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July 17, 2012

Missouri, Texas A&M not afraid of SEC

HOOVER, Ala. -- They're not just the new kids, if you ask Missouri wide receiver T.J. Moe. The Tigers, in their first season in the Southeastern Conference, are still the "redheaded stepchild," Moe said.

But the Tigers are ready for their league opener on Sept. 8 against Georgia. If the Aggies and Tigers weren't sure about what awaited them, they got a better idea on Tuesday. Missouri coach Gary Pinkel and Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin were peppered with questions about the challenges of joining the conference on the first day of SEC Media Days.

"What's my assessment?" Sumlin said. "It's a pretty damn hard league."

Texas A&M will face each of the last six national champions this year (Florida, LSU, Alabama and Auburn), a fact of life with which Sumlin has become well-acquainted. He's been asked about SEC speed, about how he'll contend with a conference full of vicious defenses, and whether his pass-happy offense will fly.

Pinkel, a coaching veteran in his 12th year at Missouri, has had to contend with all the same questions since the end of the season. By Tuesday, he'd heard enough about the SEC and fired back with a response about the Big 12.

"People act like we've been playing a bunch of high school teams," Pinkel said. "We've played in a pretty big league."

That gives the Aggies and Tigers hope that they'll be competitive in the SEC. South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said he wouldn't be surprised if either team contends for their division championship in their first season.

There's definite excitement at Texas A&M and Missouri. Pinkel and Sumlin both said their players, fans, and coaches are anxious to kick the season off. But among the many feelings associated with the move, fear isn't one of them.

"We know we can come in and win football games and we don't want to be overlooked as the new guys in the conference," Texas A&M wide receiver Ryan Swope said. "We're coming in with the attitude of competing."

Sumlin said his expectations are "to win," though he was respectful of what the SEC had accomplished in recent years. There are lots of new things for the Aggies and Tigers to contend with, but they're enthusiastic about what lies ahead.

"The girls are prettier, the air is fresher," Moe said. "I'm sure the toilet paper is thicker."

Moe was joking, but Pinkel and Sumlin were serious. They know what they've signed up for, as Sumlin said. They expect their players to know the same.

"I'd be disappointed if we were intimidated," Pinkel said.


A&M still deciding on quarterback

Add a new quarterback to the list of changes Texas A&M is undergoing this offseason. The Aggies lost Ryan Tannehill, the No. 8 overall pick in the NFL draft this spring, with no clear starter behind him.

Sumlin and his staff still are undecided on a starting quarterback, and the position battle there could continue late into fall camp. Sophomore Jameill Showers and redshirt freshman Johnny Manziel probably have the best shot, but true freshman Matt Davis and sophomore Matt Joeckel could also be in the mix.

"I feel real good about our athletic ability and talent level at quarterback," Sumlin said. "So those guys will compete in two-a-days and we'll figure out who that is and name a starter a couple weeks, at the latest, before the Louisiana Tech game."

Waiting to name a starter isn't anything new to Sumlin. He did the same at Houston as head coach and as offensive coordinator at Oklahoma before that. He's also familiar with most of his quarterbacks, as he and his staff had recruited them while at Houston.

But while Sumlin insisted the competition is open, wide receiver Ryan Swope mentioned only Showers when asked about the quarterback situation.

"He's got a great arm," Swope said. "He's got great technique and can really throw the ball. He can zip it. He feels very comfortable. Smart quarterback. He has so many great skills and I'm really excited for him because he's been working hard and waiting for this opportunity. Now that it's here I think he's really going to cherish it and do well and make great strides."

Whoever wins the starting job could put up impressive numbers early. Sumlin's "air raid" offense ranked second, first, 11th and first nationally in his four years coaching at Houston, respectively. The Cougars averaged 599.1 yards of offense a game in 2011 and quarterback Case Keenum threw 67 passes in the final game Sumlin coached.

The Aggie quarterback also will have the advantage of throwing to a pair of the nation's top wide receivers. Swope and Uzoma Nwachukwu, both seniors, were named to the preseason watch list for the Biletnikoff Award on Tuesday, given annually to the nation's top receivers. Swope had 89 catches for 1,207 yards and 11 touchdowns last year while Nwachukwu had 50 catches for 639 yards and two touchdowns.

"Showers has had a good summer. He's worked hard," Swope said. "He's done a lot of the little things that are going to help him become a better football player. He got stronger in the weight room, he's put in the extra time throwing it, texting the receivers to go work out."

Spurrier avoids retirement talk

South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier is entering his 20th year coaching in the league, but told the media retirement isn't on his mind.

The 67-year-old said he initially planned on coaching 8-10 years at South Carolina when he arrived in Columbia before the 2005 season. He's now entering his eighth year coaching the Gamecocks, but didn't appear to be anywhere close to finishing his career when asked about retirement on Tuesday.

"Those years go by quickly and here we are in our eighth year," Spurrier said. "But it's very convenient and really, it's not a stressful job I have. I know some of these coaches tell you how stressful their job is. We have excellent assistant coaches … Just an excellent group of guys that can coach their positions and so forth. It's not a stressful job."

One of his goals when he first took the job was to become the winningest coach in school history, a goal he can take aim at this season. Spurrier is 55-35 at South Carolina through seven years and finished at least .500 in each season.

Rex Enright, who coached the Gamecocks from 1938-1955 (except for a three-year stint in the Navy during World War II), is currently South Carolina's winningest head coach. Enright finished his career with a record of 64-69-7 in 15 years at South Carolina.

The job has improved for Spurrier in the last two years as well. He had a knee replaced after last season, and has gone 20-7 in the last two years. He's able to redshirt more freshmen now than he did when he first took the job, and recruiting has gotten easier as facilities for the program have improved. The Gamecocks just finished a new academic center and built new locker rooms and trainer's rooms in recent years. South Carolina's next project is an indoor practice facility.

"I wanted to try to see what we could do at South Carolina," he said. "I just thought it was a state and a university with tremendous potential that maybe hadn't quite been run right. Or maybe with some new facilities, we'd have a chance to achieve stuff that never happened before."

League injury update

South Carolina junior tailback Marcus Lattimore is expected to be ready for fall camp at "full speed" after suffering a torn ACL in a 14-12 win over Mississippi State on Oct. 15 of last season. Lattimore ran for 818 yards last year before being injured in the seventh game of the season.

Texas A&M tailback Christine Michael is at 100 percent and ready to return to the field, Sumlin said. Michael suffered a torn ACL in Texas A&M's 41-25 loss to Oklahoma on Nov. 5 of last season. He was ready to return to the field for spring practice, Sumlin said, but was taken off the field two or three weeks in to keep him healthy. Michael ran for 899 yards and eight touchdowns in nine games before suffering the injury.

Missouri quarterback James Franklin is expected to be 100 percent for the start of fall camp, Pinkel said. Franklin is recovering after undergoing surgery on March 23 for a torn labrum in his right (throwing) shoulder. Franklin passed for 2,865 yards while running for 981 yards and had 36 total touchdowns as a sophomore in 2011.

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