September 01, 2015

Back-to-back division titles would figure to make Missouri a favorite in the SEC East, but the Tigers aren't getting that kind of respect.

Flying under the radar again, No. 24 Missouri opens Saturday against visiting Southeast Missouri State.

Senior linebacker Kentrell Brothers leads all returning SEC players with 122 tackles last year, but he was slotted as a third-team all-conference pick in the preseason by the media.

That slight is emblematic of the entire team's situation.

Just like last year, the Tigers are ranked 24th and have been picked to finish third in the East - this time behind Georgia and Tennessee. Missouri went 7-1 in the SEC in 2014 for another division title, then lost in the conference championship game to No. 1 Alabama before a Citrus Bowl victory over Minnesota to finish 11-3 overall.

They're 14-2 in conference play since going 2-6 in their first SEC season in 2012.

"We love that, thank them all. We like being underdogs," Brothers said.

Brothers and his teammates are led by a new defensive coordinator in Barry Odom, who rejoins his alma mater after three years in the same capacity at Memphis. Odom also worked under head coach Gary Pinkel as an assistant from 2003-11 and now replaces Dave Steckel, who was hired as head coach at Missouri State.

Linebacker should be a strength with Brothers and second-leading tackler Michael Scherer back in the fold. On the defensive line, though, the Tigers must account for the losses of NFL-bound Shane Ray and Markus Golden, who combined for 24 1/2 of team's SEC-high 42 sacks last year.

They'll also be without junior Harold Brantley, who won't play this season due to injuries suffered in a June car accident. Brantley started 10 games and had five sacks.

"We've lost some people on the defensive front where we were as good as anybody in the nation in terms of quality of players, so we anticipate playing some young players," Pinkel said.

Junior Maty Mauk is back at quarterback and will look to be more efficient after ranking 11th in the conference among qualified passers with only 6.4 yards per attempt - down from 8.1 in 2013.

Mauk's job is a challenging one with Missouri replacing its three most productive receivers from a year ago, including Bud Sasser, who caught 77 passes for 1,003 yards and 12 TDs. The depth will be tested immediately with senior receiver Wesley Leftwich sidelined for the opener with a knee injury, while freshman Jonathon Johnson is out for the season after undergoing ankle surgery.

A veteran offensive line should at least help Mauk's cause by giving him time to find openings.

Missouri is looking to win its 14th straight season opener and improve to 15-0 against FCS opponents, having gone 11-0 under Pinkel. The Tigers outscored Southeast Missouri State 72-3 in two previous meetings, and Chase Daniel set a school record for single-game passing efficiency (273.4) in a 52-3 win in 2008.

The Redhawks went 5-7 (3-5 Ohio Valley) in their first year under Tom Matukewicz after three consecutive three-win seasons. This marks their first meeting with a ranked FBS opponent since a 70-3 loss at No. 23 Cincinnati in 2009. They lost 34-28 at Kansas in 2014.

Matukewicz named junior Tay Bender starting quarterback last week. Bender is a transfer who led Iowa Western Community College to the NJCAA national championship game.

At Bender's disposal will be receiver Paul McRoberts, who enters the season seven receiving TDs shy of breaking the Southeast Missouri State school record (26). He caught 44 passes for 711 yards and nine scores last year.

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