SEC: Gary Pinkel

Missouri head coach Gary Pinkel champions the player development within his program, often referred to with the tagline "Mizzou Made."

It’s fitting that the Tigers are going after a "Mizzou Made" coach to fill a key void at defensive coordinator, tabbing Memphis’ Barry Odom as the successor to outgoing defensive coordinator Dave Steckel.

The Tigers announced Tuesday morning that Odom, who spent the past three seasons at Memphis, will rejoin Missouri to replace Steckel, who accepted the Missouri State head coaching job. Odom is a Missouri grad who played for the Tigers from 1996-99 and spent nine years on the staff as an assistant (2003-11) in myriad roles before joining Memphis prior to the 2012 season.

[+] EnlargeBarry Odom
Stephen Lance Dennee/Icon SMIBarry Odom, who spent the past three seasons at Memphis, is returning to Missouri, where he played from 1996-99 and spent nine years as an assistant.
Steckel will join Missouri State once Missouri completes its season in the Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl. Odom will join Missouri after Jan. 1.

Pinkel often aims for continuity and stability in his coaching staff (evidenced by the fact that five of his nine full-time assistants, including Steckel, have been on the staff with him since his Mizzou tenure began in 2001) so it makes sense that he would bring back a familiar face in Odom. That said, Odom is plenty qualified for the position based on his recent success at Memphis.

This season, Memphis ranks 10th nationally in scoring defense (19.5 points per game allowed), 12th in yards per play allowed (4.74), 20th in rushing (121.54 yards per game allowed) and was in the top 25 nationally for third-down conversion rate, red-zone efficiency and goal-to-go efficiency.

Sure, Memphis allowed 48 points to BYU in its 55-48 Miami Beach Bowl victory on Monday, but Odom’s unit came up with four turnovers, including the game-clinching interception in the second overtime. The work of Odom’s defense has been a key part of Memphis’ success as it went 10-3 this season and earned a share of the American Athletic Conference championship.

"We're really excited to have Barry and his family back at Mizzou," Pinkel said in a statement. "He's done an outstanding job at Memphis these past three years. He's coached with us before, and it's great to see someone professionally advance himself and go do such a great job elsewhere. I know he was sought after by several other Power 5 schools recently, so we feel very fortunate to have him with us."

Memphis ranked 117th nationally in total defense before Odom’s arrival in 2012. In his first season, Memphis jumped all the way to 50th in the national rankings. According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Odom is the sixth full-time assistant to rejoin the Missouri staff.

"It goes without saying how excited I am to have this opportunity," Odom said in a statement. "I have such a deep respect for the success that Coach Pinkel and his staff have had since I've been away. Transitioning to a new conference is very challenging, and all they've done is get better at everything. ... I'm excited to do my part to continue to add to that, and our family is excited to be part of it again."

Steckel, who was Missouri’s defensive coordinator for six seasons, oversaw a defense that was a critical piece to the Tigers’ back-to-back SEC East Division championships the past two seasons. His unit ranked in the top 35 nationally in scoring defense each of the past two seasons, ranked in the top half of the SEC in most defensive statistical categories this season, and was a turnover machine in recent years. He left big shoes for Odom to fill, but the 38-year-old looks like a good fit for the job.

Watch: Gary Pinkel is all about that swag

December, 22, 2014
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Missouri football has a fun little tradition called "NFL Day" in which players are allowed to wear what they want and celebrate how they want during the season's final practice on campus.

How do the players know this for sure?

Because their head coach leads the way.

That's right: 62-year-old Gary Pinkel went all out to make sure his players knew this was a "serious" tradition, wearing sunglasses, a hoodie and all gold, including some truly spectacular shoes. Judging by the reaction during this video, his players loved it.



Our favorite reaction is easy. Check out the face on No. 97, defensive lineman Josh Augusta as he catches a first glance of Pinkel's gold shoes.

Gary PinkelInstagram/mizzoufootballJosh Augusta's reaction to his coach's shoes was priceless.

Missouri season review

December, 17, 2014
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For the second straight season, Missouri punched a ticket to Atlanta for the SEC championship game but unfortunately for the Tigers, they also left the Georgia Dome empty handed. Still, it was a good season for Gary Pinkel and the SEC East Division champions, who are now headed to play Minnesota in the Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl on New Year’s Day. Let’s take a look back at the 2014 season for the Tigers:

Best win: A week after taking an embarrassing defeat at home to Indiana, few gave Missouri a chance when it traveled to Columbia, South Carolina, on Sept. 27 to meet the then-No. 13 Gamecocks. Down 20-7 with less than eight minutes left in raucous Williams-Brice Stadium, the Tigers mounted an impressive comeback capped by two late Russell Hansbrough touchdowns to complete a 21-20 victory. Sure, the Gamecocks didn’t turn out to be as good as their ranking suggested later in the season, but all that mattered was that the Tigers were 1-0 in SEC play that night. And when Missouri closed the season out as SEC East champs, that road win proved all the more important. “These are games that change a football team,” Pinkel said that night.

Worst loss: Without question this came Sept. 20 versus the Hoosiers. The previous week, Indiana lost to Bowling Green before going into Faurot Field to upset Missouri as running backs D’Angelo Roberts, Tevin Coleman and Devine Redding combined for 246 rushing yards and three touchdowns. The loss followed the Tigers all the way to the end of the season, even as they entered the SEC championship game, held up as evidence why the Tigers didn’t deserve College Football Playoff consideration even if they had beaten Alabama. The Tigers served as the punchline when the “Indiana: SEC East champion” jokes circulated; fortunately for them it didn’t derail the season.

Players of the year: Shane Ray and Markus Golden. The two defensive ends were driving forces for the Tigers’ pass rush this season. Ray earned SEC Defensive Player of the Year honors after leading the conference in sacks (14) while also compiling 21 tackles for loss, 61 total tackles, two forced fumbles and five quarterback hurries. Golden, despite being bothered midseason by a hamstring injury, still finished with 8.5 sacks and 16 tackles for loss along with 68 total tackles, nine quarterback hurries, two forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries.

Breakout player: Last season Bud Sasser was overshadowed by a receiving corps that included L’Damian Washington and Dorial Green-Beckham and was fourth in receiving yards. This season Sasser put together an outstanding year, leading the team with 70 catches for 935 yards and 10 touchdowns. He earned second-team All-SEC honors.

Play of the year: We have to give it up to defensive tackle Josh Augusta for his interception against Central Florida. Any time someone nicknamed “Big Bear” gets an interception it is noteworthy, even more so when that person displays the type of athleticism and concentration Augusta did here. UCF quarterback Justin Holman’s pass went straight up into the air after caroming off a teammate’s helmet (and it appeared Augusta might have gotten a piece of it himself) and that’s when Augusta showed off his skills, tracking the ball and grabbing it out of the air in traffic. Not bad for a 335-pound guy.

video 2015 outlook: The Tigers will need to replace some key players (Golden, Sasser, Jimmie Hunt, Marcus Murphy to name a few and perhaps Ray, should he declare for the NFL draft) but they return most of their offensive line and most of the back end of their defense. If Maty Mauk can take a significant step forward at quarterback, next season has a chance to be promising once again. There is no dominant force in the SEC East and Pinkel and his staff have proven that they’re going to be in the mix for a division title. One more key loss is that of defensive coordinator Dave Steckel, who did a masterful job with the Tigers’ defense. If Pinkel can find another quality one, Missouri should be in good shape heading into next season.

SEC morning links

December, 12, 2014
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1. The postseason recognition keeps rolling in for Alabama’s Amari Cooper and Missouri’s Shane Ray. They were among five SEC players (along with Alabama’s Arie Kouandjio and J.K Scott and Ole Miss’ Senquez Golson) named to USA Today’s first-team All-America roster on Thursday. Three more SEC players (LSU’s La’el Collins, Alabama’s Landon Collins and Ole Miss’ Robert Nkemdiche) made the second team. Cooper and Ray have already won multiple All-SEC and conference offensive and defensive player of the year awards, respectively. On Saturday, Cooper will learn whether he won the biggest award in the sport, the Heisman Trophy. He’s up against Oregon’s Marcus Mariota and Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon. Cooper and Ray are both considered to rank among the NFL’s top draft prospects, should they skip their final seasons of eligibility. Ray’s big season pushed him up draft boards, and Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin recently said he expects Cooper to enter the draft, where he would likely be the first receiver selected.

2. Which side of the ball is the best fit for Nick Marshall? That was a question when he started his college career – Georgia used him at cornerback as a freshman before he eventually wound up at Auburn and became a star quarterback – and it’s a question now. ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. said on a conference call Thursday that he views the super-athletic Marshall as a defensive back prospect in the NFL. Marshall said earlier this year that he wants to try to play quarterback in the pros, but has said more recently that he’s open to changing positions.

3. This was a tough year to determine the most deserving candidate for the SEC’s coach of the year award, but Missouri’s Gary Pinkel was the pick among his peers. He’s certainly got a strong case, having led the Tigers to a 10-3 record and a second straight SEC East title. Ole Miss’ Hugh Freeze and Mississippi State’s Dan Mullen also made strong arguments this season. The Associated Press and Athlon handed Mullen the SEC’s top coaching honor, for instance, and he’s also a finalist for the Maxwell Football Club’s national coach of the year award. Obviously Alabama’s Nick Saban belongs in the conversation, as well, although he seems to be penalized somehow for winning big so consistently. Nonetheless, Pinkel’s not a bad choice. It’s tough to argue with the coaches themselves.

Around the SEC

" The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Michael Carvell wrote that Alabama coach Saban urged Georgia commit Jonathan Ledbetter to make a “business decision” when deciding whether to sign with Alabama or UGA.

" Wisconsin’s former coach and current athletic director Barry Alvarez will serve as interim coach when the Badgers face Auburn in the Outback Bowl.

" Nebraska’s Courtney Love and Greg Hart are expected to transfer to Kentucky for the spring semester.

" Arkansas and Texas traveled similar paths in order to face each other in a bowl game.

Tweet of the day
Missouri coach Gary Pinkel and Alabama coach Nick Saban are two of the 10 active winningest coaches in college football.

Saban’s team is No. 1 in the country, recruits five-star prospects with regularity and has a habit of winning championships. Pinkel’s squad is searching for its first conference title since 1969, doesn’t have high-ranked recruiting classes and rarely is met with championship expectations from outsiders. But, each has made his mark on multiple programs while compiling a combined 361 victories (185 for Pinkel, 176 for Saban).

[+] EnlargeGary Pinkel
AP Photo/Butch DillGary Pinkel got his start in coaching under Don James and spent 12 years with him at Washington.
There is one common thread between Pinkel and Saban, though, that dates to their playing days and early coaching days. Both played for and got their coaching starts from the late Don James.

James, a longtime Washington coach who led the Huskies to a share of the 1991 national title, died at the age of 80 last year after a battle with pancreatic cancer. It was during James’ time at Kent State, from 1971-74 that he coached Pinkel and Saban. When James earned his first college head-coaching job in 1971 at Kent State, Pinkel and Saban were on that team, which won the school’s first and only MAC championship.

“He's had a huge effect on me personally,” Pinkel said of James. “I mean, I'm indebted to him forever.”

Pinkel got his coaching start as a graduate assistant at Kent State under James in 1974. He later joined James, a 1997 College Football Hall of Fame inductee, as a GA for a year in 1976 at Washington then again in 1979 as a Huskies full-time assistant, where he remained with James for a dozen years before landing his first head coaching job, at Toledo in 1991.

“I coached with him for 12 years at the University of Washington, the last five years as offensive coordinator and quarterback coach,” Pinkel said. “The program that we put in at Toledo where I was coach for 10 years, then we brought it here to Missouri, the infrastructure is [based] on James' program.”

It has worked well for Pinkel, who is 185-102-3 in 24 years as a head coach and is taking Missouri to its fourth conference championship game since 2007.

Saban, who was a year ahead of Pinkel at Kent State, said coaching wasn’t a desired career path for him until James offered him his first job.

“I never really wanted to be a coach,” Saban said. “Coach James asked me to be a graduate assistant. My wife had another year of school, so I decided to do it, even though I didn't want to go to graduate school.”

Turns out that Saban enjoyed the job and it began the journey that put him to where he is now, with an impressive .751 winning percentage in 18 years as a head coach (176-58-1).

“I really liked it,” Saban said of his first job under James. “I have thanked Coach James many, many times for inspiring me into the opportunity to do it. Also a lot of the lessons that I learned from him starting out as a young coach.”

Saban said there are several aspects of his program that are rooted in things he learned from James, who was 178-76-3 in his head coaching career.

Rodriguez

Don was one of the best coaches to me of all time. He was my coach, had a great impact on my life. I certainly appreciate him more than anyone could know for the start that he sort of inspired me to have as a coach.

-- Nick Saban
“It starts with how we recruit players, how we evaluate players, character and attitude, how those things sort of play into it, how you sort of try to find out those things about players so you get the kind of guys that are a good fit for your program,” Saban said. “That was a big thing that Don always emphasized. He was really, really well organized. That's something that we've always tried to be and do. Some of the things we did in the offseason program we still do. Some of the conditioning things we do during the season we still do.”

Pinkel also said his recruiting philosophy is based on the teachings of his longtime mentor.

“We think we've developed players as good as anybody in the country,” Pinkel said. “We have a plan and infrastructure set in to do that, professionally, personally, academically, player development. We have our system. It's a system that I learned from Don James when I was a coach with him at the University of Washington. We tweaked it a little bit. You always try to make it better.”

Like Saban, Pinkel also praised James’ organizational skills.

“He was an organizational genius,” Pinkel said. “The detail of organizing every little tiny aspect of your football program, having a plan in place for everything, evaluate everything you do after you do it. ... I would say that in itself is probably as important as anything I've done, I've learned from him.”

Pinkel and Saban may have traveled different journeys to get to this point, but James’ influence on both is clear as they prepare to square off in Saturday’s SEC championship game.

“Don was one of the best coaches to me of all time,” Saban said. “He was my coach, had a great impact on my life. I certainly appreciate him more than anyone could know for the start that he sort of inspired me to have as a coach.

“A lot of his influences really affected our coaching career.”
Missouri still remembers the Georgia Dome – not because of the experience of playing in an NFL stadium or the atmosphere from last year’s SEC championship – the players remember it more for the empty feeling they felt in the locker room following a 59-42 loss to Auburn.

It was the first time the Tigers had ever played in the SEC title game, but they weren’t about to pat themselves on the back for making it that far. They were mad they didn’t win, mad they weren’t going to be the team to represent the conference in the BCS national championship.

[+] EnlargeBud Sasser
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesBud Sasser and Missouri are back in the SEC championship game and hope to reel in an upset of No. 1 Alabama on Saturday in Atlanta.
“Of course, we weren't too happy because we worked hard to get there,” defensive end Markus Golden said. “We're a competitive team. So we weren't too happy. At the end of the day, we were telling each other we're going to make it back next year and be in the same position.”

That feeling after the game, that low point, motivated Missouri this season. The Tigers were picked to finish fourth in the SEC East, but they rallied after \losses to Indiana and Georgia. In similar fashion to last year, they won six straight SEC games to finish the season, and that dream of getting back to Atlanta became a reality with last Saturday’s victory over Arkansas.

“It was such a devastating loss last year,” senior offensive lineman Mitch Morse said. “We had so much emotionally invested in that game and it didn't turn out our way, but it meant the world to this team that we were able to come back to Atlanta.

“We harnessed what we felt after that game last year, and it’s definitely going to help us drive through this week.”

Missouri didn’t get run out of the building last year, either. Granted, the defense gave up 59 points and a record 545 yards rushing to Auburn, but the Tigers were within a field goal heading into the fourth quarter.

This year presents a new challenge, though. This year Missouri faces No. 1 Alabama, a team that’s fresh off a 55-44 win over Auburn in the Iron Bowl. The Crimson Tide are among the SEC leaders in both offense and defense, and they have been playing as well as anybody down the stretch.

“I think you watch this Alabama team, they're just a phenomenal football team,” Morse said. “You get what you hear when you watch film.”

But regardless of whether it’s Alabama, Auburn or any other team, the Tigers know what to expect on Saturday. That loss last year paved the way for this Missouri team to make it back to Atlanta, but it also gave them valuable experience that they can lean on this year.

“I think obviously when you’ve been in that environment before, the players now have experience,” Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said. “The older ones have experience. I think that certainly helps. Anytime you gain experience, whether it was a good experience or bad, you can learn from it and apply it to the next time.”

“It's going to be a big atmosphere,” Golden said. “[There’s] going to be a lot of people there. [It’s] going to be crazy, a lot of fans. We already know that now, so it won't be a surprise for us. We've been there before. Now we've got to get out there and play the Mizzou way -- be tough and physical, and do everything the coaches asked us to. We’re going to be OK.”

Most people aren’t giving Missouri a chance against Alabama, but that’s nothing new. The Tigers were underdogs in six of their eight SEC games this season and went 5-1 in those games. They relish that role.

One thing is for sure. This team doesn't want to experience that same empty feeling in the locker room after Saturday’s game.
Early Saturday morning, college football enthusiasts were still contemplating the prospects of the SEC getting two teams into the College Football Playoff. Then, Ole Miss upset then-No. 4 Mississippi State, and now we're seriously considering the absence of the SEC in this sport's inarguable playoff.

The conference that has ruled college football for the better part of the last decade and flexed its muscles with an early scrum for the top four spots in the early College Football Playoff Rankings is in danger of being left out of the four-team party. After the East sputtered along and the West bludgeoned itself into that thick southern clay, the SEC's last hope is No. 1 Alabama.

While the league has gotten used to hearing Alabama associated with the national championship, the Crimson Tide's job isn't done -- not with white-hot Missouri meeting the Tide in Saturday's SEC championship game. Though this game could be quite entertaining, a victory by No. 16 Missouri would almost certainly end the SEC's streak of competing for a national championship.

[+] EnlargeAmari Cooper
John David Mercer/USA TODAY SportsAmari Cooper and Alabama are assured of a College Football Playoff berth with a victory over Missouri. A loss, and it seems likely the SEC would get shut out.
These uncomfortable circumstances now has SEC purists yelling -- or at least thinking -- "Roll Tide" heading into Saturday's showdown inside the Georgia Dome.

It's the ultimate doomsday scenario for a conference that has gone back-and-forth between elite and overrated all year, yet has been the only conference to feature two and three teams ranked in the top four of the playoff rankings at any point this season.

An Alabama win, and the SEC is in. But a Missouri win, and the conference is in serious danger of being left out in the mild cold below the Mason-Dixon Line.

So why is Missouri such a playoff eliminator? Well, the Tigers might own an impressive 10-2 record, but those two losses resonate much more than the accomplishment of winning the East for the second straight year or the fact that Mizzou is one of only three SEC teams with 10 wins.

Mizzou's reward for winning a down East was moving up from 17th to 16th in the College Football Playoff Rankings. The Tigers have zero wins against current top-25 teams, they're currently rank 27th in ESPN's Football Power Index (which is lower than 6-5 Florida) and their strength of schedule currently ranks 32nd nationally.

Despite what happened in November, Missouri just hasn't done enough to thrust itself into the playoff, and a victory over Alabama, while a major signature win for the Tigers, just wouldn't be good enough to catapult Missouri from 16th into the top four.

"Honestly, those things take care of themselves," Mizzou coach Gary Pinkel said. "I don't make predictions. We're just doing what we do. It's the next game we're focusing on. We want to play well, and whatever happens, happens."

Translation: This team is much better than it was a month ago, but the committee just isn't impressed with the second half of their season.

The fact of the matter is, you can't lose at home to a bad Indiana team (4-8, 1-7 Big Ten) and you can't get crushed 34-0 by Georgia at home. Those losses outweigh all the good that Mizzou has done since in the playoff picture, especially when you consider the Georgia loss looks even worse because of the Bulldogs' losses to South Carolina (6-6, 3-5 SEC) and Florida (6-5, 4-4).

If Mizzou had lost to Arkansas last week and Georgia hadn't have lost to Georgia Tech, the Bulldogs would have a chance at the playoff as the SEC champion because they were ninth in the rankings last week. And if Mississippi State didn't lose to Ole Miss, those Bulldogs would have had a great chance with an Alabama loss this weekend.

Mizzou hasn't been elite since the Georgia loss, but it's been winning better than anyone in the SEC other than Alabama. Six straight wins, three coming on the road, isn't easy in this league -- no matter which side you're on -- but the wins haven't been pretty and the playoff selection committee just isn't impressed. Say what you will about how great the defense has been in conference play -- the committee is likely stuck on the fact that the offense has been inconsistent this season.

As far as a playoff run goes, the Tigers just haven't passed the eye test. Mizzou proved it wasn't a one-hit wonder this year, but when it comes to a playoff spot, the early season is haunting it.
Missouri didn’t get to the SEC championship game for a second consecutive season by accident.

Contrary to how some might feel about the Tigers’ deservedness, they simply did what they had to do – win the SEC East – and earned the right to square off against No. 1 Alabama on Saturday at the Georgia Dome.

It’s also becoming a habit that the Tigers are here, again, in a conference championship game. This season marked the fifth time Missouri has won at least a share of a division title in the last eight seasons and it will be Missouri’s fourth conference championship game appearance since 2007. Three of those division titles and two of the conference title game appearances occurred in the Big 12; the last two of each have been in the SEC.

Only two Power 5 conference teams can match Missouri’s five division titles since 2007: Alabama and Florida State. The kicker is that they're still seeking their first conference championship since 1969.

[+] Enlarge Gary Pinkel
Jasen Vinlove/USA TODAY SportsContinuity has Gary Pinkel and Missouri in yet another conference championship game. Now the challenge is to win one.
“We haven't won a championship in the Big 12 or the SEC,” Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said. “That's my responsibility. Hopefully we can play well and have an opportunity to do that.”

How have the Tigers sustained success? There are several factors, but coaching stability means a lot to Missouri’s ability to win divisions and punch tickets to conference title games.

Of Pinkel’s nine full-time assistants, five have remained at Mizzou with Pinkel since he arrived in 2001: defensive coordinator Dave Steckel, cornerbacks coach Cornell Ford, quarterbacks coach Andy Hill, running backs coach Brian Jones and defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski. Ford, Jones and Kuligowski were also with Pinkel at Toledo and Hill was at Mizzou before Pinkel arrived and is in his 19th season in Columbia.

Only one of the other four assistants – offensive line coach A.J. Ricker – is in his first season with the Tigers. Offensive coordinator Josh Henson is in his sixth season, safeties coach Alex Grinch is in his third and receivers coach Pat Washington is in his second year at Missouri.

“I think it's been really important,” Pinkel said of the staff stability. “I've had five coaches leave, one of which retired, in the years that I've been here. That's very, very unusual. I would say it's one of the least numbers in the country.

“Certainly the consistency of staff, the consistency of attention to detail, how we do things in our program -- we have certain ways we do absolutely everything. Having that continuity also in recruiting has been really important for us.”

It also helps when the consistency starts at the top. Since 1991, Pinkel has coached at only two places: Toledo and Missouri. In an era when it’s common to see coaches jump from job to job, climbing the ladder (or in some cases, getting fired for not living up to expectations), it’s noteworthy to see a coach stay in one place as long as Pinkel stayed at Toledo and now, Missouri, where he is finishing his 14th season.

He has the sixth-most wins of any active FBS head coach with a 185-102-3 record. At Missouri, Pinkel is 112-65.

Notably, Pinkel has achieved that record without highly regarded recruiting classes. Since 2006, when ESPN began its recruiting rankings, the Tigers haven’t had a signing class ranked in the top 25 nationally. Their last two classes, ranked 33rd in 2014 and 38th in 2013, were 12th and 14th in the SEC, respectively.

Conversely, Alabama is annually at or near the top of the rankings.

“I've never looked at a recruiting ranking since I've been coaching,” Pinkel said. “We have an evaluation system we use. ... We never talked about stars on any player, ever.

“We do a thing called 'Mizzou Made' here. We think we've developed players as good as anybody in the country. We have a plan and infrastructure set in to do that -- professionally, personally, academically, player development. We have our system. It's a system that I learned from Don James when I was a coach with him at the University of Washington. We tweaked it a little bit. You always try to make it better. ... We just do what we do. I think it would be hard to say that we haven't had a little bit of success doing it our way.”

The Tigers have been on an ongoing journey to earn respect in their new league, and Pinkel knows winning is the way to do it.

“It's a consistency of winning, winning at a high level, in a very, very difficult league, very competitive league; I've always sort of brought up [that] you earn respect; that's how you get it," Pinkel said. “Hopefully we've gained some respect. We'll see how it goes from here.”
Since late October, Tuesday has been reserved for speculation and anticipation over the release of the College Football Playoff rankings. But not this week.

Michigan reluctantly takes center stage hours before the committee releases its sixth set of rankings.

Next week, the four-team playoff will be set. If things fall right Friday and Saturday in each of the Power 5 leagues, next Tuesday could be epic.

TCU or Baylor? Will Ohio State remain a factor? The debate alone over the order of the top four, which determine the semifinal matchups, will make it a day like no other in college football history.

Sadly, though, we’ve seen plenty of days like this Tuesday.

At this point, we might as well ask Gary Pinkel if he has a condo in Buckhead.

For the second year in a row, Pinkel's Missouri Tigers, who are in their third year removed from the Big 12, are heading to Atlanta for the SEC championship game after claiming the Eastern Division title.

Picked to be middle-of-the-pack at best in the SEC East before the season, the Tigers will arrive in the ATL with a 10-2 record (7-1 in SEC play). The team that lost its top-notch quarterback, just about every wide receiver, and more than a couple of key pieces to last year's destructive defense wasn't supposed to win the East again. Actually, this team wasn't even supposed to be relevant in the SEC race at all.

[+] Enlarge Gary Pinkel
Jasen Vinlove/USA TODAY Sports Gary Pinkel's Tigers are heading to the SEC championship game for the second straight year.
But here the Tigers are, frustrating SEC traditionalists with a team that just wouldn't go away down the home stretch of the season.

"It's a consistency of winning, winning at a high level, in a very, very difficult league, very competitive league," Pinkel said Sunday. "I've always sort of brought up you earn respect, that's how you get it. ... Hopefully we've gained some respect. We'll see how it goes from here."

The respect should be there, and it'll certainly be made public if the Tigers upset SEC king Alabama this weekend. Pinkel says he and his players don't care about all of that, and they really shouldn't, but people shouldn't just cast this team aside because they're the new kids and don't fit a particular SEC style (whatever that is).

Say what you want about the SEC East being down this year and poke at the fact that Missouri lost two bad games at home to Indiana and Georgia, but this team is very deserving of its spot in Atlanta. No, it isn't an elite team, and it's talent doesn't completely match up with Georgia, but after getting shellacked by the Bulldogs by 34 on Oct. 11, the Tigers have won six straight. The only other team in the SEC that's had a better stretch is No. 1 Alabama, which has won seven straight and will face the 17th-ranked Tigers Saturday afternoon.

While other teams lost, Mizzou won. What more do you want?

For as inconsistent as the offense can be, the defense has been stellar since the Georgia game. During Mizzou's six-game winning streak, the Tigers have given up an average of 281.5 yards per game and 16.5 points, and only Texas A&M hit the 300-yard mark on offense (341). Before that, the Tigers' defense gave up 300-plus yards five times.

Mizzou has two freaks at defensive end in Shane Ray and Markus Golden, who have combined for 22 sacks and 36.5 tackles for loss.The Tigers won't have a 3,000-yard passer in Maty Mauk, but they'll likely have a 1,000-yard rusher in Russell Hansbrough and a 1,000-yard receiver in Bud Sasser. This team doesn't have much flash on offense, but it's winning, and that's all that really matters.

People took to social media on Saturday to crush Mizzou's SEC East title, but the Tigers only did what they were supposed to. Once Georgia lost to Florida, Mizzou controlled its own destiny and took care of business. Yes, the start to the year wasn't good, but that's why more games are played.

At the beginning of the season, the majority of people watching this league -- myself included -- never gave Mizzou a shot to get back to Atlanta. That feeling continued until Mizzou's comeback win over Arkansas last Friday. You'd think the Tigers would be tired of the disrespect and being overlooked, but they don't care. They embrace it and just go about their business.

"They watch TV, they hear things," Pinkel said. "Certainly they're competitors and they have a lot of pride in who they are. I think our players drew off of that a little bit, the underdog, maybe not getting the respect that you want to. ... We focus on ourselves playing well. That's what we do."

SEC morning links

December, 1, 2014
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1. The season of coaching changes is upon us. Florida's Will Muschamp is the only head coaching change in the conference so far, but there is coordinator turnover, with perhaps the most notable move coming Sunday when Auburn fired defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson. So who is next for the Tigers? Al.com lists five possible candidates. The most intriguing name on that list is clearly Muschamp. He was a graduate assistant there in 1995-96 and defensive coordinator in 2006-07, and the idea of a partnership between himself and Gus Malzahn is enticing. Auburn won't be the only team vying for Muschamp, though; you can bet Texas A&M (who just fired defensive coordinator Mark Snyder) will take a swing at the former Florida coach, too.

2. Remember when Jacob Coker transferred to Alabama this offseason? It seemed like everybody who followed the Crimson Tide expected the former Florida State backup to walk in and take the starting job. Blake Sims, the ever-patient fifth-year senior, waited his turn behind AJ McCarron, battled Coker and the patience paid off. After throwing three interceptions that opened the door for Auburn to take the lead, Sims remained poised and finished strong with 312 passing yards and four touchdowns in the Crimson Tide's 55-44 Iron Bowl victory over Auburn. Throughout this season, Sims has earned Saban's confidence, and rightfully so. Sims and the Tide are a victory away from the College Football Playoff.

3. To the surprise of just about nobody, Missouri is a 14-point underdog heading into its SEC championship game matchup against Alabama. The Tigers (10-2), winners of six in a row, aren't going to be expected by many to beat Alabama. That seems to be OK by them. "“We love it,” sophomore linebacker Michael Scherer said. “We don’t want people to believe in us." The Tigers are of the mind that the more doubters they have, the bigger the proverbial chip on their shoulder will be heading into the game. This will be Missouri's second consecutive SEC East title game, so the Tigers have an idea of what to expect.

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What we learned in the SEC: Week 14

November, 30, 2014
Nov 30
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A wild final weekend of the regular season in the SEC ended with Alabama's 55-44 win over rival Auburn in a memorable Iron Bowl on Saturday night.

Let's recap five things we learned:

Bow down to the ACC: Well this is new. A couple of the games were close, but the ACC won all four of its rivalry games against SEC opponents on Saturday. With Louisville joining the ACC this year and moving its rivalry game with Kentucky to the final weekend of the regular season, that brought the number of ACC-SEC finales to four (joining Florida-Florida State, Georgia-Georgia Tech and South Carolina-Clemson). The SEC hadn't gone 0-4 in those games since 2000 and hadn't done any worse than 2-2 since 2003.

[+] EnlargeAmari Cooper
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesAmari Cooper and Alabama are now the SEC's only legitimate candidate for the College Football Playoff.
Postseason picture: With Ole Miss knocking off No. 4 Mississippi State 31-17 the SEC is down to one legit playoff contender: No. 1 Alabama, which had to rally to beat Auburn on Saturday. The Crimson Tide will assuredly remain in the top four if they beat Missouri in next Saturday's SEC championship game, but if they don't? Gasp ... the SEC will likely be left out of the playoff. On the brighter side from an SEC perspective, Tennessee's 24-17 win over Vanderbilt gave the conference 12 bowl-eligible teams. It would have been 13 if Kentucky hadn't fallen just short in its upset bid against Louisville, losing 44-40.

Mizzou got it done: Let's take a moment to celebrate Missouri. The Tigers sit in the middle of the pack (or worse) in the vast majority of SEC team statistical categories, but Gary Pinkel's Tigers still bounced back from ugly losses to Indiana and Georgia to win the East for a second straight season. Did they play the easiest conference schedule in the league? Without question. Should they apologize for that? Absolutely not. Georgia blew it. South Carolina and Florida stunk up the division for most of the year. Mizzou was the only one that did what it needed to do, and kudos to Pinkel's team for getting the job done.

No excuses, Georgia: Saturday's 30-24 loss to Georgia Tech -- which went to overtime on Georgia Tech's 53-yard field goal at the buzzer and ended with a Hutson Mason interception at the Georgia Tech 5 -- added insult to injury for Georgia. The Bulldogs' error-filled loss was a reminder of their many missed opportunities. Georgia beat the team that will represent the SEC East in the conference championship game, Missouri, 34-0 on the road. And yet it lost to South Carolina and Florida, which were mediocre at best. This Georgia team should have been in the conversation for a playoff berth, but some seriously uninspired football allowed Missouri to slip into the SEC title game and let Georgia Tech snap a five-game series losing streak on Saturday.

Home field matters: Think home-field advantage doesn't matter in a rivalry game? Look down Saturday's results: Out of seven traditional rivalry games played Saturday, five home teams (Alabama, Ole Miss, Clemson, Louisville and Florida State) won. It could have been six if Georgia hadn't choked away a lead in the final 18 seconds of regulation. That includes two huge games in the playoff picture (Alabama and Ole Miss) and another (Clemson over South Carolina) that snapped a five-game series losing streak.
It's rivalry week in the SEC, but there's one game that deserves more respect than it's getting.

I'm talking about little ol' Arkansas vs. Missouri, a game with all brash and no flash. Playoff implications? Eh, maybe, but it really is a long shot if the Tigers win Friday and then top the West Division champion in Atlanta.

But right now, who cares about that? This is the game no one was talking about in August and hardly registered on anyone's radar as recently as Halloween.

[+] EnlargeBret Bielema
AP Photo/Tony GutierrezBret Bielema kept Arkansas motivated through some tough losses, and now the Razorbacks are bowl eligible.
Now, the SEC East is on the line and Arkansas is playing with house money after becoming bowl eligible a year after winning just three games and after snapping a 17-game SEC losing streak by winning their last two conference contests. This game is so 2014 SEC it isn't funny.

In a season that has been so much fun to watch -- even through some of the bad play -- and so nail-biting, this game shows you just how little we really knew about this conference during fall camp and how competitive the SEC has been from top to bottom.

With the schedule Arkansas had, it was hard seeing the Razorbacks make a bowl game. Sure, this team was better mentally and physically, but no way Arkansas was making it through the SEC West gauntlet with a bowl berth. There were just too many questions across the board, and those running backs couldn't do it all.

And while we could see the pieces slowly falling into place for the Hogs, the wins just weren't coming. Somehow, Bret Bielema kept his guys going. It would have been so easy for the Hogs to get down on themselves and just embrace that snake-bitten mentality, the goal-line stands and the turnovers in the end zone.

Instead, this team has become the SEC's most dangerous squad heading into the final week of the regular season. Arkansas turned things around and became bowl eligible with a 17-0 win over LSU and then a 30-0 beatdown of Ole Miss. Both teams were ranked, and both left Fayetteville absolutely stunned. It's not like those were bad teams. Were they at 100 percent? No. But they weren't overrated or undeserving of their place in the polls.

They were beaten by a team getting better and better, a team that now has a chance to send another squad into a disappointing funk. The Hogs have nothing to lose Friday in Columbia, Missouri. The goal of making a bowl game has been accomplished, so there's no pressure. This team should be loose, carefree and ready to roll.

But the team lining up on the other side has been quietly rolling to its own methodical tune the last five games. After getting thrashed 34-0 at home to Georgia, Missouri has won five straight by grinding games out thanks to a fantastic coaching job by Gary Pinkel. He has rallied a team that lost to Indiana, for crying out loud!

Last season, we admired the Tigers' explosive offense and dominating defense. This year, we're just wondering how the cardiac cats continue to win. The offense isn't exciting, but that defense has been spectacular in conference play. Missouri's games can weigh heavy on your eyelids, but winning ugly is still winning, folks.

Missouri is 9-2 in its third season in the SEC. Last year, the new kids on the block tortured SEC traditionalists with their trip to Atlanta. Now, they've broken them with the potential of back-to-back trips. The majority of SEC followers looked down on Mizzou when it first arrived. Well, now the Tigers are looking down on the rest of the league and smirking with an emphatic Hi, hater!

Someone's magic will die out Friday, but to see these two teams actually be in this position is fascinating. Relatively little star power has propelled both squads into what's turned into a huge game for the SEC.

This game doesn't have the vitriol or popularity of the Iron Bowl and Egg Bowl, but this season it deserves the respect.

What we learned in the SEC: Week 13

November, 22, 2014
Nov 22
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It was a relatively weak slate for the SEC, but we still learned a few things about the league as we head into the final week of the regular season:

    [+] EnlargeTrey Flowers
    Beth Hall/USA TODAY SportsTrey Flowers and the Arkansas defense have been downright nasty the past two weeks, when they shut out LSU and Ole Miss, respectively.
  • If you thought Arkansas was improving ...: Just wait until next season with the Razorbacks. Bret Bielema's team went from one of the nation's most snake-bitten teams to topping LSU and Ole Miss -- both ranked at the time -- by a combined score of 47-0 in back-to-back weeks, including today's 30-0 win over the Rebels. This team isn't flashy, by any means, but that tough, beat-you-down effort is getting better and better for the Hogs. They'll be even better next season, with nine potential starters coming back on offense, including running backs Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams. The defense will lose seniors Trey Flowers and Tevin Mitchel, but that younger group of defenders has grown up as the season has gone on and played out of its mind when its back was against its own end zone. That's a great way to tell how much a defense has matured. Bo Wallace helped it out, but forcing two turnovers in the end zone was crucial Saturday. Arkansas' quarterback situation has to improve, but this team is going to have a ton of momentum going into next season, as it is headed to a bowl game this season.
  • Florida's football team is still playing for Muschamp: Yes, it was only Eastern Kentucky, but it was a perfect opportunity for a Florida team led by a lame duck head coach to simply go through the motions. But the Gators were all business and pounded the Colonels 52-3 on Senior Day in Will Muschamp's final game in the Swamp as Florida's head coach. It was a feel-good win for a program that is now bowl-eligible and will be under new management next season. The Gators rolled up 430 yards of offense and watched embattled quarterback Jeff Driskel throw for 164 yards and three touchdowns in relief of an injured Treon Harris. The playbook opened up when Driskel got in, and the Gators watched receivers Demarcus Robinson and Quinton Dunbar combine for seven catches for 244 yards and four touchdowns. This team might not beat Florida State next week, but it won't lie down with its coach out the door.
  • Bo Wallace needs Laquon Treadwell: With his safety net done for the season, Ole Miss' quarterback just doesn't have enough help right now. Yes, Wallace made some bad decisions in the 30-0 loss to Arkansas, but with no consistent running game to rely on, Ole Miss' offense couldn't get anything going without a game-changer at wide receiver. Wallace forced throws at critical moments, but some of that had to do with his not having Treadwell to go to when things got hairy. Wallace threw for 235 yards, but when the Rebels' offense needed a clutch play from its quarterback, he couldn't deliver. Treadwell had always been there to provide the big play, but without him, the Rebels don't have a major playmaker to keep drives alive. It's obvious the lack of a power running game is keeping this offense from evolving with Treadwell out. You better believe Mississippi State will have no problem dialing up the pressure as much as possible next week against Ole Miss.
  • Alabama and Mississippi take center stage: The final weekend of the regular season will bring all SEC eyes on the states of Alabama and Mississippi. Alabama and Mississippi State cruised on Saturday, which means the SEC West champion will officially be decided next weekend. Alabama hosts Auburn, while Mississippi State travels to Ole Miss. The Bulldogs play earlier in the day, so they will be on pins and needles on their way back to Starkville while awaiting the outcome in Tuscaloosa. For the Bulldogs to make it to Atlanta, they need a win and an Alabama loss. Alabama just needs to win. But there's more to next weekend than just the SEC West. If both Alabama and Mississippi State win, the playoff argument for Mississippi State will increase. The Bulldogs' lone loss would be to the No. 1 team in the country, so it's going to be tough to keep the Bulldogs out of the College Football Playoff, regardless of what happens in Atlanta. If Alabama and Mississippi State head into the final day of the College Football Playoff rankings with one loss, could we see two SEC teams in the playoff?
  • Missouri is one win from an improbable East championship ... again: Here the Missouri Tigers are, inconsistent offense and all. But you know what? It doesn't matter. The defense has been outstanding in SEC play, and though the offense is light-years behind last year's, this team can grind out wins. It is mentally tough and find ways to make plays at clutch times. You might not like how Missouri wins, but the Tigers have taken care of business after embarrassing home losses to Indiana and Georgia. Going undefeated on the road helps tremendously. With the 29-21 win over Tennessee, the Tigers head home to play a red-hot Arkansas team. With a win, Missouri, which is in its third year in the SEC, will be back in the SEC title game in Atlanta. Hats off to coach Gary Pinkel, who has done a tremendous job this season. How do you think those Georgia players, coaches and fans feel? You beat Mizzou by 34 on the road, but because of your loss to South Carolina, the fate of your SEC East hopes rest on Arkansas when at Mizzou. That has to hurt.

Mizzou looks to continue road success

November, 21, 2014
Nov 21
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After Missouri put the finishing touches on yet another SEC road victory last week, it seemed fitting to note the Tigers’ continued success away from home. The Tigers haven’t lost a road game since 2012.

In the moments after the Tigers’ most recent road triumph, a 34-27 win at Texas A&M on Saturday, a reporter asked Pinkel about Missouri’s road winning streak, while acknowledging that he was aware Pinkel isn’t fond of discussing streaks.

Pinkel reinforced that sentiment with a deft deflection of the question by providing a bland answer.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Murphy
Troy Taormina/USA TODAY SportsMarcus Murphy and Missouri have been lights out on the road, winning their last seven SEC games and last nine overall away from home.
"I thought today was a really good victory, and I think we play on the road next week too, and we're going to do everything we can to focus on playing our best game," Pinkel said. "That's what we're going to focus on."

While Pinkel might not want to talk about it, Missouri made it worth talking about. The Tigers have nine consecutive road wins and seven of those have been in SEC play. When the Tigers travel to Neyland Stadium to meet Tennessee on Saturday, they’ll aim for their 10th consecutive road win and eighth straight in SEC play.

The last time Missouri lost a road game was Nov. 24, 2012.

“We don't ever really talk about it,” Pinkel said Wednesday. “The whole key for anybody is being able to focus, no matter where you play, whether you're playing in the ‘Zou here in Columbia or you're playing at South Carolina or wherever you're playing. The whole key is ‘Can you focus on playing your best regardless of the environment and circumstances?’ We don't prepare any differently on the road than we do if we're home.”

The consistent preparation seems to factor into the success. Players echoed Pinkel’s sentiment about not changing preparation.

"We keep everything the same,” running back Russell Hansbrough said. “We just worry about ourselves.”

The Tigers also try to keep the focus on themselves rather than their opponents.

“Coach Pinkel is always saying 'It's not about them, it's about us,'” defensive end Markus Golden said. “Everybody in here takes pride in knowing that it's about us. No matter where we play we know it's about us and we're going to play the Mizzou way. It's been successful over the years.”

Last week, though Texas A&M drew an announced crowd of 104,756 at Kyle Field, the Tigers didn’t allow it to faze them. When they face Tennessee, a similar-sized crowd awaits them -- Neyland can hold 102,455, and the Volunteers have drawn capacity crowds for four of their six home games so far this season.

“It comes down to worrying about us,” quarterback Maty Mauk said. “Don't worry about the 105,000 people. They're not going to do anything, they're just going to be loud. We practice with that [sound].”

Pinkel said he doesn’t have a “magic formula” or key to the success because if he did, he would have done it his entire career. Bottom line, the Tigers get it done on the road and, they’re hoping to continue their streak on Saturday.

“[The key is] just our ferocity,” defensive end Shane Ray said. “Coming into enemy territory and understanding that our backs are against the wall and we don't have any other choice but to fight.”

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