Without doubt, there are some Mizzou fans gathered around the coffee machine at work on Monday morning who are starting to wonder if the trumpeted and ballyhooed move to the Southeastern Conference was really a good thing.
An 0-4 beginning to their debut in America’s toughest football league. A 42-10 smackdown from defending national champion and current No. 1 (again) Alabama on Saturday, when only a momentum-stopping weather delay and a longtime friendship between coaches Nick Saban and Gary Pinkel perhaps kept it from being much, much worse.
And, of course, the rocky start to the new relationship wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the embarrassing home loss to Vanderbilt a week ago. Embarrassing, we say, because losing to Vandy in anything except average ACT scores typically is deemed unacceptable.
Sure, some Tiger fans now are longing for the days of membership in the Big 12, where at least, for every game against Oklahoma or Texas, there was an Iowa State, Kansas or Colorado just around the corner to prop up the ego again.
But in the SEC? Nope. Gimmes are nearly non-existent.
Outside of Kentucky – which would leave most fans outside the SEC shocked to learn that the Wildcats even field teams in anything other than men’s basketball – every Saturday has the potential to produce an L. Kentucky is next up for the Tigers, and it can’t get here soon enough for the Oct. 27 Homecoming game in Columbia. Although, after seeing what Vandy did at Memorial Stadium, the Wildcats might be thinking the same thing.
Tennessee is on the downward spiral again and due for a new coach about any day now, so that could offer some relief. Ole Miss has been awful for a while, but has a new coach, a new approach and rose up and thumped Auburn over the weekend … and Auburn, of course, is simply in the process of replenishing the slush fund so as to purchase another top-notch quarterback soon and return to the ranks of becoming a factor again.
So … was the U-Haul rental and drive to the SEC a good move for the Tigers?
Yes, because all the right reasons that Mizzou made the move – the money, the prestige the stability of the league – are all still there.
It’s coach-speak, but they are all exactly right when they say any transition such as this is a process. Pinkel is a smart man. He anticipated this. He’ll find a way to adapt and make the Tigers relevant again at some point.
It’s really difficult to do in the matter of months of recruiting his Tigers had before this inaugural SEC campaign, and even more so right in the middle of the transitional season. Especially when you’ve lost your experienced, talented quarterback and half your offensive line while trying to make the league switch.
The common theme in the Tigers’ losses to Georgia, South Carolina and Alabama – let’s toss the Vandy game aside, honestly, as more of a fluke – is that it didn’t take Einstein to figure out that, when it came to the second half and “tuck the game away” time is when it truly looked in a lot of cases like “men vs. boys.” Especially in the case of ‘Bama, which truly at this point seems to be in a league by itself.
The Crimson Tide controlled possession for nearly 37 of the 60 game minutes, a common theme for the Tigers, who held the ball on average for just over 27 minutes compared to 32-plus minutes by Georgia, South Carolina and even Vandy. In this league, if you don’t have the football, then you are getting worn down and worn out defensively by the physical nature of your opponent.
The Tigers averaged less than 3.5 yards per carry against the non-Vandys so far in the SEC, including a ridiculous 28 carries for net 3 yards against the Tide. No coincidence that the Big 12 to SEC defector, Texas A & M (2-1 in the SEC) is averaging a league-best 235 rushing yards per game and has made a smoother transition. The Aggies came in equipped to wage war on the ground and do battle in the trenches, and as a result, are clearly holding their own.
Mizzou simply has to get bigger, stronger and more physical in the trenches, where all games are won, and especially those in the SEC.
It gained a lot of negative attention, and deservedly so at the time, but the smartest thing uttered by a Tiger to date this season came when star defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson declared that Georgia plays “old man football.”
“Old man football” works in the SEC, and really, is a prerequisite if you want to be able to contend for a league and national title. While Mizzou’s recruiting approach in the Big 12 was typically find the bells and whistles and fill in the rest, in the SEC, you’d better start with the meat and potatoes and then add the appetizers and desserts once you’ve landed the former.
The best teams in the SEC have both, but at their core, the ability to play “old man football” is what separates the league’s contenders from those who are trying to get there. We wrote it in this space after watching the Georgia game vs. the Tigers, and the SEC games since then have only confirmed it.
And here’s the thing: It would have been the same probably for any of the Big 12 members had they, too, made the jump to the SEC. It’s just a different style, a different brand of athlete - and most importantly - more of them are available thanks to the quality depth in this league. There’s a reason the SEC has won the last six national championships, and particularly of late, it isn’t because they’ve been flashier than everybody else.
Pinkel and staff have to head to Texas, head to Florida, head to California and find the kind of superb athletes it’s going to take to pull this off. Big, mean and fast would do … not just fast anymore. Easier said than done, for sure – since everyone else is looking and fighting to acquire the same - but mandatory.
Otherwise, the transitional period for Mizzou and its fans could last longer than anticipated. And their former life in the Big 12, where wins more often than not were expected and delivered, might seem like the afterlife.