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Missouri has shown it can compete in SEC

Missouri has shown it can compete in SEC
Coach Gary Pinkelhas guided Missouri to two consecutive SEC East Division titles, but this season will be his biggest challenge as the Tigers look to reload at some key positions. (Brynn Anderson / Associated Press)

The Times' annual college football countdown continues its march toward No. 1 with our pick for No. 22: Missouri.

Missouri should start selling "Three-Peat?" T-shirts.

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Wait, cease and desist on that: Pat Riley still owns the registered trademark dating to 1989 and the Lakers.

Better go with "Tiger Trois."

Missouri's unexpected claiming of consecutive divisional crowns has not gone over well with Southeastern Conference tailgaters who predicted a rude adjustment period when the Tigers left the Big 12 Conference three years ago for "America's League."

There were reasons to be skeptical: Missouri never won the Big 12 and has not claimed any league title outright since 1960.

Pundits have been quick to dismiss Missouri's success as ephemeral and fluky.

Missouri won the East two years ago after being picked to finish sixth in the preseason poll. Last year, the Tigers repeated as champions after being picked to finish fourth.

This summer, the media picked Missouri to finish third, behind Georgia and Tennessee.

The good news is Missouri is on track to being picked SEC East media preseason favorites in 2018.

Reality: The Tigers have gone 14-2 in league play the last two seasons, matching the record of Alabama. Yet, based on projections, you'd think the Tigers were middle of the country road.

What gives?

"I think it probably bothers my players a little bit more than me," Missouri Coach Gary Pinkel said at SEC media days this summer. "I don't really talk about that. I don't really go there."

We're going to call Pinkel out on that; privately, it bothers him plenty.

Also reality: The Tigers were lucky to join the SEC East, not the West, and caught the division as Florida and Tennessee were program napping.

Missouri also avoided some key crossover matchups in the SEC's dodge-ball schedule that requires schools to play only eight league games in a 14-team league.

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The Tigers also lost both of its trips to the SEC championship game.

Betting against Missouri, though, has been a money loser. That said, two teams from the East, Tennessee and Georgia, will rank higher than the Tigers in this top-25 countdown poll.

Missouri opens at No. 22 more out of homage (and as a hedge). There is no denying the program has proved it can compete in the SEC. Winning a third title, though, will not be easy.

The team returns tough-guy quarterback Maty Mauk, but loses all three starting receivers.

Also gone are star defensive ends Markus Golden and Shane Ray, who combined for 24.5 sacks last season. When Alabama loses that kind of talent, we say it doesn't matter because the Crimson Tide just reloads every year.

Pinkel's program has not yet earned that kind of respect. This does look like the year Missouri will fall short. Georgia is loaded in the East and clocked Missouri last year, 34-0, in Columbia. Tennessee is a rising program and Florida figures to get better fast with first-year Coach Jim McElwain.

Missouri, though, misses Auburn and Alabama again in the West, and should ride a lightweight schedule on the front end to a 4-0 record when it hosts South Carolina on Oct. 3.

Another key game to mark down: Oct. 17 at Georgia.

The top 25 so far: 25. Michigan; 24. Nebraska; 23. Utah.

Twitter: @DufresneLATimes

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