The three ring circus known as SEC Media Days came to a close yesterday and per usual they did not disappoint. It’s a magical time of year where all 14 of the SEC Football coaches and select players gather in Hoover, Alabama to have their brains picked by the 818 media members who were able to obtain a credential. You can set your watch to Steve Spurrier throwing out snarky comments, Les Miles struggling with the English language, and Nick Saban having micro-meltdowns; but with all the crazy happening at Media Days there are usually some good questions raised. This year was no different when one of the main talking points early on was how Missouri and Texas A&M would react to playing in the nation’s premier football conference. Most seem to think that they would struggle due to the inevitable strength of schedule increase but Auburn coach, Gene Chizik, seemingly thinks different. “I’ll tell you what, I don’t think a lot of people are giving Texas A&M and Missouri the credit they deserve,” said Chizik in response, “I will say that standing up here because for four years I played in that league.” Strong words from the former Iowa State coach, but is it true?
Last season Texas A&M and Missouri finished with 7-6 and 8-5 records respectively. Despite their records saying they were merely above average, they played tough schedules and were competitive in nearly every game. Texas A&M, for example, came within 1 point of beating Oklahoma State, 4 points of Arkansas, 3 points of Kansas State, and 2 points of Texas so four of their six losses could have easily swung the other way changing the entire dynamic of their season. A majority of their victories were decisive so the argument can be made that the Aggies were much better than their record indicated. The Missouri Tigers led by twelfth year head coach, Gary Pinkel, have been a model of consistency, winning 12, 10, 8, 10, and 8 games in the past five seasons. While they were never able to take an ever so elusive conference title or BCS berth, they were consistently among the Big XII’s best. Over the years the two schools have remained steady in success (save A&M’s 4 win season in 2008) and have done so in one of the nations elite football conferences, but the question remains, how will it translate to the nation’s premier conference?
To evaluate any football team one should first look at who returns and how well those players have played in the past to give an indication of future performance. Missouri returns 5 starters on both offense and defense, including Quarterback James Franklin. Last season they finished ranked #31 in my rating system, so it appears as though with their returning pieces they could build and make a legitimate run in the Eastern Division. Unfortunately for Pinkel’s Tigers they must face Alabama, Georgia, and travel to South Carolina who are all legitimate BCS contenders. They also face similarly rated Florida, Tennessee, and Texas A&M on the road so it appears as though they may be a year or two from making a run at the East due to the steep competition. Texas A&M finds themselves in a much different situation than Missouri as they replaced their head coach and find themselves in the gauntlet known as the SEC West. They return 6 starters on offense, but lose Quarterback Ryan Tannehill, and only return 4 defensively. For A&M to be in contention in the West they have to go through BCS Title contenders LSU, Arkansas, and travel to Tuscaloosa to face Alabama. The Aggies also must face similarly rated Florida, Auburn, and Mississippi State so a division title run looks out of the question.
Both Texas A&M and Missouri have faced tough schedules in the past, but it has not been to the level of the SEC. Take last season for example, according to my power ratings the Big XII only had four top-30 teams including Texas A&M. Compare that to the SEC which fielded six top-30 teams, two of which were all-time great teams. It would be easy to say that due to the strength of schedule increase the success of both teams entering the conference will take a hit, but people quickly forget to evaluate what the individual team returns in order to combat the schedule. That being said the Tigers and Aggies don’t have the firepower to compete for SEC Divisional titles at the current juncture. The increased strength of their new schedules paired with their current skill levels wont allow that, but they should be competitive in nearly all of their contests against teams not named LSU and Alabama.