Missouri begins new SEC life with start of camp
ST. LOUIS – New conference, new uniforms, new turf … new attitude?
The ink has dried on Missouri's move to the Southeastern Conference. The league's flag has flapped outside Mizzou Arena, and commissioner Mike Slive has made clear his preference for how to pronounce the Show-Me State. (Sorry to everyone north of Interstate 70, but he's a "Missourah" kind of guy.)
Goodbye, Border War and Big 12 road trips to scenic mid-America sites like Ames, Iowa, and Manhattan, Kan., Stillwater, Okla., and Waco, Texas. Hello, new beginning – one that will acclimate Mizzou to "Hotty Toddy" and the eternal forecast at Tiger Stadium in time.
But the pomp and pageantry is nearly over. Sweep up the confetti and stash away those quote sheets filled with praise from SEC Media Days. The Tigers' season opener against Southeastern Louisiana is little more than five weeks away. Seven days later, Mark Richt's Georgia Bulldogs – yes, the defending SEC East champions – arrive in Columbia, Mo., for the first time in program history to introduce Gary Pinkel's squad to their brand of Southern Charm.
There are always questions that come with each fall, but the curiosity takes on a greater charge in the coming weeks. For Missouri, preseason camp opens Aug. 2 with an air of wonder.
Welcome to a new day.
How much of a learning curve will Gary Pinkel and his staff experience in their first SEC season?
Meet the fall's largest X-factor. Truth is, no one knows how Pinkel's staff will manage the eight-game SEC schedule – seven of which are against teams Missouri has scant knowledge about. A short history lesson: The Tigers last faced Georgia in 1960, South Carolina in 2005, Vanderbilt in 1958, Alabama in 1978, Kentucky in 1968 and Florida in 1966. (Missouri has never played Tennessee.) So don't expect Pinkel to dig for classic game film anytime soon.
Circumstances differ, but former Big 12 mates Nebraska and Colorado showed last season that a conference transition is no tickertape parade. The Cornhuskers finished third in the Big Ten Legends division with a 5-3 conference mark – but not without suffering poundings to Wisconsin (31 points) and Michigan (28 points) and dropping a home contest to lowly Northwestern (three points). Meanwhile, the Buffaloes continued their recent limp by finishing fifth in the Pac-12's South division with a 2-7 record in conference play.
Missouri has the talent to close no worse than fourth in the SEC East. Still, don't be surprised if some unfamiliarity plays a role in closer-than-expected games against Vanderbilt and/or Kentucky.
Can Missouri steal "tossup" conference games?
Perhaps. Missouri should handle Vanderbilt and Kentucky, and fans should be realistic about the Tigers' chances against big boys like Georgia, South Carolina and Alabama. But possible victories over Florida, Tennessee and Texas A&M could catapult Missouri into the upper half of the SEC East.
The Tigers are no stranger to the Aggies, having won five of the last six games between the teams dating to their time in the Big 12. A scheduling blip means Gary Pinkel's team will jet to College Station for a third consecutive year, where Missouri has won two straight times.
Meanwhile, the Gators went through a bit of a get-to-know-you phase last season with new coach Will Muschamp on their way to finishing 7-6 overall and 3-5 in the conference. Nonetheless, a trip to The Swamp on Nov. 3 will be no easy task. The same goes for a date with the Derek Dooley-led Volunteers a week later at Neyland Stadium. The Tigers will be rewarded if they can sneak out at least two victories against UF, UT and A&M.
How much will left tackle Elvis Fisher's return boost the offensive line?
Possibly a lot. The senior missed last season after rupturing the patellar tendon in his left knee during preseason drills. The timing was unfortunate: The year before, Big 12 coaches named Fisher an honorable mention all-league selection for the second consecutive campaign. He started all 40 games from 2008 to 2010.
This year will include added responsibility. Fisher will be expected to provide veteran leadership on the offensive line. The preseason No. 1s in the trenches include seniors Travis Ruth at left guard and Jack Meiners at right guard, junior Justin Britt at right tackle and sophomore Mitch Morse at center.
Even without Fisher, the Tigers' offensive line punched holes for the team's rushing attack last season. Missouri finished ninth in the nation in the category, averaging 244 yards per game. Expect Fisher to be a welcomed addition when the Tigers face physical SEC defensive fronts.
Will wide receiver Dorial Green-Beckham make an immediate impact?
Let the watch begin. Gary Pinkel touted Green-Beckham's signing in February as a day when "the Mizzou stock market went up," and the nation's top recruit should have a chance to prove his worth early. Juniors Marcus Lucas (X-receiver) and L'Damian Washington (Z-receiver) and senior T.J. Moe (H-receiver) enter as the top wide receivers on the preseason depth chart. But let's not kid ourselves: In time, DGB will become a familiar sight among the starters.
Obviously, Green-Beckham gives Missouri elite skill – he had 2,233 yards receiving and 24 touchdowns as a senior – but his signing was a symbol too. The Springfield, Mo., native's decision to remain in-state represented a coup for Pinkel's staff, a sign that the Tigers can attract coveted prep stars as the program enters its SEC life.
To compete with the nation's best, you must win in living rooms like the heavyweights. Missouri did so by luring Green-Beckham from the likes of Texas, Arkansas and Oklahoma.
How much will Missouri miss running back Henry Josey?
Significantly. The junior's status remains unknown after sustaining a gruesome left knee injury against Texas last November, but Gary Pinkel said during SEC Media Days it's doubtful the Angleton, Texas, native will play this season.
It's no surprise, but it's bad news for the black and gold. Imagine where Josey's 2011 season might have led if not for the setback. By the time of the injury, he had earned the fifth-best rushing season in program history with 1,168 yards and nine touchdowns. To think, those totals came with two more regular-season games left.
So most likely, the Tigers must look elsewhere for a backfield option this fall. Senior Kendial Lawrence, a Rockwall, Texas, native, enters preseason camp at the top of the depth chart. He won the starting job out of fall camp last year, only to be surpassed after sustaining a cracked left fibula during a practice before the second game. (He rushed for 371 yards and three touchdowns after Josey's season ended.)
Yes, Lawrence offers experience. But Josey will be missed.
Will quarterback James Franklin have lingering effects from his shoulder injury?
Finally, the wait is over. Gary Pinkel assured reporters at SEC Media Days that Franklin will be ready for the season opener. This is what he really meant to say: Missouri can wipe the sweat from its collective brow. The junior sustained a torn labrum in his right shoulder when leaping on a fumble in spring practice. He was unavailable to speak about his condition throughout the absence, turning offseason sessions into a guessing game about his progress.
Beyond the physical issues, Franklin revealed his mental strength last season. He suffered a mid-season slump, throwing a combined six interceptions in consecutive games against Kansas State, Iowa State and Oklahoma State. However, he followed that stretch by tossing 10 touchdowns with four interceptions the rest of the way – a run that saw the Tigers go 5-1 to close the year.
Welcome back, Franklin. Pinkel, for one, is eager for your return.
Could lack of depth at quarterback hurt Missouri?
In a word, yes. James Franklin is the unquestioned leader going into preseason camp. If Gary Pinkel and offensive coordinator David Yost have their wish, the Corinth, Texas, native will finish the fall in the same way.
Freshman Corbin Berkstresser, who redshirted last season, enters as the top backup. But junior Ashton Glaser, the preseason No. 3, announced his transfer to Missouri State earlier this month.
So consider two scenarios. Option No. 1: Franklin starts all 12 games, possibly 13 if Missouri makes a bowl, and earns valuable experience against SEC defenses. He gains knowledge about what worked, what didn't, and he's given insight into how to strengthen his weaknesses for next year. Option No. 2: Franklin goes down with an injury at some point in the season. In Pinkel's darkest of nightmares, this happens early in the first quarter against Georgia, with a sellout crowd under the lights at Memorial Stadium hushed at the sight of the Tigers' leader hobbling off the field. Later, the coach announces Franklin must sit for the rest of the season, throwing an unproven Berkstresser into the SEC's fire.
Which do you think Pinkel prefers?
Who will emerge to replace tight end Michael Egnew?
Chase Coffman. Martin Rucker. Egnew. Next, please.
A lineage has emerged, and this will be one of the most fascinating positions to track this fall. Tight ends live an enviable life in Missouri's spread scheme, because the system creates stars. Whoever slides into this role will have a similar chance.
Take Egnew. After light production his first two seasons – he combined for 47 yards on seven catches with no touchdowns as an underclassman – he burst into the national consciousness with 762 yards on 90 catches with five touchdowns in 2010 (he was named a consensus All-American that campaign). Then he followed the effort with 523 yards on 50 catches with three touchdowns as a senior, before the Miami Dolphins selected him in the third round in the most recent NFL draft.
So who will follow? A name to think about: Junior Eric Waters. The Mansfield, Texas, native played 11 games as a sophomore, mostly on special teams, and he enters preseason camp as the top option to replace Egnew. Perhaps one day, he will be known as the Next In Line.
Will Missouri's secondary hold up against skilled SEC wide receivers?
This is a big question. Junior cornerback E.J. Gaines, a Fort Osage, Mo., native, won first-team All-Big 12 honors last year in his first season as a starter. He set a program record with 18 passes defended and ranked fifth on the squad with 69 tackles.
But the rest of the secondary could be stretched. Senior cornerback Kip Edwards is athletic but vulnerable at times. Senior strong safety Kenronte Walker won the team's most-improved safety award in the spring session but only has three starts to his name. Sophomore free safety Braylon Webb earned honorable mention All-Big 12 honors with 36 tackles last season but only has four starts in his career.
So aside from Gaines, there are few sure bets. The learning curve better be brief, though. The tests will come hard and fast. Will Missouri's defensive backs meet the challenge? Time will tell.
What can Missouri expect in its SEC opener?
A night to remember. No matter the atmosphere – no matter the result – this means history. After more than two years of on-again, off-again commitments and chatter about Big 12 "stability," Missouri has found its conference home of the future. It's about time.
That means no more concern about major college athletics' shifting landscape. That means no more concern about whether Texas and/or Oklahoma will bolt for the Pac-12. That means no more concern about apocalyptic scenarios that project membership in the Big East or – gasp! – the Mountain West.
Yes, this is a long journey's start. No doubt, Missouri must strengthen its commitment on and off the field to be competitive in the SEC. This will be no simple mission – Gary Pinkel knows it, athletic director Mike Alden knows it, chancellor Brady Deaton knows it. This will take time, money, and most of all, resolve.
For Missouri, though, SEC membership is a victory in itself, especially when considering the precarious position university leaders found themselves two years ago when it looked as if the Big 12 would crumble to the core. Remember those days?
They seem like so long ago, like a bad, faded dream. The night of Sept. 8 will be something to behold.
It will be something to hold onto as well.
How many victories would mean a successful season?
Think eight. Missouri has the skill to win each game at Memorial Stadium, aside from the ones against Georgia and Alabama. UCF on the road is doable, though the Knights could provide an interesting test, and give the Tigers two of the contests against Florida, Tennessee and Texas A&M.
Anything more would be a surprise, but Gary Pinkel's team should fare better than the Aggies as the former Big 12 members find their way. The SEC East draw is a gift, and it should help Missouri acclimate itself within the league for the near future.
Yes, playing Florida and Tennessee each fall would seem daunting if this were, say, 1995. But years pass, players like Danny Wuerffel and Peyton Manning move on, and power shifts to sites like Baton Rouge, La., and Tuscaloosa, Ala.
It's a new era. And it's all part of a new, intriguing, limitless frontier for the Tigers in their SECond life.