ATLANTA — Even Gary Pinkel questioned how Missouri was going to fare in the SEC after going 5-7 that first season.
He certainly didn’t envision back-to-back SEC East division titles during a bowl-free December two years ago.
“I’m one of those guys that goes in thinking I’m going to win every game every year as a coach,” Pinkel said Friday during the SEC Championship Game coaches’ press conference at the Georgia Dome. “I focus over every game, try to do that. After the first year, I probably would have questioned that a little bit.”
Injuries played a major role in the Tigers’ 2012 struggles, which ended a run of seven consecutive bowl appearances.
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Missouri adjusted its practice regimen, which addressed the physical toll playing in the SEC had taken on the first team.
Staying healthy seemed to make a world of difference the last two seasons.
The Tigers didn’t suffer any major injuries to starters last season and, aside from losing senior Anthony Gatti to a torn ACL against Indiana, have been relatively injury-free again this season.
An element of luck played in Missouri’s 14-2 run in SEC play the last two years.
Traditional powers Tennessee and Florida have been down and South Carolina came unglued this season,
Still, the Tigers are tied with Alabama, MU’s opponent at 3 p.m. Saturday in the SEC Championship Game, for the best record in the SEC during the past two seasons.
Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban isn’t surprised by Missouri’s success.
“Not at all, because I have a tremendous amount of respect for Gary and the great job he’s done wherever he was a coach — coordinator at Washington, head coach at Toledo, now the 13 years he’s been at Missouri,” Saban said. “I think their program has always been very, very good.”
Pinkel actually is in his 14th season with the Tigers, but Saban’s wider point stands.
“Just to think because they went from one league to the other, there was going to be this huge transition, they’re a very well-coached team, fundamentally sound in just about everything they do,” he continued. “They have good players who buy into doing the things the way they want to do them, and they win a lot of football games.”
While Alabama fans are worry about trying to plan a New Year’s Day trip to New Orleans for a College Football Playoff national semifinal/Sugar Bowl, Saban is focused on making sure his juggernaut offense doesn’t bog down against Missouri.
“They’re probably the best defensive team right now in the SEC the way they’re playing,” he said. “… I think their entire defensive team is well-coached, play well together, do a great job of executing their scheme. I don’t see any bad players out there at any position.”