SEC PREVIEW MISSOURI :

Consecutive East titles lift Tigers, slightly

By: Bob Holt
Published: Thursday, July 23, 2015
Missouri quarterback Maty Mauk throws a pass as he warms up before the start of an NCAA college football game against Vanderbilt, Saturday, Oct. 25, 2014, in Columbia, Mo. (AP Photo/L.G. Patterson)
Missouri quarterback Maty Mauk throws a pass as he warms up before the start of an NCAA college football game against Vanderbilt, Saturday, Oct. 25, 2014, in Columbia, Mo. (AP Photo/L.G. Patterson)

The 10th in a series of article previewing SEC football programs

HOOVER, Ala. -- There was no talk at SEC media days about a Missouri three-peat.

The Tigers have won back-to-back SEC East titles, but continue to fight for respect going into their fourth season in the conference since moving from the Big 12.

MISSOURI GLANCE

LAST SEASON 11-3, 7-1 (1st SEC East)

COACH Gary Pinkel (113-66 in 14 seasons at Missouri, 186-103-3 in 24 seasons overall)

RETURNING STARTERS (12): Offense 6, defense 5, specialty 1

KEY RETURNING PLAYERS QB Maty Mauk, C Evan Boehm, RB Russell Hansbrough, LB Kentrell Brothers

SEC TITLE SCENARIO Pinkel has built Missouri into a consistent winner, first in the Big 12 and now in the SEC. The Tigers are going for their third consecutive SEC East title and have what appears to be a favorable schedule. They play at Georgia — the East favorite — but five games are against teams that had losing SEC records last season, though that includes rising Arkansas and Tennessee.

MISSOURI SCHEDULE

Sept. 5 Southeast Missouri State

Sept. 12 at Arkansas State

Sept. 19 Connecticut

*Sept. 26 at Kentucky

*Oct. 3 South Carolina

*Oct. 10 Florida

*Oct. 17 at Georgia

*Oct. 24 at Vanderbilt

*Nov. 5 Mississippi State

Nov. 14 BYU at Kansas City, Mo.

*Nov. 21 Tennessee

*Nov. 27 at Arkansas

*SEC game

"People just aren't used to hearing Missouri is an SEC power," Tigers junior quarterback Maty Mauk said. "Mizzou has emerged in the SEC. We just need to keep doing what we do."

The guys from the Show-Me state need to show everybody again after being picked to finish third in the East in a media days poll. Georgia received 166 first-place votes in the East, Tennessee 36 and Missouri 20.

At least the Tigers are moving up in the preseason poll. They were picked to to finish sixth in the East in 2013 and fourth in 2014, then went a combined 14-2 in SEC games, 8-0 on the road, and 23-5 overall.

"They do a super job at Missouri," South Carolina Coach Steve Spurrier said. "I really think they maximize the talent that they have there.

"Their defense plays hard, tough, aggressive, and gets a bunch of turnovers. Their offense does enough to win a whole bunch of ballgames."

Missouri's special teams have done their part, too. Last season the Tigers scored touchdowns on kickoff and punt returns in a 42-13 victory at Florida.

"We're doing what we always do," said Missouri Coach Gary Pinkel, who has a 113-66 record going into his 15th season as Missouri's coach. "We analyze our program, absolutely everything we do, yearly, every detail.

"We try to get better about 5 percent a year. We're not going to change a lot of things because what we do works, but we always try to stay on the cutting edge to improve as a football program."

The Tigers' lone SEC loss last season was 34-0 to Georgia at home Oct. 11 when Mauk threw four interceptions and lost a fumble

"A lot of us had never been shut out in our lives, so that was tough, but it wasn't like the season was over," Mauk said. "We understood the SEC is the toughest conference in America, that anybody can get beat any week. We just had to stay focused."

Missouri won its final six SEC games, capped by a 21-14 victory over Arkansas, to finish 7-1 in the SEC while Georgia finished 6-2 to take second in the East.

"They proved that if you let them get a chance --if you don't respect them enough to play them to the best of your ability every Saturday -- they're going to capitalize on that and win," Georgia linebacker Jordan Jenkins said of the Tigers. "They know how to win. They're going to fight to the bitter end.

"You've got to respect them. They've earned it."

Senior cornerback Kenya Dennis said the Tigers have gotten used to being picked lower in the preseason polls.

"We're always the underdog, and I think that's one of the reasons we have success," Dennis said. "It adds fuel to our fire."

Mauk and Dennis are among 11 returning starters for the Tigers -- six on offense and five on defense.

Junior defensive tackle Harold Brantley started last season, but he'll miss this season while recovering from injuries he sustained in a car accident in June.

"The good news is Harold's going to be fine," Pinkel said. "We'll get him back next year. "

Missouri ends Michael Sam and Shane Ray were the SEC defensive player of the year the previous two seasons, and Pinkel said the Tigers continue to reload on the line.

With Ray (a first-round NFL pick by Denver) and Markus Golden (a second-round pick by Arizona) moving on, sophomore Charles Harris will start at one of the end spots. Harris is the only end with any playing experience after projected starter Marcus Loud was dismissed from the team in May

The Tigers are adding freshman defensive tackle Terry Beckner Jr., from East. St. Louis, Ill., the No. 2-rated high school player in the nation by ESPN last year.

"We've been known to have a lot of high-level defensive linemen, and I think that will continue," Pinkel said. "What we're doing is training players and fundamentally getting better and sliding them in."

There are three returning starters on Missouri's offensive line, led by senior center Evan Boehm. Senior tailback Russell Hansbrough rushed for 1,084 yards and 10 touchdowns last season. Junior tight end Sean Culkin is the leading returning receiver with 20 catches for 174 yards.

Missouri lost all of its starting wide receivers, but the same thing happened after the 2013 season. Mauk said he expects big things from the sophomore receivers, especially Nate Brown, who had five catches for 45 yards last season.

"I think Nate Brown is a name the SEC is going to get used to hearing," Mauk said. "He's 6-3 and physical, knows how to get open and has tremendous hands. He just needs to get the experience."

Mauk, who has a 14-4 record as Missouri's starter, passed for 2,648 yards and 25 touchdowns last season, but had 13 interceptions. He rushed for 373 yards and two touchdowns.

"Maty's remarkably good under pressure," Pinkel said. "We need more consistency from him. He knows that."

Pinkel said the coaching staff focuses on what he called "Mizzou Made," which is developing players who may not have been highly-rated by recruiting services.

"We don't look at stars -- never have -- in our evaluation," Pinkel said. "Our system is designed to check out the kind of people that they are, try to get very competitive people. We try to bring students in our program that want to excel, and they have to have size and speed -- especially speed -- potential.

"They don't really have to be great football players. We can teach them how to be great football players."

Mauk said the Tigers don't worry about where they're picked in preseason polls because that's out of their control.

"Whoever makes those decisions, that's on them, but we know what we have at Mizzou," he said. "Whether it's playing sloppy or excellent, we're going to find a way to win."

Sports on 07/23/2015

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