Sunday, November 19, 2017
Colleges

New SEC members Missouri and Texas A&M hit the ground running

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Under normal circumstances, Missouri football coach Gary Pinkel would have spent the early part of the offseason examining film from the 2011 season, breaking down his team's performances then devising improvements.

But this isn't a normal offseason for the Tigers.

Instead of looking back at games against Baylor and Oklahoma, Pinkel has looked ahead to games against Georgia and Florida.

"We've looked at all the different schemes we're going to see, offensively and defensively, kicking," said Pinkel, who is entering his 12th season in Columbia. "It's like anything you do. You adjust. You get as much information as you can. You decide your plan, and you adjust accordingly."

Missouri and Texas A&M officially became the newest members of the SEC on July 1 (its first expansion in 20 years). But Pinkel and Aggies coach Kevin Sumlin have been preparing for the move from the Big 12 for six months — or since last season ended.

Sumlin also is adjusting to a new job. He was hired in December from Houston.

"Transition is tough for everybody," Sumlin said. "For me, it's all new, and the experiences that we're going to have are new to everybody; for our administration, our fans, me.

"In a way, it's kind of an advantage because (other SEC schools) don't know what's coming either. Because of that, there's a lot of excitement."

While the coaches have been preparing for life on the field, there have been intense preparations off it. The SEC assembled a transition team to visit each campus. Then administrative staff from both schools attended meetings at the league offices in Birmingham, Ala., to learn its bylaws. There were visits to SEC campuses to study gameday management.

Interest at both schools is at a fever pitch.

In June, the SEC hosted a pep rally for both schools in Atlanta that drew about 1,000 fans. Both held a flag-raising ceremony on July 2 to commemorate their entry. Billboards began going up in the spring in both states. (Missouri also put up billboards reading, "Proud to be SEC, Mizzou" throughout the South, including Tampa, Jacksonville, Atlanta, Birmingham and Memphis, as part of an advertising campaign.)

And logging onto Texas A&M's website (tamu.edu), one of the first things that jumps out is the slogan, "This Is SEC Country."

"Our fans are extremely excited, and I know our players are," Sumlin said.

"I think you can tell by season-ticket sales. Our place is sold out for every game. Everybody that I've been in contact with, from former students to current students to our players, are excited about joining the SEC and looking forward to this year."

That excitement has already carried over into other aspects of the athletic programs.

Missouri recently received a $30 million gift from the Kansas City Sports Trust to kick off a $200 million plan for facility improvements, which the school said is vital to its ability to be successful in the SEC. Plans include adding at least 6,000 seats to Faurot Field, the football stadium that currently is among the smallest in the league at 71,004. (Texas A&M has hired a firm to study renovations at Kyle Field, capacity 82,600.)

"We are moving into the nation's best and most competitive conference," Missouri athletic director Mike Alden said. "And by committing to this master plan, we feel this is a statement that Mizzou is going to be a factor on the conference and national levels."

Preparing to face the nation's best is why Sumlin's and Pinkel's offseason has been so busy.

"We've had to analyze every single SEC school we're going to play against; all the personnel and all the schemes," Pinkel said. "I have great respect for the SEC. The difference between the SEC and the Big 12 is that there are a lot more good teams in the SEC.

"It's been interesting. You're coaching in the Big 12. And then all of a sudden, you're in a new league. It's been good, but it's been a lot of work."

Antonya English can be reached at [email protected] Read her blog at .tampabay.com/blogs/gators. Follow her on Twitter at @gatornews.

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