With Florida Gators next, Missouri Tigers find SEC a challenge

Missouri linebacker Zaviar Gooden, left, is congratulated by Will Ebner after recovering a fumble by Kentucky quarterback Patrick Towles during the second half of the Tigers’ first SEC victory.

Associated Press

Missouri linebacker Zaviar Gooden, left, is congratulated by Will Ebner after recovering a fumble by Kentucky quarterback Patrick Towles during the second half of the Tigers’ first SEC victory.

GAINESVILLE — Throughout the summer and preseason, much of the talk about SEC expansion focused on Missouri. With a unique spread offense, the Tigers and coach Gary Pinkel were the team many expected to catch the league off guard and prove that maybe there wasn't so much difference between the Big 12 and the SEC after all.

At SEC Media Days in July, Pinkel seemed annoyed that so many questions were about whether the Tigers could hold their own in the SEC. The Missouri players promised to prove doubters wrong. And leading into the conference opener against Georgia, a Missouri player said the Bulldogs played "old man football," suggesting the Tigers offense was a more modern, exciting brand.

But so far, it has been rough going. Missouri is 4-4 overall and has won just one of its five SEC games.

That victory came last week against Kentucky (1-8) and caused such jubilation that Missouri's official online apparel store started selling T-shirts to commemorate the occasion — with the Tigers logo atop the words "Caged the Cats" — complete with the score and date. (Those T-shirts have since been removed from the website.)

While fans from other SEC schools scoff, the Tigers are hoping there are more wins to come. Mizzou enters Saturday's game at No. 8 Florida feeling like the team once deserving of those preseason expectations.

"Confidence levels are up," junior defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson said. "We are just out here trying to get another win. We want more than one win in the SEC, so we are trying to get another one."

Missouri is preparing to try for a late-season run similar to 2011. After going 4-4, Mizzou won five of its last six games, beating two ranked opponents. Through it all, Pinkel has remained true to his core values.

"I think the most important thing for our football team to understand is that every bit of our attention should be on (the next) football game, every bit, and beyond that it just doesn't really matter," Pinkel said. "These guys are smart, they know what's going on and they understand what our goals are.

"I think one thing we do, is that we're real consistent around here. We don't come in here and change things. … We don't put in brand new offenses, we don't change the way we lift weights, we don't change the way we practice; we're very consistent. What we do works. If we coach better and if we play better, then we'll win more and that's just the way it is."

Mizzou has been decimated by injuries. Quarterback James Franklin (knee) has been injury-prone all season. All five of Mizzou's preseason starters on the O-line have suffered injuries — Justin Britt, Elvis Fisher, Jack Meiners, Mitch Morse and Travis Ruth. Backups Taylor Chappell and Mark Hill are out for the season. Starting linebacker Zaviar Gooden has missed time. Franklin's MCL kept him out of part of the UK game, but he is expected to start against the Gators. He practiced Tuesday and said he believes he'll be able to run and cut more this week.

"We've had some tough breaks and we haven't played yet to the best of our ability," wide receiver T.J. Moe said.

They'll get another opportunity to do so against the Gators.

"We are playing a very good Florida team," Pinkel said. "Excited about playing in another great place to play college football. We just want to play our best football game. That is what our goal is to be doing, and we are going to work real hard to do it."

Antonya English can be reached at english@tampabay.com.

With Florida Gators next, Missouri Tigers find SEC a challenge 10/30/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, October 30, 2012 11:09pm]

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