HOOVER, Ala. -- Missouri coach Gary Pinkel heard something he probably didn't expect at SEC Media Days: an apology.
During his Wednesday morning press conference at the Hyatt Regency, Pinkel said a media member apologized to him for voting the Tigers so low in last year's preseason SEC poll. Missouri, which went 5-7 in 2012, surprised many around the league by winning 12 games and reaching the SEC Championship Game opposite Auburn last fall. Yet Pinkel wasn't fazed by the reporter's admission.
"I said, 'I don't know how you voted for us,'" Pinkel said. "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 the league and to your school, but to this league we have responsibility. I just want to be respected."
Respect isn't something teams typically have to hope for after reaching the title game of the nation's most dominant conference. But that's precisely the position Pinkel and Mizzou are in. South Carolina and Georgia are already being touted as favorites in a wide-open SEC East. The Tigers, the reigning champs of the division, have gone largely overlooked at SEC Media Days.
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There are reasons to doubt the Tigers in 2014, of course. Missouri returns only four starters on each side of the ball. Talented defensive linemen Michael Sam and Kony Ealy are gone, as is running back Henry Josey and dismissed wide receiver Dorial Green-Beckham. But Mizzou brings back redshirt sophomore quarterback Maty Mauk, who stepped in admirably for an injured James Franklin in '13 and could blossom into one of the conference's most efficient quarterbacks. The schedule is also fairly soft for an SEC slate; the Tigers' cross-division opponents are Texas A&M and Arkansas, and they open against South Dakota State, Toledo, UCF and Indiana.
Still, momentum from last year's turnaround hasn't driven preseason expectations. That's something that has fueled many Mizzou players entering the fall.
"I feel like we’re there, but I don’t feel like we're at the top yet," defensive end Markus Golden. "I don’t feel like everybody respects us. But everybody has a different opinion. We just want to go out there. We’re not going to be satisfied with last year."
On Wednesday, Mauk, Golden and center Evan Boehm sported their bedazzled SEC East championship rings while speaking to reporters. External expectations might be low for these Tigers, but in the locker room, the focus is on the next step. Questions exist on every roster in the league, and the SEC East could again unfold unpredictably. Who says the Tigers aren't poised for another run?
"If you go out as a team and you don’t feel like you’re capable of winning 13-plus games, or you don’t feel like you’re capable of winning a national championship, then why are you playing the game?" Boehm said. "Why are you going out there and competing?"
Echoed Golden: "If you can do two years of football like we did last year in the SEC, you’re going to be respected by the whole country."
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