COMMENTARY

Mizzou’s ante is in; it’s time to play

Updated: 2012-08-27T16:22:33Z

By SAM MELLINGER

The Kansas City Star

You can play the game a million different ways, but fair warning, it can become addictive and time-sucking, and before you know it you’ve spent the better part of a day not getting any closer to knowing how Missouri will do this fall in the organized religion known as Southeastern Conference football.

Trust me. I’ve tried this.

I talked with college football people about how the bubble screen might do in the NFL’s top feeder league. I noticed that Mizzou’s athletic budget for the most recent year available would’ve ranked in the SEC’s bottom third, then tried to balance that with the school’s rising ticket revenue and donations from fans. I learned the history of the league and noted that Mizzou’s East Division has been represented in the SEC championship game by four different schools in the last five years.

I calculated recruiting rankings to see that Mizzou’s last five classes would’ve ranked around fifth in the Big 12 but around 10th in the SEC, then thought about how shifting targets and different rivals will affect who the Tigers are able to sign. I know that some in and around the program and the SEC believe Dorial Green-Beckham would not have signed to play for MU in the Big 12, but have heard others say the nation’s top recruit always wanted to stay in his home state.

I heard a lot about all the NFL talent on SEC campuses and wondered how many people realize Mizzou has had 10 players selected in the last four drafts, as many or more than eight schools in the new league. I tried to balance the fact that Mizzou is 6-1 against SEC schools (including Texas A&M) since 2005, but that its best win was in the Cotton Bowl against an Arkansas team going through a coaching change.

I also wondered how many people understand that, after the top two or three schools, the Big 12 and SEC are awfully similar — right down to a perennial basketball power holding anchor at the bottom of the football standings.

I studied Arkansas’ slow assimilation from the Southwest Conference, but also heard coaches in that program say Missouri is better prepared for the transition, and “it’s not even close.”

I wondered how many Mizzou fans really think their team can beat Alabama.

I wondered how a program that’s 9-12 against ranked opponents the last five years will do in a tougher league.

I wondered how quickly Mizzou can get a bunch of 340-pound defensive tackles who can run 4.7s on campus.

I wondered whether this will end up being a move that gets Gary Pinkel either a statue outside the stadium or fired, because I’m not sure there’s much room in between for what amounts to the biggest gamble of his life and MU’s recent history.

There is some irony in that last point that shouldn’t be missed on anyone. You can come up with a thousand reasons MU switched leagues, but the central theme is that the SEC offered stability and certainty that the Big 12 couldn’t match. By leaving, MU effectively jumped from a boat taking on water in rough seas to a battleship steady enough to host a Jenga tournament.

As it turned out, the Big 12 remade itself. Not as strong as it once was, but richer, and with a new, surprising stability. Somehow, the Big 12 turned into the safe play. Familiar rivals. Historical familiarity. Television payouts approaching the SEC’s without the peer pressure to make such an enormous initial investment.

It’s too late for what-ifs, of course, and it’s hard to imagine that, even in their most unguarded moments, Mizzou’s power brokers regret joining the most powerful league in college sports. Once made, that’s a decision to embrace and smile about. MU has no more off-the-field uncertainty, and that’s a welcomed result, no matter the means.

It’s a strange twist of fate that the program’s uncertainty now comes on the field, and that the answers will begin to come this fall. College football pumps with the kind of passion that means your answer to how Mizzou will do probably has more to do with your own personal feelings than a cold consideration of the facts.

My guess: the Tigers will be just fine. Not good enough to meet Alabama at the top, too good to be with Kentucky at the bottom. Somewhere in the middle, then, with more 9-4 seasons than 5-7.

In other words, sort of like they’ve been in the Big 12.

To reach Sam Mellinger, call 816-234-4365, send e-mail to smellinger@kcstar.com or follow twitter.com/mellinger. For previous columns, go to KansasCity.com.

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