Conference realignment has been a constant in college football over the past few years. Nebraska is the biggest prize to have moved, switching from the Big 12 to the Big Ten this season and playing well, but by no means taking over upon its arrival. Colorado and Utah made headlines when they decided to move to the Pac-12 around the same time the Cornhuskers decided to make their switch, even though neither made many headlines this fall when they actually started playing against the best of the west.
Missouri is an afterthought.
Conference realignment has been a constant in college football over the past few years.
Nebraska is the biggest prize to have moved, switching from the Big 12 to the Big Ten this season and playing well, but by no means taking over upon its arrival. Colorado and Utah made headlines when they decided to move to the Pac-12 around the same time the Cornhuskers decided to make their switch, even though neither made many headlines this fall when they actually started playing against the best of the west.
The big uproar this autumn was over the decision by Texas A&M to abandon the Big 12 and head to the SEC, and in the process leave behind its classic rivalry with Texas. Smaller news was the final decimation of the original Big East when Pitt and Syracuse decided to follow the trail blazed by Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College into the ACC (and subsequent ridiculous reconfiguration of the Big East with Boise State, that beacon of the Eastern seaboard, the centerpiece).
But the Aggies, Panthers and Orange are all headed for rude awakenings in their new conferences.
Quietly, Missouri is making the same move as Texas A&M, leaving behind its roots in the Big 8 and then the Big 12, and its bitter rivalry with Kansas, in favor of the mighty SEC.
The Tigers, however, might actually do pretty well.
Missouri doesn’t come to mind when thinking of the better teams over last half-dozen or so years, but it’s been consistently good.
The Tigers have lost at most five games each of the last seven years, three times reaching double digits in victories over that span - including 12-2 in 2007 when Missouri finished the season ranked fourth in the AP poll.
Twice in that span the Tigers have run up against teams from the SEC in bowl games, and twice they’ve won. They beat South Carolina 38-31 in the 2005 Independence Bowl to finish at 7-5, then two years later capped that 2007 season by ripping an Arkansas team that featured running backs Darren McFadden and Felix Jones - and handed eventual national-champion LSU a late-season loss - 38-7 in the Cotton Bowl.
Missouri even reached No. 1 during that 2007 season, when victims included Nebraska and Kansas, which went on to the Orange Bowl.
The Tigers capped their final season in the Big 12 on Monday evening in emphatic fashion, beating archrival Kansas by two touchdowns in their last conference game, then blowing out North Carolina 41-24 in the Independence Bowl on Monday.
Missouri was led by sophomore quarterback James Franklin, who ran for 142 yards and two touchdowns and passed for 132 yards and another score. His presence next fall means the Tigers will bring an arsenal with them into the SEC.
“After the game, I gave (Franklin) a hug and said congratulations,” Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said Monday in his postgame press conference. “Then I went back and asked, ‘What happens when you get really good?’ ... He kind of gave me a look, but that's a huge compliment.”
While the Tigers will enter the SEC coming off of seven steady seasons, Texas A&M, the team that has drawn far more attention for its impending move than Missouri, has had three losing seasons since 2005, and could wind up with a fourth this year if the Aggies lose the Mieneke Car Care Bowl to Northwestern.
The one time they ran up against and SEC team, they got croaked by LSU in last year’s Cotton Bowl.
And their highest ranking came this season, when they were in the top 10 in the preseason before reality set in and they lost to five of six ranked teams they faced (including Arkansas), and got beat by unranked Missouri as well.
“This is a devastating loss for our team,” A&M coach Mike Sherman said after the Aggies lost on Thanksgiving night to Texas. He was fired less than a week later.
When Missouri arrives in the SEC next fall, it won’t take the conference by storm.
The Tigers aren’t going to show up and suddenly ascend to a spot alongside LSU and Alabama. In fact, they lose 12 starters to graduation, but Franklin and leading rusher Henry Josey are both sophomores.
And Missouri has shown an ability to score on just about anyone since Pinkel has been in Columbia.
The Tigers averaged 39.9 points per game back in 2007, 42.2 the following year, a shade under 30 in both 2009 and 2010, then 32.8 this year.
They’ll challenge SEC defenses. They’ll be better than the soft underbelly of the SEC that includes teams like Tennessee, Ole Miss and Kentucky. They’ll slot in with the good but not great teams of the SEC like Florida, Mississippi State and Georgia.
They’ll be a solid addition.
Texas A&M, on the other hand, might just get its butt kicked on a weekly basis until new coach Kevin Sumlin, who worked some magic at Houston, picks up the pieces left behind by Sherman.
Missouri has been in afterthought in the realignment madness. But Missouri might just be the best team not named Nebraska to make a run for the money.
What We Learned
With 10 simple words just over a week ago, the landscape for the 2012 season changed.
“I am staying so I can finish what I started,” USC junior quarterback Matt Barkley said at a press conference on Dec. 22.
The Trojans were playing as well as anyone when their season ended with a 50-0 win over UCLA on Nov. 26.
Because of NCAA sanctions related to Reggie Bush’s time at USC, there was no berth in the inaugural Pac-12 championship game for the Trojans even though they were a full two games clear of their nearest competitor in the South Division. And because of those sanctions, there is no bowl game for USC.
But the Trojans are eligible to win the Pac-12 next year, and compete in a bowl.
With Barkley coming back, USC won’t merely be looking to play in Pasadena. The Trojans will be looking to break the SEC’s six-year stranglehold on the national championship. They’ll be among the preseason favorites to finish the season No. 1.
“I think looking at the team that we have there is that chance,” Barkley said later in that press conference on Dec. 22 when asked about playing in a BCS game next season. “We’re on the rise, and like I said in my (opening) statements, I feel like there is unfinished business.”
USC isn’t simply on the rise. The 10-2 Trojans - ranked No. 5 in the last AP poll of the regular season - are almost about at the top, only there’s no opportunity to prove it.
Beyond that 50-0 demolition of the Bruins, the Trojans took down Oregon in Eugene the weekend before Thanksgiving. There was a slow start to the season by a very young team that included barely beating Minnesota and losing handily at Arizona State about a third of the way through, but three wins followed - including a convincing victory over Notre Dame - and the team announced its reappearance on the national stage with an overtime loss to then-unbeaten Stanford.
Barkley, too, grew as the season progressed. Like the team, though he didn’t win the Heisman Trophy, he was playing as well as any quarterback when USC’s season ended.
He wound up completing 308 or 446 passes for 3,528 yards and 39 touchdowns.
He wound up statistically better than the supposed best quarterback in the land, Stanford’s Andrew Luck.
And now he’ll be back, one of 19 starters for the win over UCLA that are slated to return. Among them are running back Curtis McNeal, a junior who topped 1,000 yards rushing, and 1,000-yard receivers Robert Woods and Marqise Lee, a sophomore and freshman, respectively.
LSU and Alabama will try to stake their claim to the 2011 crown on Jan. 9 in New Orleans. But come Jan. 10 when the 2011 season is a thing of the past, the best team in the land may reside outside the SEC for the first time since Texas won the national title in 2005.
All because of 10 simple words spoken by Matt Barkley.
Game of the Week
Bowl season kicks into high gear over the next few days, with four games taking place Dec. 30, five happening on Dec. 31, and six more taking place on Jan. 2.
There are some truly good matchups, like Wisconsin vs. Oregon in the Rose Bowl and Stanford vs. Oklahoma State in the Fiesta Bowl.
But more than any single matchup, the next week will provide a measure of the Big Ten.
It’s long been accepted that the SEC is the best conference. But a close observer of this season knows that while the SEC probably has the two best teams (LSU and Alabama), the conference itself didn’t distinguish itself.
Beyond the Tigers and Tide, no SEC team was a strong third with teams like Arkansas, Georgia and South Carolina all solid but not close to spectacular. And unlike many recent years, there were some plain lousy teams, including Tennessee, Ole Miss and Kentucky.
The Big Ten, on the other hand, has no teams that can compete with LSU and Alabama. But it has more depth than the SEC showed this year, and over the course of the next week could stake its claim to the mythical title of best conference this year.
Two of its teams - Wisconsin and Michigan - are playing in BCS bowls. If the Badgers were to somehow beat Oregon in the Rose Bowl that would be an enormous feather in the cap of the conference. And while some view the Wolverines as the favorite to beat Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl, given where Michigan was over the three years when Rich Rodriguez was the coach a victory would represent tremendous growth for a once-proud program trying to recapture its rightful place.
Meanwhile, Michigan State, Nebraska and Ohio State all have the chance to make statements on Jan. 2 in games against SEC opponents - the Spartans play Georgia in the Outback Bowl, the Cornhuskers take on South Carolina in the Capital One Bowl and the Buckeyes play Florida in the Gator Bowl.
The SEC may prove to once again be stronger than the Big Ten. Every one of the five Big Ten teams mentioned might lose, but they might also rise up.
The Big Ten hasn’t shown itself to be the best in a long time.
This week it will be measured.
My Top 10
1. LSU (13-0)
2. Oklahoma State (11-1)
3. Alabama (11-1)
4. Stanford (11-1)
5. USC (9-2)
6. Oregon (10-2)
7. Arkansas (10-2)
8. Wisconsin (10-2)
9. Boise State (11-1, not including last night’s game)
10. South Carolina (10-2)
Contact Eric Avidon at 508-626-3809 or firstname.lastname@example.org.