Darren Hellwege, Sports Commentator
I hope you’ve all had a pleasant summer. While my reading material the last month has tended toward “Rocky Top Talk” and Alabama’s football prospectus, I’ve mostly stayed out of the sports reporting world. But, it’s time to get the keyboard cranked back up again.
Mizzou football starts fall camp Thursday, Aug. 2. The following weekend the 2012-2013 MU athletics season officially kicks off with the Tiger soccer team playing at SMU in Dallas. Mark Aug. 17 on your calendar as the first home match takes place, against Memphis. Before long our lives will once again be wrapped around Mizzou sports.
Only as I look at the schedule, even though we’ve had a long time to prepare, it still looks very strange to me. No Iowa State, no Kansas, and much to my sadness no Oklahoma State. Instead, strange and exotic locales appear. Auburn? South Carolina? LSU? Where are these places? We still have some mental adjustments to make.
In the meantime, in these next few weeks we’ll preview the fall sports, and there’s some exciting stuff to talk about.
Of course, in the Southeastern Conference even more than our past leagues, football is king and this appears to be a year with a lot of reason for optimism. We’ll go through each position and preview the rest of the SEC team by team, but let me throw out some opening reflections.
Missouri in the SEC
There are several reasons Mizzou and its players are being underrated by many observers. Now, I’m not presenting the Tigers as the 1985 Chicago Bears but this is a darn fine football team and the way some in the Deep South are talking, the Tigers are in way over their heads and should expect to be slaughtered every weekend this fall. Don’t you believe it. Missouri’s record over the last five years indicates this is a program to be feared, but most SEC-based reporters think that record has been achieved against the Northern Cornfield County Academy of the Feeble and Tumbleweed State Junior College. A lot of the prognosticators feel Texas A&M is much more prepared for life in SEC football, even though Missouri’s dominated the Aggies head to head in recent years. As football starts, you’ll hear the talk even more, and it will become all the more obnoxious. The Tigers have a very simple way to shut up the doubters: Win.
And it starts Sept. 8, a day which I believe the Tigers will begin teaching the Southeastern Conference a lesson by beating Georgia. Mizzou gets the break of all time in catching the Bulldogs with several key parts of their stout defense on suspension for various offseason mischief. Were the teams to play in November, Georgia, the team I consider the best of the East division, would be a substantial favorite. But with half of their secondary watching from the sidelines and the game being the SEC opener on Faurot Field with an atmosphere that will border on insane, I’m picking the Tigers to win, and not look back from there.
Comparing stats from one conference to another’s is misleading because when playing in the Big 12 the Tigers went up against offenses far superior to any in the SEC last year. And those who say of Mizzou, “they have a strong offense but not much of a defense” just aren’t going to be proven correct. There’s a lack of depth up front, but overall the Tigers’ defense is going to prove a lot stronger than people think, and in particular the linebacker corps is going to be surprisingly strong.
We’ll get into this more as we do individual unit previews in the days ahead, but the Tigers addressed a pressing need in the offseason by beefing up on defense. Several key parts of the Tigers defensive units show up on the newly-released fall roster having gained significant weight over the summer. Whether it’s starters or bench players, this shows commitment on the part of the players and is another sign that among the reasons for Mizzou’s success in recent years one cannot forget Pat Ivey, the team’s outstanding strength and conditioning coach.
Some of the numbers that might impress? When you compare the roster from this time last year to the one just released by Missouri, we see that Brandon Durant’s gone from 195 pounds to 220. Darvin Ruise beefed up from 225 to 240. Cortland Browning’s added 15, and Shane Ray added 20. The biggest gainer? Defensive lineman Matt Hoch tipped the scales before the 2011 season at 260 pounds. In the 2012 media guide, he’s listed at 290. The Tigers starting front four now runs 260 at both ends (Michael Sam and Brad Madison) with tackles at 290 (Hoch) and 295 (Sheldon Richardson).
This isn’t as large as some of the top SEC teams but the difference is becoming less glaring. Bama’s front three are 319, 310 and 285; Georgia’s are 309, 351 and 269; South Carolina’s runs 267, 316, 286 and 256
Here’s my take on some of the other fall sports at Mizzou.
Another strong recruiting class comes into Bryan Blitz’s Tiger soccer program. There are some good experienced players, especially on the back line, and this could be an exciting team to watch. Unfortunately, while Mizzou being placed in the Eastern Division of the SEC is advantageous for football, for soccer it’s a little more problematic. Every team but Vanderbilt in the East was at least .600 overall last year, and Florida beat the Tigers 2-0 at Walton Stadium last year and I don’t consider them the top of the league. This could be a real challenge for Mizzou.
On the other hand, I think Mizzou stands a real chance of competing for a conference championship in volleyball. Not only do the Tigers return junior superstars in All-American Lisa Henning and Molly Kreklow along with another strong bunch of recruits, but they got a huge boost when the NCAA allowed Taylor Simpson to step in and play right away after transferring from Florida State. Simpson was a top 10 recruit nationally when she signed out of high school with Nebraska, and this 6-foot-3-inch outside hitter fills the one hole this team had. The competition will be interesting. While the SEC is weaker than the Big 12 top to bottom in volleyball there are three extremely tough teams in Tennessee, Kentucky and Florida, all in the Eastern Division with Missouri.
And finally, if the start of fall sports wasn’t exciting enough, defending national champ Alabama announced their 2013 schedule in women’s gymnastics over the weekend. The Crimson Tide season starts Jan. 11 at the Hearnes Center, taking on a Mizzou team that should be fun to watch, with the roster featuring the return of last year’s freshman sensation Rachel Updike and several other talented youngsters.