Fresh off a 41-24 Independence Bowl victory over North Carolina, the Missouri Tigers football team can finally turn their focus to next year. The release of the 2012 SEC conference schedule makes that task easier, and reminds fans that the conference move is now right around the corner.
Mizzou, playing in the East Division of the SEC, will begin conference play at home against the Georgia Bulldogs on Sept. 8. The defending SEC East champions pay their first ever visit to Faurot Field, and should provide a steep test to welcome Mizzou into the conference. After losing their first two games to Boise State and South Carolina, the Bulldogs rattled off 10 consecutive wins before falling to LSU in the SEC Championship Game. They will take their 10-3 record into their final game of the season, the Outback Bowl against Michigan State. Georgia will have two of its top offensive players back next year in sophomore quarterback Aaron Murray and freshman running back Isaiah Crowell. The Bulldogs can get it done on both sides of the ball ranking third in the NCAA in total defense this year. The Tigers immediately draw the strongest team in their division for their schedule, but with the game being in Columbia and a likely national television audience, the Tigers may be able to score the early season upset. Georgia is a strong returning team, but they struggled early this season, and Mizzou will try to make this a recurring problem for Georgia.
After a non-conference home game against Arizona State, Mizzou will travel to the other Columbia in the conference to take on South Carolina. The Gamecocks also won 10 games during the regular season, despite having to deal with injury and suspension on the offensive side. Senior quarterback Stephen Garcia was dismissed in early October with a long history of not following guidelines set by the team. They were led offensively by sophomore running back Marcus Lattimore, who gained over 800 yards and scored 10 times before missing the last five games of the season with a knee injury. The Gamecocks relied on their defense, 15th nationally in scoring and fourth in total defense, to finish second in the East. They will likely continue to contend next year, with SEC Freshman of the Year Jadeveon Clowney returning to lead the defense. Mizzou’s first road game in the SEC will be a difficult one, with the Gamecocks likely to be near the top of the division standings. They have been inconsistent on offense in the past, but their staunch defense will likely give the Tigers all they can handle.
After taking on what are likely to be the top two teams in the East, Mizzou gets a bit of a breather at home against Vanderbilt in the James Franklin Bowl. Franklin, the Commodores’ head coach, guided them to a 6-6 record this past year and only their second bowl birth since 1982. Though they only finished 2-6 in the SEC, Franklin has what has traditionally been a doormat football team on the upswing. Junior running back Zac Stacy finished with 1,136 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns, and junior quarterback Jordan Rodgers will also be returning. He didn’t put up the kind of numbers his brother Aaron does in the NFL, but continuity at quarterback can go a long way towards turning a program around. Mizzou’s quarterback, the James Franklin that Tiger fans are more familiar with, should be able to guide his team to a victory, but could become a dreaded trap game if they get caught looking ahead to the next week’s game.
Speaking of which, on Oct. 13, the Alabama Crimson Tide roll into Columbia in what is sure to be the most difficult game on the Tigers’ schedule. The Tide will be coming off an appearance in the BCS Title Game, and have been among the top teams in the country the past few seasons. They had the best defense in the country, giving up an average of less than 200 yards per game and allowing an astonishing 8.8 points per game. As if their defense isn’t scary enough, Alabama can put points on the board too. Though they’ll likely lose junior running back and Heisman Finalist Trent Richardson to the NFL, their quarterback, AJ McCarron, is only a sophomore and threw for 2,400 yards, with 16 touchdowns and only five interceptions in his first year as a starter. The Alabama defense is always loaded with future NFL players, and will be a very stiff test for Missouri. Teams like Alabama are what skeptics of Mizzou’s conference change point to as a reason to stay in the Big 12, and with good reason. If Franklin and the spread offense can somehow find a way past the Tide defense, the upset would send a huge message to the SEC and to the wave of critics that Mizzou means business in the SEC.
Mizzou will take a bye week followed by the 101st Homecoming game, Oct. 27 against the Kentucky Wildcats. This will be a highly anticipated matchup on the basketball court, but the Wildcats don’t have the same kind of reputation on the football field. They struggled to a 5-7 overall record this year, and only beat Tennessee and Ole Miss in SEC play. Freshman Maxwell Smith and junior Morgan Newton both spent time playing quarterback, though neither’s numbers were very impressive. They struggled offensively, scoring over twenty points only three times, and ranking 117th nationally in scoring. The game is the last scheduled SEC home game, though there is an open date on Nov. 17 that could be filled at home by a non-conference opponent. The homecoming atmosphere combined with Kentucky’s struggles should make for a good day in Columbia.
After Kentucky, the Tigers hit the road for their final three SEC games, starting with a trip to Gainesville to play the Florida Gators. Florida has historically been one of the stronger programs in the country, but struggled to a 6-6 overall record and went 3-5 in the SEC. After a hot start, they ran into a gauntlet of ranked teams that derailed their season, losing to Alabama, LSU, Auburn, and Georgia in October. They will lose senior quarterback John Brantley, but freshman Jacoby Brissett seems ready to replace him for next year. Florida is always a hot destination for the nation’s top recruits, and coach Will Muschamp will look for a turnaround in his second season at Florida. The Swamp is always a difficult place to play, and Florida will be looking to be on the rise after a disappointing season. It’s a winnable game for Mizzou, but it will be interesting to see how much Florida can improve from their season this year.
The next week Mizzou travels to Tennessee to take on a Volunteer team that finished last in the East division at 5-7 overall, 1-7 in the SEC. The tandem of sophomore quarterback Tyler Bray and sophomore wide receiver Da’Rick Rogers put up impressive numbers, but the offense wasn’t balanced enough to put forth any kind of sustained success. They scored seven or fewer points in their last five losses, and their only SEC victory came in overtime against Vanderbilt. Even though Tennessee was at the basement of the division this year, Neyland Stadium, Tennesse’s home, can pack over 100,000 on game day and can be tough for opponents. Nevertheless, if Mizzou’s secondary can slow down Bray, it should be a victory for the Tigers.
Mizzou closes out the season in College Station for a showdown against fellow SEC newcomers Texas A&M. This will be the third consecutive year Mizzou will play at Texas A&M, but have managed to win the last two games there, including this year’s 38-31 overtime victory. A&M was projected to be a top 10 team this season, but several late game collapses led them to a disappointing 6-6 season. A&M will lose senior quarterback Ryan Tannehill and senior running back Cyrus Gray, who led the Aggies’ offensive attack, but leading receiver Ryan Swope is only a junior. To add to the turmoil, next year will be their first season under coach Kevin Sumlin, after Mike Sherman was fired after this season. Texas A&M will be looking for a fresh start and a rebound season after this year’s disappointments, but may struggle without Tannehill and Gray leading the attack. Kyle Field is usually a tough place to play, but the Tigers have managed to pull out victories their last two games there. They will hope to make it a third straight road victory in the series.
Mizzou lucked out being placed in the East division, which is certainly the weaker of the two divisions. Unfortunately, they were not able to avoid the powers from the West when Alabama was scheduled as their cross-division game, as well as Texas A&M as the permanent cross-division rival. That being said, most of Mizzou’s scheduled games are winnable, but will be tough tests as the Tigers try to adjust to the SEC style of play, which focuses more on tough defenses rather than the flashy offenses of the Big 12. Getting Georgia at home should give Tiger fans an idea of what kind of season they should expect, as the Bulldogs figure to be the early favorites in the East. South Carolina and Florida will be tough on the road, but they have been inconsistent at times, and those, too, can be winnable games. Vanderbilt, Kentucky, and Tennessee all figure to be wins, while Alabama would be a stunner if the Tigers figured out a way to win. Finally, the familiarity between Texas A&M and Mizzou should make for an interesting close to the season. That being said, Mizzou should be able to be competitive in their first year in the SEC and at least finish in the top half of the East. If they can find ways to win some of the toss-up games in the schedule, the conference transition should be smooth sailing for the Tigers.
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