KNOXVILLE – Missouri coach Gary Pinkel was asked on last week’s SEC coaches’ teleconference how the transition to the SEC has gone for the Tigers.
His answer surprised some people.
“(The SEC) has been exactly like I expected,” he said.
That was a somewhat unexpected answer for a coach leading a 4-5 team with a 1-5 mark in the conference (4-4, 1-4 at the time of his comments).
He went on to clarify that it’s been exactly like he expected because he had incredibly high expectations for the SEC.
“(There are) a lot of good teams,” Pinkel said. “I didn't expect a lot of the issues that we are having. You never know going into a season what you are going to be faced with there, but it's a great league. We are glad to be a part of it."
His Tigers have experienced a full dose of the power of the SEC in their first year after making the conference transition from the Big 12. Games against Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, Vanderbilt and Florida have led to the five losses, while the one win came against SEC East cellar dweller Kentucky.
They do have hope to salvage some of their inaugural SEC campaign. Just like Tennessee (4-5, 0-5 SEC), winning two of their last contests would lift the Tigers to bowl eligibility. A 14-7 loss at Florida last week showed how good the defense can be, and the Tigers come to Knoxville as only a three-point underdog this week.
“Our football team, if we prepare and we do the right things, I think we can compete with anybody, and certainly we're as physical as anybody,” Pinkel said earlier this week. “But, we've got to finish. I think that's kind of the lessons we've learned from that game."
Another encouraging sign is the improving health of quarterback James Franklin. The junior was one of the top performers in the Big 12 in 2011, but a shoulder injury and overall inconsistencies have plagued him in his first season in the SEC. He had one of his best games at Florida in terms of passing yards (236), but four interceptions put a big damper on his performance.
"I thought he did a lot of good things, I mean look how we moved the football against one of the best defenses in the nation,” Pinkel said. “Mostly the mistakes he made were simply missed throws. I believe in him."
Surprisingly for Missouri, a team known for its high-powered offense over the past few years, the defense has become the signature of the 2012 squad. The Tigers give up just 194.3 passing yards per game and 125 rushing yards per contest.
“We've been across the board healthy (on defense),” Pinkel said. “That's just the way it goes. And this is perhaps the best defense we've had since I've been here. It's great to see."
Added Tennessee coach Derek Dooley: “They are playing great defense, they really are. Big-time defense. Look at them rankings-wise. Look what they did to Florida. They are a top-20 defense and so we are going to see if our offense can go perform, which we have to this point. But we need to go put some points on the board."
Defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson is a big part of the reason for the success on defense. The likely All-SEC selection has 63 tackles (nine TFLs) and four sacks on the season.
"He is a big-time defensive lineman,” Dooley said. “Big time. He would be starting anywhere."
With the Missouri offense struggling and the defense excelling, special teams could play a big role on Saturday. The Tigers bring another dangerous player in that element – kick/punt returner Marcus Murphy.
Murphy has returned four kicks for touchdowns (three punts, one kickoff), averages 30 yards per kickoff return and 15 per punt return.
“Every time he touches it, it is a game-breaker,” Dooley said. “He really is a special player.”