Two years ago, Missouri was on a mission to prove it belonged after an injury-plagued, bowl-absent, five-win introduction to the Southeastern Conference.
Last season, the Tigers were on a mission to prove 2013’s breakthrough wasn’t a fluke and did just that by repeating as SEC East champions and returning to the SEC Championship Game.
“Missouri is a team that has got a lot of respect across the SEC, for sure, with the way they play and the way they play together,” said Tennessee senior linebacker/defensive end Curt Maggitt, who tore his ACL against Missouri in 2012.
Now, as coach Gary Pinkel’s squad eyes a division dynasty in 2015, the conference can no longer ignore Missouri.
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“Missouri is definitely checked off on my schedule for games I’m looking forward to, and I’m sure there’s a lot of guys on the team that feel the same way as well,” South Carolina junior linebacker Skai Moore said Tuesday during SEC Media Days. “Those guys come out fighting and we come out fighting too, so it’s a big game.”
Still, in a conference with such a rich history in terms of national championships and historic rivalries, the Tigers remain something of an outsider.
Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier acknowledged that the Tigers have become a bit of a rival, but he doesn’t take the subtle jabs he takes at programs like Tennessee.
Spurrier instead struck a respectful note when asked about the Missouri-South Carolina rivalry.
“I really like coach Pinkel …,” Spurrier said. “They do a super job, Missouri. I really think they maximize the talent that they have there. Their defense plays hard, tough, aggressive, gets a bunch of turnovers, and their offense does enough to win a whole bunch of ballgames. For those guys to go 7-1 two years in a row and win the (SEC) East, it’s wonderful. It’s a wonderful accomplishment for Missouri.”
Spurrier acknowledged the traveling trophy the two teams play for in the Battle of Columbias series, but said it’s too new to join the ranks of the Gamecocks’ true rivals yet.
“It’s a nice little rivalry, but we’ve only been playing them for three years, so it’s not historic or anything like that,” Spurrier said.
Several players at SEC Media Days refused to pick the Tigers as favorites in the SEC East despite back-to-back division crowns.
“We want to win every game we play, but obviously Missouri has gotten our number in the past,” Tennessee junior quarterback Joshua Dobbs said. “They’re a very successful team, but we view ourselves as the team to beat honestly.”
That’s a bold statement considering that Dobbs’ Volunteers have won a total of six conference games in the three seasons since the Tigers joined the league and haven’t finished better than .500 in conference play since 2007.
Meanwhile, Missouri has won seven games in SEC play each of the last two years.
“Every SEC game is important and is an animal of its own,” Maggitt said. “We’ve got history with every SEC team.”
All the Tigers can do is continue building a case as the Beasts of the SEC season by season if they want to become a marked team in conference play.
Until then, opinions are bound to be split — even among teammates.
“From the last two seasons, I guess you could say (building a rivalry) could happen in the upcoming years,” Moore said. “I definitely feel like this season, it’s a big game. We really don’t like those guys, so it’s a rivalry game.”
Moore’s teammate, junior kicker Elliott Fry, wasn’t as convinced.
“I don’t really consider (Missouri) a rival that much,” Fry said. “I’ve only played them two years. Besides your main rival, you don’t really look at the teams that much differently in the SEC. You always have Georgia and Clemson, but as far as the other ones go, they’re pretty much the same.”
Well, except for those two SEC East rings the Tigers own, it’s the same.