Missouri’s world was about to get rocked, we heard around this time in 2012.
The Tigers had accepted an invitation to join the Southeastern Conference and all the power, hype, revenue and craziness that came with it.
Marcus Spears, former LSU All-America defensive end, was among those with eyebrows raised.
“As we all know it’s a different level of tailgating, a different level of preparation for games, the air is a little more thick when these SEC games are going on,” Spears said.
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The message was clear: Step up or get steamrolled. So, as Missouri prepares to take the stage at its sixth SEC Media Days on Wednesday, what’s happened in the first five years?
The scoreboard says Missouri has held its own.
Some sports are stronger than others, as was the case in the final five years of the Big 12. Team sports such as volleyball and women’s basketball, have improved over the last five years. Others, like men’s basketball and baseball, have stepped back.
But “football is king” as Spears rightfully notes, and although the Tigers went 27-14 in the league with two conference title game appearances over its final five Big 12 seasons, was Mizzou all in?
“It’s a struggle,” Spears said. “We see Georgia, Tennessee in this conference for ages struggle. We see it with LSU and Auburn. It goes up and down.”
That’s precisely the path taken by Missouri, and history proves that having Gary Pinkel leading the football program during the transition — he was entering his 12th season in 2012 — was critical to the move and the school’s perception.
A 2-6 conference record in the first SEC season seemed to confirm to doubters that the Tigers were in over their heads. Meanwhile, Texas A&M, the other SEC newcomer from the Big 12, won at Alabama and quarterback Johnny Manziel captured the Heisman Trophy.
A more inexperienced coach might have panicked into wholesale changes. Pinkel knew he had a solid foundation and talent in the pipeline. Back to back consecutive division titles and a 23-5 overall record changed some minds and confirmed what others had strongly suspected about Missouri.
“An insider understood their strengths,” said SEC commissioner Greg Sankey, then the league’s executive associate assistant. “But it made it clear and it remains clear they’re just as much as a part of our football competition as any SEC members.”
In five SEC seasons, the Tigers are 19-21 in conference games, not including two losses in conference title games. The record is tied for seventh best over that span, better than Auburn (18-22), Tennessee (15-25) and Arkansas (12-28).
But fortunes have dipped over the last two seasons, Pinkel’s finale and the first for Barry Odom. The football team joining the campus protests over racism became part of a 2015 season that concluded with a 1-7 league record, the worst in the Tigers’ SEC years. Last season’s 2-6 conference record assured a second straight non-bowl year.
On Wednesday, Odom, quarterback Drew Lock, linebacker Eric Beisel and wide receiver J’Mon Moore will speak optimistically about the Tigers’ future.
Spears, however, wonders how Mizzou and others in the SEC can achieve and sustain success without recruiting classes ranked in the league’s top half. The Tigers’ 2017 class rated ahead of only Vanderbilt among SEC schools, according to Rivals.com
“You look at Alabama, LSU, Auburn, Georgia, Florida, Tennessee, how do you make the leap?” said Spears, an ESPN analyst. “The thing about Gary Pinkel is he developed players. You might not have known about (a player) as a freshman or sophomore year, then his junior year the dude was All-SEC.
“You’ve got to recruit them, develop them and try to compete every year, every other year, every three years. Anybody in their right mind … if they don’t understand that they’re going to be firing and hiring coaches every other year.”
That’s not been Missouri’s path, but the program is eager to change direction back to the winning ways of a couple of years ago, when Mizzou proved it belonged in college football’s best conference.