COLUMBIA, Mo. • Each game the Missouri football team wins this year the further it puts 2012 in the rearview mirror, but long before this season started, Gary Pinkel had a hunch about his team.
The Tigers, 5-0 and ranked No. 25, have barely resembled the injury-ravaged unit that won five games last fall, but all the turmoil of 2012 has formed a healthy layer of scar tissue.
Heading into Saturday’s 11 a.m. showdown at No. 7 Georgia — by far, Mizzou’s biggest challenge to date — Pinkel has said repeatedly he likes this team. Not that he didn’t like last year’s team, he insisted Monday.
“There’s a chemistry and a determination, a combination of both, with this team. And leadership,” said Pinkel, whose team’s average margin of victory is 24.2 points through five games. “It’s the ‘circle the wagons,’ ‘we had a tough year last year,’ ‘we want to win and we’re willing to pay the price’ type thing. I just kind of felt that, that these guys had that in there. They’ve taken this real personal.”
This, as in Missouri’s 2013 redemption tour through the SEC, started with Saturday’s 51-28 win at Vanderbilt, a team that exposed MU’s depth issues last year with a demoralizing 19-15 comeback win in Columbia.
In the rematch, Missouri unleashed its reborn offense with James Franklin having a historic passing day, throwing for 278 yards and three touchdowns as the Tigers raced to a 30-7 halftime lead. Franklin’s quarterback rating (198.4) was the fourth-best in school history for a road game — and better than any single-game rating former All-Big 12 quarterback Chase Daniel posted in 2007, the year he finished fourth in the Heisman Trophy voting.
But with seven SEC games to play over the next eight weeks — including three straight against nationally ranked teams that toppled Mizzou last year — Pinkel noted this year’s team quickly shifts focus to the next game, taking a cue from its coaches.
“As soon as the game’s over, I smile for about a minute or two and I’m already thinking about the next game,” defensive coordinator Dave Steckel said. “I think our kids are doing a really good job of being loosey-goosey, but when it’s time to focus, they focus, which is a great attribute of maturity. I had fun in the locker room with them (at Vanderbilt), but when I walked out of the locker room, my brain was on Georgia.”
When the Tigers opened preseason camp last year, Pinkel and his coaches wore shirts with RESPECT plastered across the back, an obvious reference to the team’s quest for validation as SEC rookies. Coming off a five-win inaugural SEC season, there are only so many times Pinkel can effectively play the respect card with this team. So far, Pinkel’s players seem less consumed with their perception around the league.
“At this point, we’re kind of beyond that,” receiver L’Damian Washington said. “But we do embrace the underdog role. Right now, it’s just going out and trying to get a win.”
“We’re not going out there to seek respect,” center Evan Boehm added. “We’re going out there to play our game. The respect will come.”
The Bulldogs spoiled Missouri’s SEC debut game last September in Columbia, capitalizing on a string of second-half takeaways to turn a competitive game into a 41-20 victory. At times last season, Missouri players pointed to the first half of that game as proof the team was more talented than its results on the field indicated. This time around, healthier and with its confidence boosted by a sweep through a softer nonconference schedule, the Tigers aren’t drawing on any positives from last year’s Georgia loss.
“Because we understand it’s a different year,” Washington said. “They lost a lot a people on defense. We lost a few people. We have a healthy team. They’re a little banged up right now. It’s two different teams from last year’s game.”
A win Saturday would be in the running as the biggest in Pinkel’s 13 seasons at Missouri and clearly the most significant in the team’s short time in the SEC. The Bulldogs, early 9-point favorites despite severe injuries at tailback and receiver, are 66-13 at Sanford Stadium under Mark Richt, who started his run at Georgia in 2001, the same year Pinkel took over at Missouri.
Win or lose Saturday, Missouri’s climb through the SEC remains steep — Florida and South Carolina visit Columbia next — but Pinkel will head to Athens with a team that’s been unflappable on the road so far, its attention squarely on the next challenge.
“If I told you this wasn’t a big game I’d be lying,” linebacker Donovan Bonner said. “But we’re focused on what we do best.”