COLUMBIA, Mo. (AP) A season that began with the promise of sharing the stage with college football royalty is threatening to turn sour for Missouri as the Tigers confront the realities of life in the unforgiving Southeastern Conference.
A 19-15 home loss to perennial conference also-ran Vanderbilt kept Missouri (3-3, 0-3) winless in league games in its first season in the SEC after leaving the Big 12. Missouri is one of five conference teams still seeking its first SEC victory. In Missouri’s case, that means its first SEC victory, ever.
Few expect Missouri to get it when No. 1 Alabama (5-0, 2-0) visits Faurot Field Saturday in a coaching matchup pitting former Kent State teammates Gary Pinkel, Missouri’s coach, and the Tide’s Nick Saban.
“This year, there’s so much hype being in the SEC, and you’ve got all the outside voices telling you that you (stink) and you’re not worthy,” senior offensive tackle Elvis Fisher said. “We know what we do here. We work our butts off. And then it’s devastating to go out there and not put on your best performance.”
Missouri started the 2011 season even worse, stumbling to a 2-3 mark before winning its final three regular-season games to finish 7-5 and reach a bowl game for the seventh consecutive year. That streak is in jeopardy, as the Tigers face a `Bama team coming off an extra week’s rest and trips to Gainesville, Knoxville and College Station looming in November. Missouri should be favored in its remaining home games against Kentucky and Syracuse, but will need to beat the Crimson Tide or pull at least one road upset to reach the six wins required for bowl eligibility.
The Tigers will again be without starting quarterback James Franklin, who is expected to be out several weeks after straining a knee ligament against Vandy on a first-quarter scramble. Franklin also missed the season’s third game, a home win over Arizona State after hurting his shoulder a week earlier against Georgia.
His replacement, redshirt freshman Corbin Berkstresser, completed just 9 of 30 passes for 189 yards against Vanderbilt, with 85 of those yards coming on a scoring toss to Bud Sasser on an overthrown pass meant for a teammate. Against the Sun Devils, Berkstresser was 21 of 41 for 198 yards with one interception and a rushing touchdown.
Missouri also will be without starting center Mitch Morse, who like Franklin injured a medial collateral ligament in his knee. The Tigers’ already battered offensive line – which relies on three sophomores, three redshirt freshmen and a true freshman among its first- and second-teamers – took another blow Monday as senior guard/tackle Jack Meiners underwent arthroscopic knee surgery. Pinkel said he could return later this season.
A head coach who has had the luxury of grooming future NFL quarterbacks Brad Smith, Chase Daniel and Blaine Gabbert at Missouri said he is confident in Berkstresser. But Pinkel did not rule out playing freshman Maty Mauk, who was expected to sit out this season as a redshirt.
“He’ll do fine,” Pinkel said of Berkstresser. “He’s very capable. … He’s not the first quarterback who’s had a tough day.”
The Tigers also get back receiver Dorial Green-Beckham, one of five Missouri freshmen suspended for the Vanderbilt game after a campus drug bust. Green-Beckham and two teammates face misdemeanor marijuana possession charges after a campus police officer reportedly caught them smoking pot in Green-Beckham’s SUV in a parking lot near Memorial Stadium.
Fan excitement about the inaugural SEC campaign helped Missouri set a school record for season-ticket sales, and sellout crowds packed 71,004-seat Memorial Stadium for the Arizona State game as well as the SEC home opener against Georgia. The Vanderbilt game drew a crowd of 66, 250, but thousands of fans left Memorial Stadium at halftime, and a smattering of boos rang out from the student section as Missouri walked off the field trailing 9-6.
Pinkel said his coaching staff has no plans to panic as it prepares to host the 14-time national champion Crimson Tide.
“We don’t make a lot of drastic changes,” he said. “That would be the worst thing to do. We just have to work through it. I don’t have anything magical here.”