SAN ANTONIO — Missouri coach Gary Pinkel used the word “potential” six times in his opening statement about his team at Tuesday’s Big 12 Conference media day.
The Tigers went 8-5 in 2006 and with nine starters back for one of the nation’s most powerful offenses, anything short of a trip to the league championship game will be a disappointment.
Missouri has never even won the Big 12 North and has only three winning seasons since 2000, so expectations this high are fairly rare around Columbia.
Pinkel says it’s vital for the Tigers to live up to them.
“Ultimately, to receive the respect you want to have, you have to win at a higher level than we’ve done,” Pinkel said. “I think we have the potential to be pretty good. But we’ll see.”
Missouri had the nation’s eighth-ranked offense in 2006. Quarterback Chase Daniel, the top five rushers and the top three receivers from last year are all back.
Pinkel stopped short of saying the offense is unstoppable.
“I wish we could score against anybody anytime,” Pinkel said. “That’s not the case or we probably would’ve gone undefeated. The challenge is can we reach the potential on offense?”
Pinkel expects an even better season from Daniel because he has more experienced targets this year.
“He’s got a lot of people around him,” Pinkel said. “A lot of people can make plays, most everybody we had a year ago.”
The Tigers had the 58th-ranked rushing defense last year and that cost them in losses to Texas A&M and Oklahoma. They lost five of their top seven tacklers, but Pinkel said that’s deceiving.
“We have more experience than what might appear,” he said. “We’re young in some of our backup spots, but I think we’ve also got some talent. We run well. We’ve got some depth there.”
Senior nose tackle Lorenzo Williams, who had six sacks last season, said facing one of the nation’s best offenses in practice is already helping the defense improve.
“We do a pretty good job of stopping them,” Williams said. “If we can keep them down, we can pretty much stick with any offense in the Big 12.”
Daniel and Williams talked about the upcoming season — and the hype — during a recent round of golf.
Missouri cracked the national rankings during their 6-0 start and the Tigers will draw on that to deal with it this year.
“Mentally, we got kind of strained, being 6-0, national spotlight. It got kind of tough keeping that same drive to keep winning,” Williams said. “If anything, you’ve got to learn from that situation, I think this year, it’ll be a little bit different.
“We’ve been through that situation now,” he said. “We’ve seen the ups and the downs.”
Williams is already counting down the practices to the Tigers’ season opener against Illinois — 26. The defense can’t wait to prove it’s just as much of a team strength as the offense.
“If you play defense and you don’t have a chip on your shoulder, you should play offense,” Williams said. “I’m happy our offense can put up points against anybody. I would rather that be the case than them not being able to score any points.
“Now, with us being kind of young on defense, the first couple of games will be crucial,” he said. “They’ve got to score a lot of points, so we can get into a rhythm and a chemistry. And then we’ll go from there.”
OK, so how will the offense live up to the hype? The Tigers averaged 31 points per game last season, but sputtered against the powerhouses on the schedule.
Much of that depends on Daniel, a junior who did not attend Tuesday’s media day. But senior tight end Martin Rucker said Daniel and the offense, like the program, are ready to show they belong among the nation’s elite.
“Everybody’s maturing,” Rucker said. “It comes with running these plays over and over. We only lost two people. We’ve got nine guys coming back who were starters and, on top of that, we’ve got a lot of backups coming back.”
Pinkel will do what he can to keep his players focused on the daily grind, not the ultimate goals they’re trying to reach.
“There are a lot of things to look at,” Pinkel said. “What we’ll do is focus on just trying to have the best football team you can, (and) see what happens.”