Postcard from SEC Media Days: Overlooked Missouri, again

Missouri quarterback Maty Mauk (7) passes the ball during the first half at South Carolina in 2014. Missouri won, 21-20, on the way to its second straight SEC East title. (AP Photo/Stephen B. Morton)

HOOVER, Ala. – Missouri head coach Gary Pinkel during his press conference at the Wynfrey Hotel on Wednesday claimed to have “no idea” where his team was picked in the last two SEC Media Days polls.

A reporter immediately informed (or reminded) Pinkel that Missouri was picked to finish sixth in the SEC East at SEC Media Days in 2013 and fourth in 2014.

“You know,” Pinkel quipped, “that upsets me.”

Pinkel is well aware that Missouri has won back-to-back SEC East titles.

At least generally, he knows of the less than lofty expectations permanently attached to his program.

“I think it probably bothers my players more than it does me,” Pinkel said.

Quarterback Maty Mauk doesn’t seem too concerned.

“You can use it as motivation,” said Mauk, a junior who is 14-4 as a starter. “But it’s something you can’t control, so why worry about it?”

The Tigers finished 12-2 in 2013, 11-3 in 2014 and 7-1 in the SEC both years.

“Obviously, that doesn’t do anything for us,” senior cornerback Kenya Dennis said. “We just have to go out and keep doing what we do and keep winning.”

Player development has been the key. Missouri doesn’t make a splash in national recruiting rankings but over the last three seasons has had a run of elite defensive linemen including Sheldon Richardson (New York Jets), Kony Ealy (Carolina Panthers), Michael Sam (All-SEC first team), Markus Golden (Arizona Cardinals) and Shane Ray (Denver Broncos).

Missouri likely will wind up second or third behind Georgia and perhaps Tennessee in a relatively weak SEC East when the 2015 poll is released Thursday.

There are a few good reasons for the respect shortage.

It’s hard for eye-witnesses and other SEC folks to shake the 2014 memory of the Tigers’ 34-0 loss to Georgia. That came after Missouri suffered a non-conference loss to Indiana, which finished 4-8 with one Big Ten victory.

Both of the last two years, the Tigers have lost to the SEC East’s second-place team (Georgia in 2014, an overtime home loss to South Carolina in 2013).

Somehow, Missouri won the SEC East despite finishing 13th in the conference in total offense (seventh in defense). The Tigers won six games by 10 points or less with the most dramatic victory coming in a 21-20 rally at South Carolina.

“We know what we have to do and we know we have a group of coaches who are determined to win every game we play in,” Mauk said. “Whatever we have to do, we’re going to find a way.”

Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff