COLUMBIA – There was a steep learning curve in Missouri’s first season in the SEC, and things obviously could have gone better for the Tigers.
It’s no secret that a 5-7 season that ended without a bowl game for the first time since 2004 isn’t up to the standard Gary Pinkel’s program has established since he took over in 2001.
Fans know it. The teams knows it. Pinkel admits it.
Of course, anyone who expected a jump into the toughest college football conference in the country to be a walk in the park was optimistic at best and delusional at worst.
By the same token, writing off Missouri’s chances based on its first pass through the SEC is equally foolish.
Football coaches love to talk about how the greatest opportunity for growth during a season comes between the first and second games.
Players have gone from practice into the fire. There’s video that allows for a thorough and true evaluation of a team’s strengths and weaknesses.
Perhaps, the same is true of switching conferences.
Missouri has experienced the SEC now. The litmus test didn’t turn out spectacular, but Pinkel and staff were able to get a thorough and true evaluation of what it will take to compete in a new league.
“We learned that we have to show up and play every game like it’s the championship,” senior left tackle Justin Britt said. “I feel like that’s what all SEC teams do. They understand the importance of every game and are very physical, but we’ve been working on little things and I think it will show this year.”
There’s no mystery to why the SEC is tough, but Missouri has been in a tough conference before.
“There’s just more good teams in this league than the Big 12,” Pinkel said. “When the Big 12 had Colorado in there and ourselves, (Texas) A&M and Nebraska, it was comparable.”
After giving the SEC a whirl, Pinkel adjusted his preseason preparation, opting for a lighter workload in an effort to keep his players fresher and, he hopes, more healthy during the middle of season.
Nobody knows yet if those changes will leave Missouri with a healthier roster when mid-October arrives, giving Pinkel every possible weapon for the Tigers’ daunting three-game gauntlet — beginning at Georgia on Oct. 12 before home for games against Florida and South Carolina.
Still, those changes do suggest that the Missouri staff learned from last season and is applying the new knowledge toward crafting a better 2013 campaign.
More than a few people will point out — and rightly so — that Texas A&M didn’t have as difficult of a time adjusting to the SEC.
It’s a valid point, but having the future Heisman trophy winner, Johnny Manziel, and arguably the best tackle in college football — Luke Joeckel, with apologies to No. 1 overall pick Eric Fisher of the Chiefs — was a luxury not afforded Missouri.
Instead, the Tigers’ quarterback, James Franklin, had more injuries in one season than Pinkel’s had at quarterback in every other year he’s been a head coach combined, he said.
Missouri also suffered through injuries to half of its top 10 offensive linemen.
Odds are the Tigers will be healthier and, with a better understanding of the SEC rigors to boot, enjoy more success in the second season in the nation’s best football conference.
It all starts at 6:30 p.m. Saturday against Vanderbilt in Nashville, Tenn.