College football coaches have long been masters in the art of killing the upcoming opponent with flattery. Yet when he spoke about UK's foe this week, the admiration Kentucky Coach Mark Stoops expressed for Gary Pinkel's Missouri program seemed real.
"They've always played hard, and they win close games," Stoops said. "That's a credit to what they're doing and how they're coaching them. The energy that their team plays with is good."
What Pinkel has done the past two seasons at Missouri might be the most impressive SEC coaching job in my lifetime.
Since the start of the 2013 season, Missouri (3-0, 0-0 SEC) is 26-5. The Tigers are 14-2 in SEC regular-season contests. Mizzou has won 11 straight true road games.
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In contests decided by one touchdown or less, the Tigers are 7-2.
This stretch of Mizzou success is made even more amazing when you recall that, after the Tigers suffered through an injury-plagued 5-7 SEC debut in 2012, many had Pinkel on the coaching hot seat entering 2013.
Even more impressively, Missouri has done all this winning with rosters over which the recruiting gurus have yawned.
Let's wade through some numbers.
From 2010-15, Florida signed 12 five-star recruits (using the Rivals.com data base), Georgia and Tennessee inked seven each.
Missouri signed one — wide receiver Dorial Green-Beckham in 2012.
In that same six-year time frame, Florida and Tennessee each signed 69 four-star recruits, while Georgia got 66, South Carolina 48 and even Kentucky lured 21 four-stars.
Missouri signed 19.
Mizzou's run to back-to-back SEC East championships has been fueled by three-star recruits. The Tigers have signed 107 three-stars since 2010. Among SEC East schools, only UK signed more three-stars (111) from 2010-2015.
The billion-dollar question is what has allowed Pinkel and Missouri to take three-stars and win division titles over schools whose recruiting, on paper, has been far superior?
From a distance, it seems Missouri has out-evaluated, out-developed and out-coached other SEC schools with more resources, more tradition and far more bountiful in-state recruiting bases.
(It also seems an appropriate time to point out again that recruiting rankings are not the Holy Grail. There is abundant imprecision built into the highly subjective process of projecting how good teenaged high school players will be as they mature into college-aged men. But that's a different column.)
Missouri has seemed especially adept at recruiting players who fit its system defensively. Every year, the Tigers run out new defensive ends who are remarkably similar in their ability to wreak havoc on opponents' offenses.
Two seasons ago, it was Kony Ealy (a four-star recruit who became a second-round NFL Draft pick) and Michael Sam (from two-star recruit to 2013 SEC Defensive Player of the Year). Last season, it was Markus Golden (a three-star recruit who became a second-round NFL Draft pick) and Shane Ray (three-star recruit to 2014 SEC Defensive Player of the Year).
This year, it's a new cast with, so far, the same plot. Last week, redshirt freshman defensive end Walter Brady, an unheralded two-star recruit out of Florence, Ala., had two quarterback sacks to help Mizzou escape a Connecticut upset bid. The week before, sophomore defensive end Charles Harris, a two-star recruit from Kansas City, had 41/2 tackles for loss in a win at Arkansas State.
"Missouri, after playing them (a) third year in a row here, it starts with them up front," Stoops said. "They are disruptive up front, just like Florida. They play hard and play with an edge to them. I like that."
Were I coaching football at UK, I would go to school on every aspect of Missouri's blueprint. If the Tigers can make real noise in the Southeastern Conference, why can't Kentucky?
"They're a very well-coached team," Stoops says of Missouri. "I have a lot of respect for Gary Pinkel, what he's done and the way his teams play."
After the prior two seasons, everybody should.