COLUMBIA — Missouri is learning the hard way that the Southeastern Conference offers different challenges than the Big 12 did. The Tigers football team failed to qualify for a bowl game for the first time since 2004, posting a 5-7 record in the conference that has produced the last eight national champions. The men’s basketball team has yet to win a road game in conference play.
All signs point to tougher competition against higher profile programs for Missouri's baseball team as well.
“I tried to tell everybody it’s a different kind of ballgame,” said first baseman Michael McGraw, who hails from Newman, Ga. “Just the money that’s put forth in their programs, the intensity that the program runs with and the emphasis they get. In the SEC, I would put baseball above basketball most years.”
The Tigers might have some momentum after going on a tear to win the Big 12 tournament and earn a spot in the regional round of the NCAA tournament last season. Still, the 2012 Tigers were by no means dominant in their former conference, posting a mediocre 10-14 record in Big 12 play before their postseason success.
Based on last year’s results, the SEC provided statistically stiffer competition than the Big 12 did. According to WarrenNolan.com, a college sports statistics website, the SEC boasted the nation’s top Rating Percentage Index, a metric that measures strength of competition, in 2012 with a score of .5728. The Big 12 provided the fourth toughest competition with an RPI of .5435.
This season’s preseason polls also reflect the perceived strength of the SEC compared to the Big 12. The College Baseball Insider composite poll, which incorporates the results of five different national polls, lists seven SEC teams in the preseason top 20, excluding Missouri, and three teams in the top five. Only TCU and Oklahoma cracked the top 20 from the Big 12, both in the bottom half.
While some of the Tigers admitted to checking out the polls, they all denied putting any stock into preseason rankings. Outfielder Dane Opel, who led the Big 12 in home runs last season, cited an SEC rival’s disappointing football season as an example of polls’ futility.
“Arkansas was one of the top in the polls in football this year and they were one of the worst teams,” Opel said. “Polls are so 'Who’s there, who’s that?’ It doesn’t really count until we play.”
One area where the Tigers might also struggle to compete with their SEC peers is in the stands. In 2012, MU baseball drew an average of 824 fans per game. Multiply that number by two and the Tigers’ attendance number would still be more than 250 fans short of the 13th-ranked school in the SEC, Tennessee. LSU topped the attendance charts nationwide with an average of 10,736 fans per game.
In addition to implementing several marketing techniques, including a baseball student section, the athletics department is hoping the draw of the SEC’s higher caliber opponents will bring fans through the turnstiles. Still, even if all goes well, a capacity crowd at Taylor Stadium is still less than the average crowd for an SEC baseball game.
Head coach Tim Jamieson said he isn’t concerned about his team’s ability to play in front of bigger, more passionate crowds on the road. He also isn’t fazed by the conference change because, well, it isn’t his first taste of such a transition.
“When we went from the Big 8 to the Big 12 and the four Texas schools were added to the conference, it seemed like every year we had to prove ourselves no matter what we had done the previous year,” Jamieson said. “I think it’s the same way in the SEC. We’re a northern team and we’ve had a lot of success nationally, but relative to those other teams we’re gonna have to prove ourselves.”
Supervising editor is Greg Bowers