HOOVER, Ala. ‚Äî The Southeastern Conference kicked off its annual Media Days event here Tuesday at the Wynfrey Hotel by putting front and center the newest members of the league, Missouri and Texas A&M.
They played some big-boy football in the Big 12, but are now in the powerhouse SEC, which is perceived as a major step up by many.
The league has won the past six national titles and when their football coaches and players talk, fans perk up and reporters listen.
‚ÄúThere‚Äôs 1,100 media members here,‚Äù Missouri wide receiver T. J. Moe said. ‚ÄúWhen I got here, security escorted me to the elevator. Things are just different.‚Äù
So far neither has lost a league game, but how their won-loss records might look in the conference will be debated at bar stools and on message boards between now and Sept. 8.
Georgia travels to Missouri and Florida plays at Texas A&M in what SEC commissioner Mike Slive calls ‚Äúsignature home games,‚Äù for the debut of the teams in the expanded 14-team SEC.
‚ÄúIf you ask me, it‚Äôs probably going to be the most anticipated game in Missouri football history,‚Äù Moe said.
‚ÄúI‚Äôd be disappointed if we were intimidated,‚Äù Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said of the Tigers‚Äô debut SEC season. ‚ÄúWe played in a pretty good football league ourselves. We understand the great league we‚Äôre coming into. It‚Äôs all going to play out. How is Missouri and Texas A&M going to do in the SEC? There‚Äôs going to be an analysis every single week.‚Äù
Texas A&M first-year coach Kevin Sumlin will have the welcome mat out for him as a newbie in the SEC West.
He‚Äôs got to play the past six national champions (Alabama, Auburn, Florida and LSU) this season.
‚ÄúWhat‚Äôs my assessment?‚Äù Sumlin said. ‚ÄúIt‚Äôs a pretty damn hard league.‚Äù
‚ÄúThe SEC is the best conference in college,‚Äù Texas A&M receiver Ryan Swope said. ‚ÄúThe best recruits come to the SEC.‚Äù
Missouri has won an average of 9.6 games the past five years while Texas A&M has won more than seven games just once in the past five years.
‚ÄúWe‚Äôre coming in and we‚Äôre the redheaded stepchild,‚Äù Moe said. ‚ÄúWe‚Äôve got a chance to earn respect.‚Äù
Pinkel has a home in Florida, where he hears from folks that aren‚Äôt exactly believers.
‚ÄúPeople act like we‚Äôve been playing a bunch of high school teams,‚Äù he said.
Pinkel said he‚Äôs fine with having to prove his team‚Äôs worth in its new league.
‚ÄúI would say strap it up,‚Äù LSU coach Les Miles told the Birmingham News in May. ‚ÄúThey‚Äôre going to really not enjoy their welcoming to this conference.‚Äù
South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier was more generous Tuesday with his take on how the newcomers might fare.
‚ÄúI think Texas A&M and Missouri are going to be extremely competitive,‚Äù he said. ‚ÄúI think they‚Äôre going to win a bunch of games. Wouldn‚Äôt surprise me if they weren‚Äôt in the hunt to win a division or so. I think they may be right up in there.‚Äù
Still, Spurrier called the opening SEC games for both teams ‚Äúvery interesting for all of us,‚Äù calling them ‚Äúcrucial.‚Äù
Missouri‚Äôs last game against a team in the SEC was a 38-7 win over Arkansas in the Cotton Bowl at the end of the 2007 season. It beat Ole Miss in 2007 and 2006 and South Carolina in the 2005 Independence Bowl and lost to Arkansas in the 2003 Independence.
Texas A&M has lost each of the past three seasons to Arkansas (42-38 and 24-17 the last two years), lost 41-24 to LSU in the Cotton Bowl at the end of the 2010 season and 44-20 to Georgia in the Independence Bowl in 2009.
‚ÄúWe took a little team from Houston over to Starkville and won once,‚Äù said Sumlin, whose Cougars team last year led the nation in passing offense, total offense and scoring offense. ‚ÄúSo we‚Äôll see where we are offensively. But certainly we‚Äôre comfortable with how we do things in the system that we have in place.‚Äù
Missouri‚Äôs Moe had 146 catches the past two seasons in the Tigers‚Äô spread offense playing in the Big 12.
Someone jokingly told him that the SEC has 260-pound cornerbacks.
‚ÄúThey‚Äôve also got prettier girls,‚Äù Moe said. ‚ÄúThe air is fresher and the toilet paper is thicker.‚Äù
It‚Äôs not like Missouri and Texas A&M are going from the outhouse to the penthouse, but the SEC did boast five of the top eight teams in total defense: Alabama, LSU, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida.
‚ÄúWe‚Äôve played very good teams,‚Äù said Texas A&M linebacker Sean Porter. ‚ÄúI‚Äôve been in college for four years and I‚Äôve played some intense games. I played some games against Oklahoma when they were ranked pretty high. I played against Texas for four years straight, Nebraska. We played against some very good teams. When people say the caliber of play is going to change so much, I‚Äôm just `I don‚Äôt know how much better it can get.‚Äô I don‚Äôt think it‚Äôs going to be overwhelming for us if that‚Äôs what you‚Äôre asking.‚Äù I think we‚Äôll be ready for it.‚Äù