COLUMBIA, Mo. - In their second year as a member of the Southeastern Conference, the 2013 Missouri Tigers earned 12 wins, an Eastern Division title and a Cotton Bowl trophy.
And though the team finished the season ranked No. 5 nationally, the program still hasn't entirely left its critics in the dust.
Gone are those claiming Missouri is too small, too soft and, heck, too far north to belong in the SEC. In their stead are new doubters.
It was a down year in the SEC, they say. You lost too many key players, they argue. Forget fifth-best; now you're 24th, they vote.
"I don't care if we're 1. I don't care if we're 100. We're gonna worry about South Dakota State, and then we'll work our way up," quarterback Maty Mauk said before the AP rankings were released.
The Tigers take the first step toward that ascension today (2:30 p.m. kickoff, ESPNU-TV) when they host South Dakota State at Faurot Field to open both teams' seasons. And Mauk will have a big role in deciding whether the team can work its way up again in 2014. He steps in behind center with the job to himself, a year after he filled in for an injured James Franklin and threw for 1,071 yards and 11 touchdowns.
Forget Mauktober. It's Maukgust 30, and changes in the calendar won't change the fact: It's Mauk's team now.
"He's a natural leader," 14th-year coach Gary Pinkel said Monday. "He's a very non-threatening leader. The players like him. He's got a great work ethic. He works hard, which is important for a leader. Obviously his is a position where he has to produce. There's no question the players believe in him."
His first game as full-time starter will come against the Jackrabbits, members of the Football Championship Subdivision (formerly Division I-AA). Missouri has never lost to an FCS school, but South Dakota State has the potential to avoid the "non-conference cupcake" designation.
The Jackrabbits are ranked 10th in the FCS coaches' poll and return quarterback Austin Sumner, the all-time Jackrabbit leader in completions and passing yards, and running back Zach Zenner, whose 4,259 career rushing yards are 218 away from an all-time Missouri Valley Football Conference best. Returning receiver Jason Schneider set a South Dakota State single-season record in 2013 with 78 catches and his 1,088 receiving yards were second-best all-time.
The Jackrabbits are led by John Stiegelmeier, who is in his 17th year as the South Dakota State head coach.
"He has consistency of winning. They won nine games a year ago and played two rounds in the playoffs, so I expect to see a very good football team," Pinkel said. "They've got a good quarterback, a good receiver. Like I mentioned before, they're very well coached and we've got a good football team coming in this Saturday."
South Dakota State averaged nearly 29 points per game last year and defeated Northern Arizona in the FCS playoffs before falling 13-3 to Eastern Washington. However, the Jackrabbits allowed 47 sacks last season, which could bode well for the Tigers' revamped defensive line.
Senior co-captain Markus Golden and junior Shane Ray step into the holes left by NFL draftees Kony Ealy and Michael Sam. Golden and Ray made plenty of noise last season, as Golden led the defensive line in tackles and the two combined for 11 sacks. Redshirt freshmen Charles Harris and Marcus Loud take over the backup roles, and noseguards Lucas Vincent (down five pounds) and Josh Augusta (up 35) should prove to be threats up the middle for a defensive line that figures to be one of Missouri's strengths this season. Senior Matt Hoch and sophomore Harold Brantley will share time at tackle.
"We have some depth there, and now you want to see it play well," Pinkel said. "You want to see it play itself out."
The Jackrabbits also allowed an average of 23.6 points per game in their 9-5 season (5-3 conference). The Missouri offense has an opportunity to finally find the consistency Pinkel said was lacking in the Tigers' three fall camp scrimmages.
Missouri hopes to get an inexperienced receiving corps in sync after the losses of L'Damian Washington and Marcus Lucas to graduation, Dorial Green-Beckham to team dismissal and Levi Copelin to suspension. Seniors Bud Sasser and Jimmie Hunt have 39 and 34 receptions apiece, and Darius White has 13 (only seven for Missouri). That's all for Tiger receivers on the roster. Green-Beckham, Lucas and Washington combined for 167 last season alone.
True freshmen Lawrence Lee and Nate Brown will play significant roles at receiver for Missouri this year. Senior tailback Marcus Murphy has also been spending time at receiver to boost depth.
Pinkel said he thinks the group can work well together.
"Running the right route, getting to the right spot, then catching the football; there are all these components to throwing a completion," he said. "We do a pretty good job of analyzing what our breakdowns are and what we need to do. We just need to keep working hard."
The game comes at the end of the first week of school for MU students.
"I think this week be the first time in five or six years that we have game week on the first day of school. Generally we start a week earlier," Pinkel said. "That's not ideal as a coach, but that's the way it's handed to us."
Although the season is opening in late August, temperatures are not expected to be quite as sweltering as those the Tigers have practiced in the past few weeks. Missouri will be wearing all-black uniforms.
"We're excited to get things going," Pinkel said. "I think we're at the point where we just want to go play and see where we're at."
GAME NOTES: Tailback Morgan Stewart is doubtful for the game with a hip injury. He was the only Tiger listed as injured on the week's depth chart. ... The two teams have never faced one another. ... A win would give Missouri its 13th straight season-opening win. Missouri hasn't lost a home opener since 2005, when New Mexico beat the Tigers 45-35.