEC greeting a true LSU fan knows how to give. The comment drew plenty of laughter from the boisterous crowd. Sumlin shook his head and smiled on the podium.

He must have known, in that moment, that this would be the warmest welcome he and his fellow newcomers would receive.