'Bama casts doubt on Mizzou's SEC progress
OCT 13, 2012 6:07p ET
It was another wretched Saturday, another rout that ripped the Tigers' hearts, their tour of Southeastern Conference pain producing its fourth and most definitive clubbing.
Is this what has become of Mizzou's season of transition: A thorough 42-10 flogging by No. 1 Alabama that stood as little surprise to most who ventured to a subdued Memorial Stadium? Is this what has become of a campaign that began with hope and hype: A battered team that played before a crowd that rivaled most spring games here, after a lightning delay led to a traffic jam on nearby streets with the Tigers down 27 points in the second quarter?
Answers: Yes, and sadly. Nothing about the Crimson Tide's steamrolling was a shock — they outgained the Tigers 533 yards to 129 and coasted in the second half – but it offered a glimpse at how much the buzz that accompanied Missouri's move has deflated.
Losing late to Georgia was a letdown but forgivable. Being routed by South Carolina was a disappointment and sprouted red flags. Face-planting against Vanderbilt was surreal and created doubt.
Now this? Missouri and Alabama sliding on wet turf in the second half before a crowd fit for the Mid-American Conference?
MIZ-SEC? More like MIZ-SOS.
"Your first year in any conference is pretty tough," said Missouri junior wide receiver L'Damian Washington, who had four catches for 72 yards.
"You don't know what to expect. I think right now, we're basically learning. Right now is where we need to draw the line in the sand and say, ‘Hey, let's get going. Let's finish out the season strong and get to a bowl game.' I think we've learned a lot of lessons so far this season."
A lasting lesson should be this: The Tigers (3-4, 0-4 in the SEC) are far from deep enough to earn relevance in the SEC's piranha pit. Their remaining schedule includes Kentucky and Florida, Tennessee and Texas A&M, with a game against Syracuse tossed into that witches' brew.
For Missouri, none of those tests will be a guaranteed victory. The Tigers' seven-year bowl streak gasps a deeper breath with each postgame address by coach Gary Pinkel that includes the words, "I'm responsible." Declining optimism about their ability to scratch out victories, justified by the week, is a spiral unseen here since a 5-6 campaign in 2004.
Consider the change. In recent years, a visiting opponent of Alabama's caliber would have produced more anticipation than reasons to wince. The Tigers would have clawed with quarterbacks Chase Daniel and Blaine Gabbert, if not sprung the upset, like they did against then-BCS No. 1 Oklahoma in 2010.
This is a different era. This is a different team.
Afterward, in the bowels of Memorial Stadium, Pinkel spoke like a man scarred by his SEC knife fight. The approaching bye week couldn't crawl fast enough – Missouri next plays Kentucky on Oct. 27 – and he knew it represented a chance to salvage what's left of a slate with fangs.
"I think they're frustrated, disappointed," Pinkel said of his players. "If you're a competitor, you are. You should be. We've got a chance to fix some things here and finish this thing the right way. It's going to be difficult, but that's OK."
It's intriguing to consider how strong Missouri would be with a team that didn't require its own infirmary wing. This group, especially on the offensive line, is held together with baling wire. Injuries have become the Tigers' crutch, and Pinkel has grown weary of the narrative – as he should.
Still, the topic lingers like the stench of rotten eggs. Junior quarterback James Franklin missed a game for the second time this season, sidelined because of a strained MCL in his left knee sustained against Vanderbilt. Freshman Corbin Berkstresser looked less doe-eyed Saturday than he did a week ago in the backup role, completing 12 of 29 passes for 126 yards with two interceptions. Still, he was little more than a yield sign in Alabama's march of terror.
"I think Missouri is ready for this league," Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban said, trying to calm the waters. "I think they have a lot of guys injured. … Their quarterback is a very, very good player. Certainly (he) has a lot of experience running an offense, and he wasn't able to play today. Although I think the backup guy's done a really good job for them, they have several guys hurt on the offensive line."
Missouri remains hurt in more ways than one, four games into an inaugural SEC season gone sour. Afterward, junior defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson stood near his locker room and tried to capture the frustration.
Two months ago, the Tigers talked about earning respect. Two months ago, they talked about proving their worth. Two months ago, they talked about showing they can compete with more than a puncher's chance against the SEC's largest fists.
"At the beginning of the season, I never thought our season would turn out like this," he said, looking annoyed. "We won eight games last year. We're going to try to go to a bowl game, period."
Another sullen Saturday came and went, and that goal appears less likely by the hour.
You can follow Andrew Astleford on Twitter @aastleford or email him at email@example.com.