COLUMBIA, Mo. — One school is looking for its first Southeastern Conference win — ever. The other continues a century-long quest for SEC respect and relevance, let alone a rare winning season.
Missouri (3-2, 0-2 SEC) and Vanderbilt (1-3, 0-2) don't have much of a rivalry. The schools have only played four times and last met more than 50 years ago, though they first squared off in 1895.
Missouri continues to seek SEC success in its first season after leaving the Big 12. The Tigers lost lopsided conference games to No. 5 Georgia and No. 6 South Carolina, both by 21-point margins. And they will be without wide receiver Dorial Green-Beckham, one of five freshmen suspended one game after a Wednesday night campus drug bust.
Green-Beckham and teammates Torey Boozer and Levi Coeplin were arrested on misdemeanor drug charges after allegedly being caught smoking marijuana in a parking lot near Memorial Stadium.
One week before a visit from No. 1 Alabama, Missouri can't afford to look past the Commodores, who have just two winning seasons in 30 years and five bowl appearances in school history. Missouri is seeking its eighth straight bowl appearance under coach Gary Pinkel, but a home loss this weekend could jeopardize that streak. Missouri's conference schedule includes trips to No. 10 Florida and Tennessee, and a regular season home finale versus fellow Big 12 expat Texas A&M.
"This is just as big as any Georgia game or Alabama game," said cornerback E.J. Gaines, who collected a career-high 13 tackles in the Tigers' 21-16 win at Central Florida last week. "We need a victory this week."
Second-year Vanderbilt coach James Franklin, who is not related to the Missouri quarterback with the same name, led the once-woeful Commodores to a 6-6 regular season record and a Liberty Bowl berth in 2011 after consecutive 2-10 seasons preceding his arrival. The 'Dores played South Carolina tough in a 17-13 Week 1 loss in Nashville but lost to Georgia 48-3 in Athens and by 10 points at No. 24 Northwestern.
Vanderbilt's only win this season was a 48-point shutout of Presbyterian, a lower-level Football Championship Subdivision school.
Franklin, a former offensive coordinator at Maryland and Kansas State who also coached NFL wide receivers with the Green Bay Packers, said the challenges of competing in SEC football as an academically rigorous private school haven't gone away.
"We've been dealing with those challenges since the day we arrived on campus," he said. "That's part of the culture change, that's part of the expectations, and that's part of the process we're still working through."
Franklin said he expects senior Jordan Rodgers to start at quarterback, though he replaced the younger brother of Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers with Wyoming transfer Austyn Carta-Samuels for the Presbyterian game. Rodgers started against Georgia and completed 13 of 23 passes for 218 yards with no interceptions and no touchdowns.
Vanderbilt faces Missouri after a bye week, the second of three straight Tiger opponents to get an extra week of preparation. Pinkel downplayed the significance of the free week for his opponents.
"I would love to have two weeks to prepare for every team we play," he said. "If you have a bye, it's good, but if you don't, you don't really think about it because it doesn't really matter.. ..It doesn't change anything we do."
Missouri's injury-plagued offensive line expects the return of starting left tackle Elvis Fisher, who missed three games with a knee injury. The three-year starter also missed the 2011 season after tearing his left anterior cruciate ligament in the preseason, gaining a sixth year of eligibility counting his redshirt season.
Pinkel was among the most vocal advocates at Missouri for bolting the Big 12 in favor of the SEC, even if he now realizes that joining the conference responsible for the last six national champions can make for some sleepless nights.
"The big thing I see in this league — and I knew it going into it — there's just a lot more good teams," he said. "That's the difference. Not to be disrespectful to anybody. That's just fact."
Alan Scher Zagier can be reached at http://twitter.com/azagier
Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company