SEC 2015: Missouri gets even more reasons to be motivated
COLUMBIA, Mo. (AP) During the summer, Missouri linebacker Kentrell Brothers was shocked to see on Twitter that he'd been kicked off the team.
Turned out it was just a rumor, and the latest indignity suffered by the two-time defending champions in the SEC East.
''I don't know where that came from,'' Brothers said. ''It was kind of scary. I'm here, I plan on being here.''
The senior linebacker is held in such high regard by teammates that he was voted one of four captains before the start of fall practice. Brothers had 122 tackles last season, tops among SEC returnees, but he's just a third-team preseason pick in the SEC this time - after being voted second-team all-SEC last year.
There's plenty of motivation to go around.
The Tigers are coming off an 11-3 season capped by a Citrus Bowl victory, but they are preseason picks to finish third in the division this season. They just can't seem to get away from the taint of a 5-7 record three years ago when they flopped in their first year in the SEC after making the switch from the Big 12.
''We love that, thank them all,'' Brothers said. ''We like being underdogs.''
Coach Gary Pinkel has grown accustomed to such treatment and tries not to overplay the underdog hand, rejecting the notion he might use it to spur players. He notes that every year he emphasizes leadership with seniors, and this year is no different.
''I'm not a trick guy,'' Pinkel said. ''I always put it on players, not pressure but more a sense of responsibility when there's an expectation we should win at a high level. The senior group, this is their legacy.''
Things to watch for with Missouri this season:
AIR IT OUT: Developing receivers is a top priority with the top three options from last season gone. The Tigers will try to succeed by volume, regularly sending out two tight ends and two wide receivers on patterns. Sophomore Nate Brown, a former top recruit, could step up along with tight ends Sean Culkin and Jason Reese. Tailback Russell Hansbrough, who rushed for 1,084 yards and 10 touchdowns last season, can take the heat off the pass game with more productivity.
DEFENSIVE STRENGTH: Missouri has been known for developing pass rushers like Shane Ray, Kony Ealy, Aldon Smith and Michael Sam. Ray was the 10th overall pick by the Broncos this year. This year, the experience is from the linebackers on back, led by Brothers and Michael Scherer and experienced defensive backs Dennis, Ian Simon, Aarion Penton and John Gibson. The big loss up front is tackle Harold Brantley, out for the season after sustaining multiple injuries in a car accident in June. New coordinator Barry Odom played at Missouri and coached under Pinkel, and returns to the program after a run of success at Memphis, which improved from 117th in the nation in 2011 to 22nd last year. Odom used a 3-4 defense at Memphis, but changes at Missouri won't be drastic. One wrinkle: cornerback play figures to be more aggressive.
MAUK MATURITY: Junior quarterback Maty Mauk completed just 52 percent of his passes, with six of his games under 50 percent. Ugly or not, he finished with 25 touchdown passes and 13 interceptions. It didn't hurt that the coaching staff never lost confidence.
''We want more consistency,'' Pinkel said. ''The more consistency you have at that position, the more you have over the whole field. He's had a real good summer.''
FRONT LINE: The Tigers have plenty of experience up front for Mauk with a group led by center Evan Boehm and tackle Connor McGovern. Like Brothers, Boehm is a preseason third-team all-conference pick.
''It just adds a different dynamic,'' McGovern said. ''Instead of having a bunch of all-star wideouts, we have what we like to think of as a bunch of all-star linemen.''
EASY OPENING: The schedule is conducive to a 4-0 start before the going gets a lot tougher. Missouri begins with Southeast Missouri State at home Sept. 5, followed by Arkansas State on the road, Connecticut at home and Kentucky on the road. After that, it's South Carolina and Florida at home before a trip to Georgia, generally considered the division favorite.