Blair Kerkhoff

A return to normalcy in scheduling should bode well for Mizzou

Gary Pinkel was having none of it. I asked him if the aftermath of Missouri’s opening-night slugging of Murray State had a different feel than a year ago, when the Tigers awaited Georgia in week two after a similar walkover.

Not at all, Pinkel said. A game is a game. In 2012, the Tigers prepped well but lost to the Bulldogs because of two fourth-quarter turnovers that helped flip a one-point lead entering the quarter into a three-touchdown loss. Nothing more, nothing less.

“We played them really tough,” Pinkel said. “You can’t do that against anybody.”

Coaches tend to live in the moment and spare the analysis until shuffling off to a television panel show, so it’s understandable, even expected, that Pinkel wouldn’t draw a wider conclusion about that evening a year ago in Columbia.

Or agree with the notion that this season’s second game, against Toledo on Saturday, is a more ideal situation in that it’s not a game the school and fans had for months defined as the “we’ll prove we belong in the Southeastern Conference” moment.

Until that night, and even through three quarters, everything about Missouri’s new identity felt like a celebration, and the pageantry at Memorial Stadium rivaled the atmosphere of the Oklahoma game two years earlier, when ESPN’s “College GameDay” arrived.

The Tigers even talked tough that week last year. What did Sheldon Richardson call Georgia’s style, “old man football”?

But after linebacker Jarvis Jones wrecked the Tigers in the fourth quarter, grabbing an interception and forcing a fumble, the Bulldogs became a runaway freight.

James Franklin damaged his elbow that night, the first of multiple injuries that slowed his season, and although the Tigers rebounded for a victory over Arizona State the next week, the SEC battles proved too tough.

Just a game, just one loss, Pinkel said. No, this one reverberated. The Tigers were beaten and broken. Ideally, Missouri would have worked its way into conference play. In the Big 12 under Pinkel, the Tigers had never opened a season or played a second game against a conference opponent.

But that’s not how the savvy SEC operates. The league commands national attention not just for its string of national championships but scheduling acumen that presents a marquee game nearly every weekend of the season, starting with the opener. Last year’s second-week theme was the introduction of newcomers, with Texas A&M taking on Florida earlier in the day.

This year’s setup for Missouri is more manageable, and fingers are never uncrossed when it comes to injuries, but the Tigers don’t face their first SEC foe until Oct. 5. Mizzou and Mississippi State are the two SEC teams to wait that long before conference games.

After a month last season, Franklin, some of the offensive line and linebacker Zaviar Gooden had all missed games because of injuries. The team never got on track.

Earlier this week, Pinkel started to laugh about having healthy offensive linemen for Murray State but caught himself. “That hasn’t happened in a long time,” he said.

After Toledo, an open week precedes the Tigers’ trip to Indiana, and Arkansas State closes out their nonconference schedule.

Missouri could stumble anywhere. But I don’t see it. Murray State wouldn’t make many SEC teams tremble, but the Tigers were wonderfully efficient on offense.

Toledo is a step up, then a road trip to a Big Ten opponent another step. Missouri’s schedule is perfect for a team looking to build momentum and create an identity. This week a year ago, both were smashed.