COLUMBIA, Mo. -- From the moment Missouri was officially welcomed to the SEC, the questions about adjustments began.
Could Missouri’s spread offense work in the bigger, badder, faster SEC? Could the Tigers hold up in the nation’s best, most physical conference? Could all of this hyperbole about a college football conference get under the skin of a team and staff leaving the Big 12?
Coach Gary Pinkel and those around the program calmly answer each one of those with a simple “Yes.”
Pinkel has had to answer questions about change for far too long, and just so everyone is on the same page, he’s very confident the football his team has played -- both offensively and defensively -- during his 11 years in Columbia will work in the SEC. To say that there won’t be tweaks made to combat the obvious speed and power the SEC is known for would be “inappropriate,” Pinkel said. But to suggest that the Tigers should overhaul most of what they do is just as inappropriate.
“We’re going to run our offense and we’re going to run our defense,” Pinkel said. “We’re going to do what we do.”
What the Tigers did last year was rank first in the Big 12 and ninth nationally in rushing (243.5 yards per game). Missouri was also fifth in the Big 12 in total offense (475.5). In a conference known more for burning out scoreboard lights, the Tigers averaged 32.8 points per game and 30 in league play.
Say what you will about Big 12 defenses, but the Tigers are proud of their numbers and their competition. The SEC will no doubt be tougher, but Pinkel isn’t looking to change just because of a new challenge.
Most of the questions concerning change have centered on the offense. Missouri runs as true a spread as anyone. The Tigers love space for receivers and linemen. Rarely is there a tight end attached, shotgun is the primary formation, there is a lot of motion and there will be empty sets.
This is an offense built more on finesse, but offensive coordinator David Yost insists that there is power. New wrinkles were added last year to attach the tight end more and run more I-form. Both will make appearances, along with a little three-back action, if the personnel works out.
While the Tigers have been asked if they can adapt, Yost wonders if the SEC can adapt. Not a lot of spread has been used in this league, and even Urban Meyer’s spread at Florida showed a lot of power plays with physical QB Tim Tebow. Auburn was much more spread out, but Yost said this will be different.
“We will be a spread team and we will try to give people fits in different ways than how other people do it,” Yost said.
“There’s not a lot of what we do happening in that league right now. It’s a change for us going against new people, but it’s also a change for them for what they’re going to see because we’re different and we’re different in how we do it.”
Wide receiver T.J. Moe, who led Missouri with 54 catches for 649 yards and had four touchdowns in 2011, agrees. He understands the SEC is good, but thinks SEC defenses will have to catch on as well.
"Offensively, they have to cater to us because whatever we do they have to try and defend us," Moe said. "They can't put eight in the box when we're spreading it five wide. You just can't do that.
"For us, we're going to do what we do and they're going to have to stop it."
Defensively, the Tigers feel just as confident. This group ranked fourth in the Big 12 in total defense last fall, and defensive coordinator Dave Steckel said he doesn’t plan to change much -- physically or schematically -- in the move. In fact, he’s been so focused on his own team and recruiting that he hasn’t seen much SEC offensive tape at all. When asked about any changes he might think about making, Steckel seemed disinterested in the idea.
“I can’t answer that question. I’m too old, man,” he said with a laugh. “Football is football. You just play football.
“We’ve always emphasized since we’ve been here tough and physical football.”
As far as taking on bigger or faster skill players, linebacker Will Ebner isn’t concerned because he doesn’t believe he’ll see anything faster than what he saw in the Big 12.
“I don’t agree with that,” Ebner said about the SEC being a faster conference. “We play against fast guys. The Big 12 is not a bad conference. They’ve got a lot of skill guys, especially [with] all those spread offenses. Those guys can fly.”
The defense’s toughness will be constantly judged, but the offense will continue to receive the most attention this fall. Yost said change will be considered week-to-week, and until then, the plan is to make defenses answer to them, not the other way around.
“We try to do as many things as we can that defenses don’t like," he said, "and try to put the onus on them to handle us and react to us as opposed to we react to what they do.”