In its first season in the SEC, the Missouri football program looked — what’s the best way to put this? — more than a little overmatched.
Despite coming off seven consecutive successful seasons in the Big 12, the Tigers finished with a 5-7 record and a 2-6 mark in the SEC, with four of those conference losses by 21 points or more.
South Carolina thrashed Missouri 31-10 at Williams-Brice Stadium this past season in their first conference meeting, but when the Gamecocks head to the other Columbia for Saturday night’s rematch, the Tigers are looking like a perfect fit in their new surroundings.
With seven consecutive wins to start this season, including conference wins against Vanderbilt, Georgia and Florida, Missouri has jumped to No. 5 in the AP Top 25 while taking command of the SEC East title chase.
“Missouri is the team that, I guess, has caught everybody off guard a bit,” USC coach Steve Spurrier said. “They weren’t picked to win the East, and yet they got a two-game lead.”
The No. 20 Gamecocks (5-2, 3-2 SEC), who are coming off an upset loss to Tennessee, must win to have hope of catching Missouri.
“Missouri has really come around,” Spurrier said. “Last year they were 5-7, they were competitive, but it seemed like nothing good happened for them much throughout.”
Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said a multitude of injuries a year ago made for the most adverse circumstances he had encountered while attempting to keep up with rugged SEC opponents. But this season’s Tigers look far more like his Big 12 teams that won 48 games the previous five seasons.
“It’s a lot different (this season), but it should be. We’re healthy,” he said. “Obviously, we’ve been fortunate to win our games.”
Missouri will be playing against a Top 25 team for the third week in a row. Pinkel said he watched the Gamecocks romp to a win last season and understands they remain capable of snapping the Tigers’ unbeaten streak.
“They still recruit well. They’ve got great players,” Pinkel said. “He (Spurrier) does a great job with that football program. They’re a physical football team like everybody in the SEC. Just the week-in and week-out of playing high-level football, which makes the SEC great, they know how to win, and they could very easily be undefeated right now, too.”
The Tigers are holding up their end of the bargain this season, just as Texas A&M did last season — the first for both teams in the SEC.
In 2012, the Aggies beat national champion Alabama, finished No. 5 and had quarterback Johnny Manziel win the Heisman Trophy. Texas A&M is ranked No. 14 this season.
Alabama coach Nick Saban says the new programs have made the SEC better. Spurrier and Florida coach Will Muschamp said they are not surprised by the success of the Aggies and Tigers. LSU coach Les Miles called both teams much improved from the days that he coached at Oklahoma State in the Big 12.
The USC players are learning Missouri is for real.
“I am not surprised. They always had the talent to do it, they were just getting used to the SEC,” linebacker Marcquis Roberts said. “I think the first game I really paid attention to was the Georgia game. They played really well.”
The Tigers have averaged 44.3 points and 513.4 yards per game, numbers that have their players gaining confidence in their ability to keep winning.
“Trust me, not a day went by when we didn’t say, ‘We’ve got to show we belong,’ ” senior receiver L’Damian Washington told the Kansas City Star.
He made that point to his teammates before the Tigers beat Florida when he said: “We belong to be mentioned when everybody talks about the great teams in the SEC.”