In a news conference, Gary Pinkel didn’t get his dander up over perceived slights, so it wasn’t worth the breath to ask him why Missouri tends to get downgraded by preseason prognosticators.
That didn’t prevent the question.
“Honestly, I don’t know where we’ve been picked since I’ve been here,” Pinkel said.
A reporter at SEC Media Days reminded him. Sixth in 2013 and fourth in 2014.
“Is that right? That upsets me,” Pinkel said, fooling nobody.
With the Tigers coming off a second straight SEC Eastern Division title, Missouri may be college football’s most misread program. It has exceeded outsiders’ expectations, and even after posting a 2-6 record in its first SEC season, Mizzou owns the SEC’s third-best league mark (16-8) since joining the conference. Only Alabama and Georgia have better records and only the Crimson Tide can match Mizzou’s two SEC title game appearances.
Again, Pinkel publicly yawns at perception.
“I really don’t go there,” he said. “It probably bothers my players a little more than me.”
“Winning 12 games a year hasn’t done anything for us,” senior defensive back Kenya Dennis said.
Quarterback Maty Mauk felt certain Missouri will be painted as an off-the-pace team again.
“I don’t even expect them to put us in the top 25,” Mauk said. “That’s just how I view it. There’s no respect there. It’s just going to be another year where we’re going to have to start from the bottom and come back. We’re ready to do that mentally.”
Part of this is newcomer dues, although fellow Big 12 transfer Texas A&M seems to receive more benefit of the doubt, and a better long-term prognosis than Missouri.
Part of it is timing. Mizzou has benefited by slumps and coaching changes at Florida and Tennessee, which tipped the power balance of the conference to the Western half. But the rest of the Eastern Division has had the same breakthrough opportunities.
And part of it is the inability for some to shake the first impression of Mizzou in its new environment. They faded in the fourth quarter of their inaugural SEC game against Georgia, got punished at South Carolina and lost at home to Vanderbilt. Injuries helped wreck the season, but all anybody seemed to conclude was that Missouri was overmatched.
The Tigers responded in the best possible fashion with first-place finishes, and that’s Pinkel’s bottom line.
“If you picked us first or third or fourth or five, it would no impact on me at all,” Pinkel said.
Plus, the no-respect card can be a powerful play in sports. Sometimes a favorite will manufacture a slight for motivation. Missouri doesn’t have to create anything. It’s been there for two years.
But although perception is meaningless once the games begin, it matters in other areas. Programs want the buzz. They want to be considered elite. Prime television spots go to these teams. Recruits talk about them.
Tennessee is being described as a trendy pick. Players were asked about the promise of a season and the program’s upward mobility.
Tennessee has lost three straight to Missouri, two in Knoxville, and ended a four-year bowl drought last season. Don’t be stunned if the Vols are projected ahead of the Tigers.
Missouri returns 12 starters, including Mauk and most of its offensive line led by center Evan Boehm. The loss of defensive tackle Harold Brantley to injuries suffered in a car accident is a major blow, and Barry Odom returns to Missouri to replace Dave Steckel at defensive coordinator. There will be challenges.
But working for Missouri is a favorable schedule, a returning quarterback and a coach who owns five double-digit victory seasons in his last eight.
There hasn’t been a conference championship, and that plays a part in how Missouri is viewed. Bowl victories provide an emotional charge. An SEC title would be an image game-changer for the Tigers.
In the meantime, all Missouri can do is continue is attempt to remain on its present course of winning games and proving people wrong.