HOOVER, Ala. - The Missouri tandem that terrorized the SEC during the Tigers' unlikely run to a division title a season ago now is in the NFL.
Replacing it effectively could lead to an encore and more respect for a program entering its third season in the league.
Defensive ends Michael Sam and Kony Ealy did most of the damage and received most of the accolades as Missouri surprised last season by winning the the East Division crown, but Markus Golden and Shane Ray, who combined for 11 sacks as part of a four-man rotation, were pretty good, too.
"I made the plays they made last year," he said with a confident laugh at SEC media days on Wednesday morning. "For myself, I've just got to keep doing me and keep going hard. I can't be satisfied, and that's what it's about, just making sure you go hard every time you're on the field."
Sam led the SEC in both sacks (11.5) and tackles for loss (19) on the way to earning to defensive player of the year honors, while Ealy, who Carolina drafted 60th overall in May's NFL draft, tied for third in the league in sacks (9.5) and shared second with Auburn's Dee Ford with 14.5 tackles for loss.
Golden and Ray, meanwhile, combined for 13 stops against Arizona State, and all of their sacks came in SEC games. Golden finished with 13 tackles for loss and even returned an interception 70 yards for a touchdown against Toledo. Ray forced fumbles in wins against Georgia and Florida.
In the depth chart Missouri released last week, redshirt freshmen Marcus Loud and Charles Harris are listed as backups.
"We've got some young freshman guys, and I feel like they can be good," Golden said. "I told them, 'Y'all don't have to make the plays me and Shane made. I just want you to get out there and play hard.' I know they can go out there and play hard. The sky's the limit for them guys, too."
A disruptive defense was a big reason Missouri turned what 14th-year coach Gary Pinkel called a "crummy" 5-7 season in 2012 into last season's 12-2 breakout. The Tigers led the SEC with 41 sacks and forced a league-best 32 turnovers.
That came after Missouri was picked to finish sixth in the East at this event a year ago.
"I don't get into what is said or what's predicted," Pinkel said. "Someone apologized to me a little while ago the way they voted after this thing [last year]. I said, 'I don't know how you voted for us, I don't really care.'"
Over the past seven seasons, Missouri is 65-27 with four division titles in the Big 12 and SEC and four wins in six bowl games, including the Cotton Bowl triumph against Oklahoma State that capped last season.
This success comes despite finishing 21st, 48th, 31st, 41st and 34th in the last five Rivals' recruiting class rankings.
"Something's wrong with that," Pinkel said.
"We have a system that we believe in," he added. "That's what we do at Mizzou. I think our player development is second to none.
Pinkel said he wanted to earn respect at both the conference and national levels when he took Missouri's job in 2001, and after a strong run in the Big 12, last season answered a lot of question about how Missouri would fare in the vaunted SEC.
"It just showed that Coach Pinkel, what he does at Mizzou works," Golden said. "Coach Pinkel, before he came to the SEC, in the Big 12 he had a great record and great seasons. It just felt good to be able to show people we can do it in the SEC, too.
"I feel like we're there, but I don't feel like we're at the top yet. I don't feel like everybody respects us. But you know, everybody's got different opinions. We ain't gonna be satisfied from last year. We just want to go out and compete and show people we can play."
Contact Patrick Brown at firstname.lastname@example.org.