Missouri seeks respect as they enter SEC
HOOVER, Ala. — Shortly after Tigers senior receiver T.J. Moe entered a large ballroom here at the Wynfrey Hotel late Tuesday afternoon for his introduction to SEC Football Media Days, Moe surveyed the large crowd.
As reporters jockeyed for position, Moe took note.
"It's serious here,'' said the wide receiver. He then offered a memorable follow-up when told everything in the SEC is big, including the defensive backs that will be defending him. "They also have prettier girls, the air is fresher, the toilet paper is thicker."
While everyone may not agree with Moe's initial assessment of Missouri's new conference, you get the idea. The Tigers know they aren't in the Big 12 any longer.
Their mission now is to earn the SEC's respect as one of the league's two newest members along with Texas A&M.
Tigers coach Gary Pinkel has built a program that has seven consecutive winning seasons, including three seasons of 10 or more wins over that span.
On the way up the coaching ladder, Pinkel has earned the kind of salary that has allowed him to purchase a vacation home in Florida. As he spent time in the Sunshine State over the summer — Pinkel and the Tigers will make their debut in The Swamp on Nov. 3 — he couldn't help but notice how people addressed the Tigers' move to the SEC.
"People act like we've been playing a bunch of high school teams,'' Pinkel quipped. "We've played in a pretty big league."
There is truth to that. Any schedule that features Oklahoma, Texas, Nebraska and Oklahoma State regularly can't be dismissed.
Still, when you join a conference that has won the last six national titles, there are going to be doubts about fitting in.
Pinkel gets that and is using it as motivation as Missouri transitions into a new league with new expectations and new rivalries.
"We understand the great league we're coming into. It's all going to play out,'' Pinkel said. "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."
While the Tigers lack the rich history of programs like Alabama, Florida and Georgia, they don't lack for talent and confidence.
The Tigers return 11 starters from last year's 8-5 team that won its final four games, including a 41-14 win over North Carolina in the Independence Bowl.
Two of those top returners — quarterback James Franklin (shoulder) and running back Henry Josey (knee) — are coming off serious injuries. However, Pinkel expects both to be ready for the season opener.
The Tigers host Georgia on Sept. 8 in their SEC opener and look forward to the challenge of trying to prove themselves against the nation's toughest conference.
"We won't back down, that's for sure,'' said cornerback E.J. Gaines, one of five starters returning on defense. "It's a fresh start for our team, for our school, for our fans. We want to prove that we belong with the best and playing in the SEC gives us that opportunity."
Here's something you might not know: Missouri is 18-9-1 all-time against the current schools in the SEC other than fellow newcomer Texas A&M.
Missouri has faced Ole Miss the most, winning five of six games over the Rebels. The Tigers are 3-2 all-time against Arkansas, including a 38-7 win in the Cotton Bowl following the 2007 season.
In their only meeting against the Gators, the Tigers upset a Florida team led by Steve Spurrier, 20-18, on New Year's Day 1966 in the Sugar Bowl.
While that win remained one of the program's best for many years, the Tigers have flourished under Pinkel, who is 85-51 since taking over the program in 2001.
Pinkel expects nothing but the best from his team amid whatever doubts there may be on the outside about Missouri's ability to compete regularly for the SEC East crown.
"I'd be disappointed if we were intimidated,'' Pinkel said. "We have a system in place. Are we changing how we recruit? No. Do we change how we train our players? No. We believe in what we do. Certainly we'll be tested. That's fine. That's how it should be.
"One of the most important things in my opinion, we go in certainly I think with a little respect. We've won at a fairly high level over the last six, seven years, graduating 96 percent of our players in the same amount of time."
Pinkel attributed the program's growth the past few years to staff continuity, a commitment from the school to improve facilities — Memorial Stadium underwent a recent renovation that has helped recruiting — and improved talent through recruiting.
The Tigers start to see how they stack up against the nation's best when Georgia visits what Pinkel refers to as "The Zoo" the second week of the season.
"It's going to be a big game for us,'' he said. "But there's going to be a lot of big games. There's so many good football teams you're going to play week in, week out. That's what defines the league.
"Bottom line, you got to go out and prove yourself."
Now that introductions are out of the way, that is the Tigers' next goal.