COLUMBIA — Missouri coach Gary Pinkel opened his Monday press conference with a discussion about the youth of his team, saying Illinois, the Tigers' opponent Saturday in St. Louis, is clearly more experienced than Missouri.
But he quickly dismissed using youth as a potential excuse for mistakes.
"Nobody cares," he said.
Following the loss of key contributors from last year's team, Pinkel said he and his staff have emphasized to players the importance of preparing well ahead of time in order to be competitive.
"(Do you) think our fans care if we lost one or two starters? Or 10 starters?" he said. "I don't care. That's the goal we always have, play the best you can play. That's what the best athletes do. You consistently do that with a lot of players, you'll win a lot of games. Any youth or lack of experience is absolutely, to me, insignificant. Bottom line, you go out and play, you compete and hopefully play your best game."
With so many new athletes likely to see significant playing time, Pinkel disregarded the results of the past two Arch Rivalry matchups, both won by Missouri.
"Whatever happens, I turn the page," he said. "I generally just look at personnel. You look at Illinois, what first stands out is their offense. Certainly (wide receiver Arrelious) Benn is a guy that you look at, very comparable to some of the great receivers in our league and the great receivers in the nation. We've got great respect for him.
"And then you look at (Illinois quarterback) Juice (Williams). He's gotten better each and every year. He had a great game against us a year ago. And you really respect the defense. So you know it's certainly just going to be a challenge."
When Missouri played Illinois to open the 2002 season, then-freshman Brad Smith started at quarterback and led the Tigers to a 33-20 victory. Smith remained the starter at MU for the rest of his eligibility. On Monday, Pinkel tried to put that debut in perspective.
"What I want every player to do is prepare their best and play their best," he said. "Honestly, Brad could have played an awful game but still Brad was going to be a great quarterback. It just happened that ... he did a lot of good things in that game and was exciting. We were fortunate to win the game."
Pinkel said facing a team like Illinois from a major conference puts a premium on learning quickly, but he expects players to be focused for any opponent.
"People ask me about starting ... with a game like this," he said. "You've got to play well right out of the chute to have a chance to win, and especially for us, with all the returning starters they have.
"I would like to think, regardless of who we're playing, we've prepared well. If you have to have a high-profile team (to play) to get your team to focus, then I would suggest you're probably going to have problems later in your season."
- Starting offensive lineman Dan Hoch, who sprained his knee during fall camp, is expected to play against Illinois. Backup linebacker Will Ebner, who suffered a minor neck injury, is considered questionable to play. Backup safety Jarrell Harrison, who dislocated his elbow, will not see game action. Pinkel estimated Harrison would at least sit out the first two or three games.
The depth chart released Monday also listed Munir Prince as a backup safety instead of a cornerback. He's likely to play there while Harrison recovers from injury.
"He will still play corner. He's done a great job here," Pinkel said of Prince. "We asked him if he could compete to get in there (at safety) because we're not sure how long Jarrell is going to be. With a great attitude, he said 'Yeah, I'll do that.' And that really helps us. He's a pretty impressive guy."
- Missouri isn't the only Big 12 team opening its season against a team from a BCS conference. Oklahoma State hosts Georgia on Saturday. Cowboys coach Mike Gundy said during Monday's Big 12 conference call that keeping things simple is important. "You don't have any time to work the kinks out," he said. "You have to be very careful in what you ask them (players) to do."