Missouri making its mark on the SEC

Staff writer Chip Towers contributed to this article.


MISSOURI IN THE SEC

Season; Overall; SEC

2012; 5-7; 2-6

2013; 12-2; 7-1*

2014; 4-1; 1-0

* SEC record doesn’t include loss to Auburn in SEC Championship game.

MISSOURI VS. UGA

Georgia’s two games against Missouri since the Tigers joined the SEC:

Sept. 8, 2012: Georgia won 41-20 at Missouri, spoiling the Tigers' SEC debut. Missouri led 20-17 late in the third quarter, but Georgia scored 24 consecutive points the rest of the way.

Oct. 12, 2013: Missouri won 41-26 in Athens, handing Georgia its first SEC loss of the season after three victories. Georgia cut Missouri's lead from 28-10 at halftime to 28-26 in the fourth quarter, but the Tigers then scored two more touchdowns.

In its brief time in the SEC, Missouri’s football team has beaten every Eastern Division opponent at least once, has reached the SEC Championship game and has even earned an apology.

After Missouri won the East last season — a far cry from a preseason poll’s prediction of sixth place — a voter approached coach Gary Pinkel at SEC Media Days in July to apologize for having underrated his team. Pinkel said later he didn’t care about the vote, but added he just wants his team “to be respected” within its league and nationally.

Missouri entered the SEC in 2012 as a program unknown and perhaps unrespected by many of the league’s long-time followers, and the Tigers fueled the skepticism by losing six of eight conference games in an injury-ravaged first season. But they will enter Saturday’s Eastern Division showdown against Georgia in Columbia, Mo., with 16 wins in their past 19 games, including eight of 10 against league opponents.

“The first year … I don’t think people gave them a lot of respect and thought they were going to get crushed and it was going to be real hard for them,” Georgia quarterback Hutson Mason said. “But they’ve beaten some good teams, and last year they win the East. It just goes to show they have some phenomenal coaches and players for them to come in the SEC and win ballgames.

“They’re definitely going to be one of the best teams we play this year.”

Known for its up-tempo spread offense and pass-rushing defense, Missouri (4-1, 1-0 SEC) will be in prime position to repeat as East champion if it beats Georgia (4-1, 2-1). The Tigers, the only East team without a league loss this season, won 21-20 at South Carolina, where Georgia lost 38-35.

“I think it’ll be a real good one,” South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said of the Georgia-Missouri game. “I thought Missouri was one of the best tackling teams we’ve played in a long time. When they hit our guys, we went straight down.”

Winning the East last year was “tremendously positive” for the Missouri football brand, Pinkel said before this season, “especially coming off the year before. (People thought) it was not the injuries, it was not all those other things, it was just we weren’t very good, we shouldn’t be in the SEC.”

Turned out, it was the injuries.

The Tigers improved from 2-6 to 7-1 in the SEC last season, then lost to Auburn in the conference championship game and ultimately finished the season ranked No. 5 in the nation.

“They were playing for the SEC championship in Year 2. That’s pretty impressive,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said this week. “Coach Pinkel is a heck of a ball coach. … They know what they’re doing, and they recruit toward what they like to do. Their style of play has proved it can work here in our league.”

Richt knew a bit about the Missouri program before it joined the SEC.

In November 2000, he interviewed for the job that went instead to Pinkel. A month later, Richt was hired by Georgia. Now, 14 years later, Richt and Pinkel are tied for fifth among active FBS coaches in number of seasons continuously at their current schools.

Maybe SEC fans shouldn’t be surprised by Missouri’s success. Pinkel took over a program that had experienced only two winning seasons in 17 years and turned it into one that posted double-digit wins in three of its last five seasons in the Big 12 and reached No. 1 in the BCS standings at one point in 2007.

Still, Pinkel said, the SEC is different.

“This league,” he said this week, “without question has the most high-end teams of any league I’ve ever been in.”

Two years ago, Georgia played at Missouri in the Tigers’ first SEC game. The Tigers didn’t come into the league quietly: Days before their debut, defensive lineman Sheldon Richardson, now with the New York Jets, famously described Georgia’s style of play as “old man football.”

Georgia won 41-20 that day, but got the impression the SEC newcomer would fit in just fine.

“As you were riding into the stadium,” Richt recalled, “it looked like every other SEC stadium with all the tailgating going on.”

A year later, Missouri beat the Bulldogs 41-26 in Athens.

“The respect level just went up a couple notches,” Pinkel said afterward.

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