COLUMBIA, Mo. – It's a new year and the same old story at Missouri, coming off a 12-win season and once again lightly regarded. Time to show 'em all — again.
Getting picked to finish fourth in the Eastern Division should serve as motivation for a program being marked down because of the long list of players who have departed.
"We're guys trying to prove ourselves," offensive tackle Mitch Morse said. "I personally like coming from behind, I enjoy it."
Nine players are in NFL camps, including first-round pick Kony Ealy, second-rounder Justin Britt, sixth-rounder E.J. Gaines and SEC co-defensive player of the year Michael Sam.
Coach Gary Pinkel points out before that stinker of a 5-7 debut in the Southeastern Conference that was sabotaged by key injuries, the Tigers had played in seven consecutive bowl games. Though there are nine returning starters, seven others have starting experience and both specialists are back.
Quarterback Maty Mauk is back after going 3-1 in the SEC when James Franklin was injured. He had 11 touchdown passes and just two interceptions. Tailbacks Russell Hansbrough and Marcus Murphy combined for 1,286 yards and 13 touchdowns last season behind Henry Josey,
Guard Anthony Gatti and cornerback Aarion Penton had two starts apiece and Ian Simon made seven starts as the fifth defensive back.
"We've got a lot of guys who played a lot last year," Pinkel said. "We've got a much more experienced team than I think it might appear."
Here are some things to watch at Missouri this season:
HE'S NO. 1: Missouri washed out the bad taste from its defensive collapse in the SEC championship game by beating Oklahoma State in the Cotton Bowl. Pinkel passed Don Faurot for first on the school's career win list and is 102-63 in 13 seasons with the Tigers. Twice, Pinkel has led Missouri to school-record 12-win seasons.
RECEIVING LINE: Marcus Lucas, L'Damian Washington and Dorial Green-Beckham combined for 167 catches and 25 touchdowns last season and all must be replaced, the first two because they ran out of eligibility and the third because he was kicked off the team this spring and is now at Oklahoma. That means it's time to step up for wide receivers Bud Sasser, who had 26 catches, and Jimmie Hunt, who had 22. Senior Darius White, a Texas transfer who caught seven passes, also is expected to start.
Pinkel has told incoming freshmen they could be in line to contribute right away, too.
"It can be a walk-on guy, we don't really care who it is," Sasser said. "You've got to let them know they've got a good chance, especially right now."
The returning cast is already down one. Sophomore Levi Copeland was suspended for the season and loses a year of eligibility for using a supplement banned by the NCAA that Pinkel said was purchased at a "supplement store at the mall."
ON THE LINE: Senior Markus Golden is the rare junior college transfer that Pinkel has named a team captain, and leads a pass rush moving on without Sam and Ealy. Golden led defensive linemen in tackles and had 6 1/2 sacks. Junior Shane Ray also was a major contributor in the rotation with 4 1/2 sacks and a key fumble return for a touchdown in the Cotton Bowl.
MR. VERSATILE: While the Tigers are thin at wide receiver, they're deep at tailback. So Murphy, who led the team with 1,425 all-purpose yards and totaled 10 touchdowns, is getting a long look in the slot. Murphy, a senior, last played wide receiver in high school. But he was used out of the backfield a lot last year on swing routes and dump-off passes.
"They just want to give me open-field space, find different ways to get me the ball," Murphy said. "I think it'll add a little element to our offense."
SCHEDULE CHALLENGE: Two of the pre-conference games could be tests, Toledo on the road and Fiesta Bowl champion Central Florida at home in Weeks 2 and 3, and the only true gimme is the opener Aug. 30 against South Dakota State. The first four games could set up an SEC slate that opens at South Carolina on Sept. 27. The Tigers also play at Florida, Texas A&M and Tennessee.