Monday, August 27, 2012

Tigers get back to football

Like a kid finally reaching the Willamette Valley on that old Oregon Trail computer game, or a hack golfer finally arriving at the green of a long par 5, we have at last arrived at football season.

(Pause to allow for celebration.)

Missouri kicks off the season at 6 p.m. Saturday against Southeastern Louisiana at Faurot Field. (For those wanting to watch on television, the game is available on pay-per-view.)

The Lions are a Football Championship Subdivision, or I-AA, team, a level below Missouri’s Football Bowl Subdivision, or I-A, status, meaning Southeastern Louisiana gives a smaller number of scholarships than teams on the Tigers’ level. These games are usually laughably one-sided, if countless runs into the heart of the line while the clock runs and one team is up 50 make you chuckle.

Under coach Gary Pinkel, Missouri is 7-0 against FCS teams, with an average score of 50-5. Even with a massive look-ahead factor to next week’s Georgia game, expect more of the same against Southeastern Louisiana, which went 3-8 last year.

But Saturday still serves as a return to football, a chance for players, coaches and fans to ease back into gameday rhythms before the first Southeastern Conference game next week. Seeing the Tigers run out on the field will be a familiar feeling, like easing back into a familiar sweatshirt after a summer, but it will also feel new again, with the bright new turf, the new uniforms and, yes, that new conference logo. “SEC,” it says. It does not whisper.

In contrast to this newness is Pinkel, the Tiger coach. This marks his 12th season at Missouri, tying Georgia’s Mark Richt for the most years at their school of any SEC head coach.

Looking long term, a fascinating aspect of this move to the SEC is its impact on Pinkel’s legacy. Naturally, a key part of his legacy is that he got Missouri football relevant enough that moving to the SEC was an option. I wonder if, at 60, a coach very familiar with one conference would want anything to do with a move to what’s currently considered the nation’s toughest conference. But Pinkel was a key voice driving the move to the SEC, by all accounts.

If Pinkel wins an SEC title before he retires, expect a statue. But if the Tigers struggle? If his record against conference opponents, perched at 47-44, dips below .500? How would that ending impact the story?

Pinkel’s place in the Missouri coaching pantheon is interesting. He is third on the school’s coaching wins list, trailing Dan Devine by eight wins and Don Faurot by 16 wins, and will likely catch both. But Faurot won three conference titles; Devine won two. Look at their records against conference opponents: Devine 62-23-4, Faurot 61-34-9, Pinkel 47-44.

It can be tough to compare coaches from such different eras, to be fair, but that’s still a noticeable contrast.

Pinkel is clearly third in the Tiger coach pantheon, but he did lift the program from a slumber. This grand SEC adventure will go a long way to determining his final standing.

The SEC cauldron awaits, but first we get back to football against Southeastern Louisiana.

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