Diving into the SEC
The Tigers are poised for a headlong leap into America’s toughest football conference.
Many Tigers, One Roar
The 2012 football Tigers are revamped and reinvigorated heading into their inaugural season in the Southeastern Conference.
By any measure, the 2011 Mizzou football season was successful. It marked the emergence of a sophomore quarterback, the resurgence of a rushing offense that finished No. 9 nationally and the submergence of Independence Bowl opponent North Carolina.
For many Tiger fans, however, convergence with the Southeastern Conference defined the season. Every tailgate within miles of Memorial Stadium buzzed with conversations about the potential move and what it would mean for Mizzou. How would the Tigers fare in the nation’s top league? Which school would be our new conference rival? How would it affect recruiting for Gary Pinkel as he enters his 12th season at Missouri?
Already, the head coach has answered one of those burning questions.
“As for recruiting, it has been nothing but tremendously positive,” says Pinkel, who signed one of the nation’s top prospects, wide receiver Dorial Green-Beckham (Springfield, Mo.) Feb. 1, 2012. “We have found that kids like to play in the SEC. They want to play in the best league in the country.”
Add slick uniforms unveiled at April’s Black and Gold Game — designed by Nike to appeal to 18-to 21-year-olds — and Pinkel’s living room speech to players and parents has become a persuasive sales pitch.
“I showed the uniform to every recruit, and it was off the charts,” Pinkel says. “They all loved it.”
Flashy duds, new peers and an exciting freshman class bring a youthful vibe to the 2012 season. But the Tigers return 13 starters and several key players who missed 2011 due to injury. Mizzou is not devoid of veteran leadership — or confidence.
“I haven’t played a game yet in the SEC, and people keep asking us how we’re going to handle it,” says senior wideout T.J. Moe. “I think maybe people should be asking [SEC teams] the same thing: How are they going to handle us?”
Mizzou opens the 2012 season hosting Southeastern Louisiana Sept. 1. Unlike life in the Big 12, the Tigers won’t get a series of nonconference dates before heading into the grueling league schedule. The nationally ranked Georgia Bulldogs come to Faurot Field the following week for the Show-Me State’s inaugural SEC contest Sept. 8.
M-I-Z in the SEC
More Mizzou alumni live in the 2012–13 Southeastern Conference footprint (161,613) than in the 2011–12 Big 12 footprint (158,626), according to Jayson Meyer, director of alumni relations for the Mizzou Alumni Association.
Junior quarterback James Franklin (Corinth, Texas) will likely start the season after shoulder surgery March 23 to repair a torn labrum. Pinkel described the injury as “essentially the same but less severe” as the one former Super Bowl MVP Drew Brees endured at the end of the 2005 season. The New Orleans Saints quarterback started every game in 2006.
“My shoulder is feeling really good, and everything is moving along,” says Franklin, who injured it pouncing on a fumble during practice March 13. “I don’t want to push it too fast, though, because I’ve heard that whenever it starts feeling good, that’s when [reinjury] is most dangerous.”
The Tigers’ most significant injury of 2011 felled sophomore tailback Henry Josey (Angleton, Texas), who was the Big 12’s leading rusher when he tore his left patellar tendon, anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments. Josey is scheduled to return in 2013. In the meantime, senior running back Kendial Lawrence (Rockwall, Texas) has been a backfield mainstay for three seasons, and senior Jared McGriff-Culver (Downers Grove, Ill.) was impressive in limited play last season. Pinkel also says sophomore tailback Marcus Murphy (DeSoto, Texas) could remind fans of Josey.
The offensive line welcomes back senior left tackle Elvis Fisher (St. Petersburg, Fla.), who missed 2011 with an injured knee. Senior center Travis Ruth (Jefferson City, Mo.), junior tackle Justin Britt (Lebanon, Mo.) and up-and-coming sophomore Mitch Morse (Austin, Texas) shore up a group that will be tested against SEC defensive lines loaded with NFL-caliber talent.
The Tigers graduated three productive receivers in May, including All-American tight end Michael Egnew. Returning senior T.J. Moe (O’Fallon, Mo.) led the team with 54 receptions for 649 yards. He believes the unit still has talent to spare.
“We’ve got receivers here that people don’t necessarily know about yet,” Moe says. “Everyone improved this spring, and if we continue to improve in fall practice, we’ll be in good shape.”
Juniors Marcus Lucas (Liberty, Mo.), L’Damian Washington (Shreveport, La.) and Eric Waters (Mansfield, Texas) will be regular targets. The 2010 Homecoming hero, senior Gahn McGaffie (Galena Park, Texas) will also see more action.
“First off, we’re looking for guys who can get open and block well,” says Pinkel of his wide receivers. “Then we’re looking for guys who are playmakers and can do something after they catch the ball. The best throwing years we’ve had here are when we have had those types of players.”
Facing the Big Boys
Howard Richards, BA ’88, joined the Tiger Radio Network booth last season, so the analyst and former Mizzou offensive lineman had a perfect view for Missouri’s Big 12 swan song. As the team transitions to a new set of opponents, Richards says the key is the defensive line in the SEC.
“They play a more professional, attacking style in the SEC, and the players up front are big,” says Richards of the conference that features five of the nation’s top 10 defenses. “Not just big but strong and athletic pass rushers. That’s where Mizzou is going to have to develop because of losing three starters.”
He is talking about Dominique Hamilton, BS ’11, Terrell Resonno and Jacquies Smith, who all signed NFL contracts this offseason. Expect senior Brad Madison (Bethany, Mo.) to take that route after graduation, too. A shoulder injury kept the defensive end from repeating the success of his sophomore season, when he led the 2010 team with 7.5 sacks.
Tiger fans saw glimpses of junior Sheldon Richardson’s (St. Louis) capability in 2011, and competition on the D-line will be fierce between sophomore Kony Ealy (New Madrid, Mo.), senior Jimmy Burge (Houston), and juniors Brayden Burnett (Southlake, Texas), Marvin Foster (Fort Worth, Texas) and Michael Sam (Hitchcock, Texas).
Mizzou is loaded at linebacker, where junior human-missile Andrew Wilson (Peculiar, Mo.) leads a versatile squad.
“We’re a close-knit group, and we work hard together,” says Wilson, who led the team with 98 tackles in 2011. “We all fit well. Even the younger guys can come up and play.”
Senior Zaviar Gooden (Pflugerville, Texas) led the team with 54 solo tackles last year, and Pinkel was impressed with sophomore Darvin Ruise (Glen St. Mary, Fla.), junior Donovan Bonner (Dallas) and redshirt freshman Kentrell Brothers (Guthrie, Okla.) during spring camp. The Tigers also welcome back inspirational senior leader Wil Ebner (Friendswood, Texas) who missed 2011 with a concussion.
The secondary faces an adjustment as it leaves the pass-happy Big 12, where four teams finished in the top 10 nationally in passing offense last year. Junior E.J. Gaines (Independence, Mo.), a 2011 All-Big 12 selection, and senior Kip Edwards (Arlington, Texas) bring experience to the Tiger unit.
At safety, senior Kenronte Walker (Fayetteville, N.C.) and sophomore Braylon Webb (Gilmer, Texas) both started periodically last season.
As for special teams, senior Trey Barrow (Moberly, Mo.) headlined as punter and full-time kicker after Grant Ressell went out with a hip injury last season.
“The consistency of our kicking game is going to be important,” Pinkel says. “For so many years, we have had one of the best kickers in the nation. It’s not only the points but also the momentum you gain from those points and the momentum you lose when you come up empty.”
Points will come at a premium in the SEC, home of six consecutive BCS National Champions. NFL teams have drafted more SEC players in the past six years than from any other conference, and the league boasts the nation’s highest nonconference winning percentage (81.6).
‘We’re a close-knit group, and we work hard together. We all fit well. Even the younger guys can come up and play.’
Coach Pinkel doesn’t need numerical proof to convince him of the SEC’s lofty status. He has done his homework. Besides, Pinkel has a fancy stat himself: No. 8 in wins (158) among active coaches in the Football Bowl Subdivision (formerly Division I-A).
“The Southeastern Conference has been the best conference in college football for the past decade — I don’t think anybody could argue against that,” he says. “But we’re going to run our offense. We’re going to do what we do.”
What Mizzou has done recently is win more frequently than all but eight BCS teams since 2007. Leaping into new territory in 2012, the Tigers strive to play up to the highest level of collegiate competition.
2012 Football Schedule
|09/22||AT South Carolina||Columbia, S.C.|
|09/29||AT UCF||Orlando, Fla.|
|10/27||Kentucky — Homecoming||Columbia|
|11/03||AT Florida||Gainesville, Fla.|
|11/10||AT Tennessee||Knoxville, Tenn.|
|11/24||AT Texas A&M||College Station, Texas|