For the players and coaches at Mizzou, entering the SEC was like running a ship aground. They never saw it coming. You could sense it as early as Media Days last July. While most of them said the right things, it was obvious that the players had no idea what they were about to experience. Some of them even shrugged their shoulders as if the transition from the Big 12 to the SEC was no more complicated than moving across the street.
The result was Mizzous worst season in eight years. They only beat two conference opponents, a hapless Kentucky and a four-overtime win over Tennessee. For the first time since 2004, Missouri finished the regular season with a losing record and did not play in a bowl.
Granted injuries hurt, especially to all-purpose quarterback James Franklin who will be returning. But as the Tigers take the field this spring, they now understand what Coach Gene Stallings meant when he said to the SEC newcomers: This is a mans league, so you better pull up your britches.
2012 Record: 5-7 (2-6 SEC)
Spring Schedule: Practice started Tuesday, March 12th and the Black and Gold Game will be held April 20th at 1:00 p.m. at Faurot Field.
Last Year: The injuries were huge. In additional to Franklin who played hurt with various levels of consistency, Mizzou had only one offensive lineman play all 12 games and he was a freshman. At one point six of the teams top linemen were out at the same time. But that, too, is part of playing in a stronger conference, something Gary Pinkel certainly learned in 2012 and something he will remember as he readies his team this spring and summer.
The Biggest Hole to Fill: The most valuable asset Missouri has is its returning, experienced players. The Tigers will bring back 14 starters, eight on offense, including Franklin, and six on defense, including defensive end Kony Ealy. Their biggest hole will be graduating running back Kendial Lawrence, who gritted out 1,025 yards on the ground behind a spotty and often overpowered offensive line. Granted Henry Josey, who ran for 1,168 yards in 2011 but missed all of 2012 with a knee injury, is back to carry much of the rushing load, but most of Lawrences yards came after contact. Just how effective Josey will be against the likes of Jadevean Clowney and the other SEC heavy hitters is one of Mizzous biggest unanswered questions.
One to Watch: The key is Franklin and his top receiver Dorial Green-Beckham. They have to produce a lot more offense than they did in 2012 for Mizzou to improve. The Tigers lost four of their SEC games by 21 points or more. And while they now have the luxury of knowing what to expect when they meet Georgia, South Carolina, Florida and Vanderbilt, their opponents also have the benefit of experience.
In short, Mizzou needs to get bigger, stronger, and faster. And they need to do so quickly if they hope to compete in the SEC.