HOOVER, Ala. — Texas A&M football coach Kevin Sumlin recognizes the challenges facing the Aggies as they prepare for their first season in the Southeastern Conference.
It was clear when Sumlin — who also is entering his first year at Texas A&M — was asked about the prospects of competing in a division which has produced three straight national champions.
“What’s my assessment?” Sumlin said during SEC Media Days. “It’s a pretty damn hard league.”
Texas A&M and Missouri, who officially became SEC members on July 1, made their debut at the conference’s kickoff event Tuesday. And the move from the Big 12 dominated discussion in the Wynfrey Hotel.
The door officially opened to a new world loaded with challenges for both programs. But the Aggies and Tigers insisted they’re not intimidated Tuesday.
Missouri wide receiver T.J. Moe even joked about SEC perks to enjoy as they move forward.
“The girls are prettier. The air is fresher. And the toilet paper is thicker,” Moe said.
Texas A&M steps into the SEC after going 7-6 under former coach Mike Sherman, whose team was notorious for crumbling in the second half of games.
Missouri went 8-5 under coach Gary Pinkel, notching its sixth straight season of eight wins.
Representatives from both programs were peppered with questions about how they plan to compete in a conference that boasts six straight national titles.
But Pinkel, who is 85-54 in 11 years with the Tigers, said it’s not the only place he hears the talk.
“I’ve got a place down in Florida, go down there sometimes. People act like we’ve been playing a bunch of high school teams,” Pinkel said. “We’ve played in a pretty big league. … Bottom line: You’ve got to go out and prove yourself. And I’m fine with it.”
Pinkel added he would be disappointed if his team was intimidated about competing this season. So would Sumlin, who said the goal — winning games — never changes no matter the conference or competition.
Linebacker Sean Porter said it’s the only approach.
“I’ve played in some intense games,” Porter said. “I’ve played some games against Oklahoma when they were ranked pretty high. I’ve played Texas. … So when people say the caliber of play is going to change so much, I don’t know how much better it can get.”
Arkansas and South Carolina, who endured their struggles in the conference when they first arrived in 1992, can be used as a blueprint for both schools.
The Razorbacks went 3-4-1 in SEC games under interim coach Joe Kines that season. South Carolina, meanwhile, was 3-5 under former coach Sparky Woods.
Arkansas did reach the SEC Championship Game in its fourth year in the conference. It took the Gamecocks nine seasons to produce a winning record. Both teams challenged for the SEC title in 2011, won 11 games, and are regarded among the league’s best for 2012.
“We all know how it works,” Pinkel said. “It’s in the process. How is Missouri and Texas A&M going to do in the SEC? There’s going to be an analysis every single week. You have to go out and play and compete.”
Moe said the Tigers are prepared. He said they gained respect in the Big 12 and will do it again in the SEC.
“We’re still the red-headed stepchild coming in until we earn our place and that’s fine,” Moe said.
Missouri opens its conference schedule with a home game against Georgia, which the Tigers are touting as the biggest in school history. The outcome could go a long way in shaping the SEC East championship race and whether Missouri will be part of it.
Texas A&M appears to have a tougher road in 2012, facing each of the past six national champions (Florida, Alabama, LSU and Auburn). They’re also competing in a division that includes Arkansas, which is 21-5 the past two seasons.
“We knew that when we took the job,” Sumlin said. “We understand the challenges ahead of us. We understand that it’s going to be a difficult, but exciting year.”
Porter said it won’t be an overwhelming one, though, as both teams open play in a challenging conference.
“We’ll come to the SEC ready,” Porter said. “I don’t think it will be too much of a culture shock for us.”