Yes, they’re all important. One of the great things about college football is the fact that there is no preseason. Missouri has little experience at wide receiver? Well, they’ll have to trot out there on Aug. 30 against South Dakota State for the first time together – in a game that’s for real. There are no do-overs. So with all respect to Fiesta Bowl champion Central Florida, Big Ten foe Indiana and a host of SEC opponents…here are the five important matchups for the Tigers this season, in chronological order:
1) Sept. 6 at Toledo: Gary Pinkel returns to the school he coached for a decade (1991-2000), guiding the Rockets to three division titles and a conference championship. Pinkel is the all-time winningest coach at Toledo. Accordingly, the Tigers must enter the Glass Bowl knowing that this is Toledo’s Super Bowl. SEC teams rarely venture north, let alone into MAC territory. Mizzou must get off to a good start and let its talent take over the game. Last year, Toledo hung around a little too long in an eventual 38-23 loss to the Tigers at Faurot Field.
2) Sept. 27 at South Carolina: The Tigers lost a heartbreaker at home to the Gamecocks last season, 27-24 in double overtime. Now Mizzou returns to the “other Columbia” to pay another visit to raucous Williams-Brice Stadium. Steve Spurrier’s team has its sights set on the first SEC Championship in school history. Can Missouri, the defending SEC East champion, rise to the occasion on the road? Quarterback Maty Mauk will have to block out the noise and find a way to keep the chains moving against a good South Carolina defense.
3) Oct. 11 vs. Georgia: The biggest game of the season, regardless of what happens in South Carolina. If the Tigers pull off the upset at Williams-Brice, they return home with a chance to establish power in the SEC East against the Bulldogs. If Mizzou loses to the Gamecocks on September 27, they will have two weeks to recover and prepare for this must-win home game — and avoid starting 0-2 in conference play. Georgia will likely be steaming about last season’s 41-26 loss in Athens, a defeat some blamed on injuries. Meanwhile, in that game, Mauk replaced an injured James Franklin and helped Mizzou secure a victory. Columbia will be revved up for this game; defending the home turf will go a long way in establishing SEC credibility.
4) Oct. 18 at Florida: Among the SEC media, the Gators are widely considered the third-best team in the East — ahead of Missouri — something that probably doesn’t sit well with the Tigers. In Gainesville, every game will be held under a microscope and could quite possibly determine the fate of coach Will Muschamp. Florida is loaded with talent, but has taken a step back from its elite status the past few years. Muschamp, who enters his fourth season, sandwiched a trip to the Sugar Bowl in 2012 with unsightly records of 7-6 and 4-8. That just won’t do at Florida. Mizzou’s task will be to stay in the game by playing tough defense against what figures to be an improved offense. At least, Gators fans hope it’s improved. Florida, however, usually has no problem bringing it defensively. The Tigers must find a way to stop DE Dante Fowler from wreaking havoc.
5) Nov. 29 vs. Arkansas: The second half of Missouri’s schedule has some winnable games, with Vanderbilt and Kentucky at home and a chance to catch Tennessee on the road in a down year for the Volunteers. Texas A&M, minus Johnny Manziel, is still a force at home and will be difficult. But one of the most important games of the season for the Tigers to win is the last one, at home against Arkansas. Mizzou hasn’t played the Razorbacks in a regular season game since 1963. Coach Bret Bielema is trying to beef up the offensive line in recruiting and could end up tangling with Pinkel for some in-state products. This border rivalry is on low heat right now, but it’s a matter of time before it simmers. It’s best for the Tigers, in front of a national audience, to establish superiority now. Besides, if Mizzou is fortunate to win some big SEC games this season, this contest could very well decide its postseason fate.