Mizzou ready for SEC rebound

photo Dorial Green-Beckham's 25-yard touchdown reception late in regulation of Missouri's eventual four-overtime win at Tennessee was one of the few highlights for the Tigers in their first SEC season.

While Texas A&M was making an instant splash in its Southeastern Conference debut last football season, Missouri was darting straight into obscurity.

Terrorized by Georgia outside linebacker Jarvis Jones in its first league game, Missouri never made an impact, finishing 2-6 within the SEC and 5-7 overall. The Tigers often were overwhelmed by the league's elite, getting outscored by Georgia, South Carolina, Alabama and Texas A&M by a combined 104 points.

It had been a different story when Missouri was in the Big 12, as Gary Pinkel's Tigers prevailed 22 times during the 2007-08 seasons and entered the SEC on the heels of six consecutive eight-win seasons.

"The league was exactly like I expected," Pinkel said after spring practice. "It was no different in any way from what I expected. There are a lot of good football teams, and we understood that. We had some issues, and if I had done a better job of coaching, we would have overcome them.

"We had a lot of injuries, and we just didn't overcome them. It's my job to get that done."

Pinkel, who led the Tigers to a brief stint at No. 1 during the '07 season, suddenly finds himself atop the SEC coaching "hot seat" chart entering his 13th year in Columbia. That may say more about the stability and youth around the rest of the league's coaching ranks, but Pinkel knows 5-7 can't be the new standard.

The Tigers had not suffered a losing season and the resulting missed practices during bowl preparation since 2004. They struggled despite having a player, defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson, who was among the top 15 selections in last month's NFL draft.

"We always evaluate everything, whether we've won 10 games or suffered our first losing season in eight years," Pinkel said. "Our evaluations came out, and for the most part we're going to continue doing the things that we do. We're comfortable with our program and its foundation. I think there is a real since of urgency now with our players, and I think they all have a chip on their shoulders a little bit.

"We're used to winning around here."

Missouri's offense was ravaged by injuries last season, especially up front, but the Tigers have four returning offensive linemen this season and eight offensive starters overall. Quarterback James Franklin was expected to be an exciting addition to the SEC a year ago, but he battled injuries last fall and spent this spring being challenged by Corbin Berkstresser and Maty Mauk for a starting spot that remains undecided.

Franklin and Berkstresser combined for 15 touchdowns and 14 interceptions last season, and though the position is unsettled, sophomore receiver Dorial Green-Beckham insists that it's not an issue. The No. 1 recruit in the 2012 signing class, Green-Beckham had 28 receptions for 395 yards and five touchdowns a year ago but never truly flourished.

"I just see it as one pass," Green-Beckham said this spring. "Once the ball is in the air, then you just have to play. It doesn't matter who is in the backfield. There are certain positive things that each quarterback brings.

"Maty is a quarterback who's going to run. The others are going to stay in the pocket, but all of them are going to make sure they get the ball out to the receivers at the right time."

The 6-foot-6 Green-Beckham did collect 21 of his 28 catches in the final five games, including his 25-yard touchdown on fourth-and-12 with 47 seconds left in regulation of the eventual 51-48, four-overtime win at Tennessee. Though there were nearly 20,000 empty seats that November afternoon inside Neyland Stadium, the thrilling victory over the Volunteers gave the Tigers a little something to celebrate in their new surroundings.

"It's a great league, and we're very proud to be in it," Pinkel said. "We should be in it. We like competing in it."

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524.