Missouri embraces underdog role in SEC

The season is still a month away and yet everyone has either Georgia or South Carolina winning the SEC East. The writers at SEC media days voted that way last month. The SEC sports information direction did the same, and the "experts" and prognosticators have all circled the Sept. 13 clash between the two as the game that will decide the division.

What about Missouri, the reigning East champ? All the Tigers did last season was beat Georgia, Florida and Texas A&M en route to a 12-win season. It was only their second year in the SEC, and they proved that they belong in college football's toughest conference.

Or so they thought.

Instead, they're not even in the conversation to get back to Atlanta as this season approaches.

"I don't really get into that," head coach Gary Pinkel said. "I don't get into what is said or what's predicted. Someone apologized to me a little while ago the way they voted after [SEC media days]. I said, I don't know how you voted for us, I don't really care.

"When I became the head football coach at Missouri, I wanted to be respected in the Big 12, and now it's the SEC, and nationally. Not only do you have responsibility ... to your school, but to this league we have responsibility. I just want to be respected."

Missouri lost some respect two years ago when it finished 5-7 its first year in the SEC. Under Pinkel, the Tigers had been to seven straight bowl games prior to that as a part of the Big 12, but missing out on the postseason in 2012 made people think they didn't belong in their new conference. It didn't matter that they had injuries or that three of their seven losses came by a touchdown or less. They were out of their league in the SEC.

That's why this time a year ago, Missouri was picked by the media to finish 11th in the SEC, one spot behind Auburn. The two sides wound up playing for the conference championship.

"[Last year] was great because we just wanted to show everybody that Mizzou could play in the SEC and that we got good players in the Midwest," defensive end Markus Golden said. "That's what it's all about, showing them that we could compete."

It's now Year 3 for Missouri in the SEC. The Tigers have 14 starters returning and though they lost four players to the NFL draft, including the SEC's defensive player of the year, there's plenty of reason for optimism in Columbia as they begin fall camp Monday. Another bowl game this year and maybe they'll start earning more respect around the conference.

"If we have another successful year like we did last year, I feel like then we could be in the talks of those successful teams that are in the SEC," center Evan Boehm said. "But I feel like we're going to be the underdogs again this year. And you know what? As a Missouri team, we're OK with that. We like to be the underdogs. We like to go out and surprise people."

"That's the thing about us," Golden added. "We know people are going to have their own opinion. We can't control what someone else says. We can't control the rankings. The only thing we can control is when it's game day, we're going to play the game."

So go ahead and crown Georgia or South Carolina the SEC East champ. Count out Missouri because they're still new to the SEC. Call last year a fluke. That's exactly what the Tigers want as they look to defend their division title.