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Road to Saturday: Missouri and Texas A&M take different paths during first SEC seasons

Frank Schwab
Dr. Saturday

Before the season, nobody knew what to expect from Missouri or Texas A&M in their first SEC seasons, but the experts did expect a little more from the Tigers.

It sounds odd now, but Missouri had higher expectations. In the SEC preseason media poll, Missouri was picked to finish fourth in the Eastern Division, with two first-place votes. Texas A&M was picked to finish fifth in the Western Division.

Instead, Texas A&M looks like it was meant to be in the SEC, and Missouri has had a very tough season.

Missouri is 5-6, needing to beat Texas A&M on Saturday to get bowl eligible. The Tigers made a bowl in each of their last seven Big 12 seasons. The Tigers are 2-5 in the SEC, and both teams they beat have fired their coaches already.

This isn't how it was supposed to go. Quarterback James Franklin was among the many good Tigers players coming back. The top recruit in the nation, receiver Dorial Green-Beckham, chose Missouri, which was surely a sign that the Tigers were going to recruit SEC-quality athletes.

Maybe the first year wouldn't be an incredible success, but the Tigers were on the right path. Or so it seemed.

The step up in competition has seemed overwhelming to the Tigers at times.

"I'll stand by this as I've said before because I'm not here to devalue anybody: To me, the difference between the Big 12 and the SEC is the SEC has a lot more good teams," Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said, according to the Columbia Daily Tribune . "I think that's fair to say. I think it's hard to argue that."

Missouri hasn't been helped by injuries. Franklin has been in and out of the lineup all year, and is questionable for Saturday's game because of a concussion. Four of the top six offensive linemen have been hurt. The rash of injuries can't just be chalked up to bad luck, however. The SEC is a more physical conference than Missouri is used to. It might take some time to get acclimated to that.

Missouri's season is even more disappointing because of Texas A&M's success. Each program came into the new league expected to take some lumps and needing some time to adjust its recruiting and culture to experience success in the SEC. That was what happened with Missouri. The opposite happened at Texas A&M.

Texas A&M's only two losses are to Florida and LSU by eight combined points. The Aggies have a season-defining win over Alabama and are in the top 10 of the BCS standings. Redshirt freshman quarterback Johnny Manziel is the leader in the Heisman Trophy race. He needs 167 yards to break Cam Newton's SEC record for total offense in a season. Kevin Sumlin's offense, which clicked so well at Houston, has worked surprisingly well in the SEC. Of the 50 players listed on Texas A&M's depth chart, only 12 are seniors. Texas A&M will be on a short list of national title contenders for 2013.

The future is very bright for the Aggies, especially with Manziel coming back for at least one more season.

"It's been fun," Sumlin said this week. "That's the biggest deal to me is how this team has come together and accepted this coaching staff from the beginning where there was a lot of tension to now where everything happens with ease. That's what makes coaching a lot of fun. It's amazing how fast the season has gone by."

The Aggies still have plenty to look forward to, for the rest of this season and beyond. It's not out of the question that Texas A&M could sneak into a BCS game if it catches enough breaks. Missouri's season is going by fast, too, but part of that is because it might end on Saturday. If it does end at Texas A&M, that's when the Tigers can officially start to regroup for a better showing in their second turn around the SEC.

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