COLUMBIA, Mo. — The conference affiliation is brand new and the tailgaters no doubt will show up much earlier.
A new era has dawned at Missouri, which makes its Southeastern Conference debut on tonight against No. 7 Georgia, and there’s no denying the excitement. Even coach Gary Pinkel failed to stick to his usual “it’s the next game” script for more than a sentence or two on media day before gushing about the historic relevance like a season-ticket holder about to affix a tiger tail to his SUV.
“It’s an important game. Our fans have been talking about it since March. It’s huge,” Pinkel said. “That place is going to be wild. All of that is great.”
The atmosphere will be nothing like the opener, when there were about 10,000 empty seats on a rainy day that ended with a 62-10 rout of lower-division Southeastern Louisiana. It has been argued that the Week 2 matchup, bolstered by Georgia’s ranking, is one of the biggest ever at Faurot Field.
There are plenty of firsts ahead, with top-ranked Alabama coming to town in October. So players know they can’t afford to get too fired up for the Bulldogs.
“It’s not a game-breaker either way,” senior wide receiver T.J. Moe said. “If you come out and don’t play your best it’s not really going to mess up your season. But you also would really like to come out and set the tone. When you play well early on in the season you get a lot of confidence and your team really gets on the right track.”
The buzz surrounding Missouri’s SEC debut isn’t lost on Georgia.
“Every athlete wants to be able to play in the ‘big’ game,” defensive back Damian Swann said. “That’s how you make a name for yourself and for the program.”
Still, the defending champions in the SEC East are treating this is a business trip.
“Well, you have to play them sooner or later, and you have to play someone first,” coach Mark Richt said. “No matter who you play first, you’re going to be really concerned about them. It’s a game that means so much, and it’s a game that you know you’re going to be playing an outstanding opponent. It’s on the schedule, let’s play it.”
It’s a bit of a first for Georgia, too.
For the first time in 20 years, South Carolina is not the opponent in the conference opener. The Bulldogs will be playing in Columbia, Mo., instead of Columbia, S.C.
“We knew when we added teams that change was coming, so here’s the change,” Richt said. “I like away games. I enjoy the travel with the team, and I enjoy the single purpose of the mission.”
Georgia could use some momentum after dropping a notch in the poll following a 45-23 opening victory over Buffalo, picked to finish in the middle of the pack in the MAC. Getting back some or all of the players from disciplinary suspension or injury would help.
The Bulldogs’ defense might have trouble containing Missouri quarterback James Franklin, dangerous with his legs as much as his arm, if safety Bacarri Rambo and inside linebacker Alex Ogletree aren’t back this week. Cornerback Sanders Commings and linebacker Chase Vasser are expected to serve out two-game suspensions for offseason arrests.
“You prepare for the scheme,” Pinkel said. “I don’t know if they’re going to be back or not, you can’t be worried about that. If they play, they play.”
Oddsmakers like Georgia by a slight margin this week, and South Carolina, Tennessee and Florida also are favored against the Tigers.
“You have to prove yourself, you have to earn respect,” Pinkel said. “I have no problem with everybody having questions about us.”
The Tigers aren’t exactly sleeping dogs given excitable defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson’s bluster after the opening rout. Richardson said he was watching Georgia earlier on game day but turned off his TV because Georgia plays “old man football” and that “if we execute, nobody in this league can touch us. Period.”
Too late to stay off the bulletin board, Richardson was muzzled on media day, leaving teammates to interpret his thoughts in less inflammatory fashion.
Linebacker Will Ebner agreed with Richardson’s assertion that many SEC schools play more of a basic style than some schools in the Big 12, emphasizing fundamentals over trickery.
“No matter what he says, I know he respects that team,” Ebner said. “A lot of that coming from Sheldon, he’s just excited.”