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Missouri quietly becomes a force in SEC East, eyeing third straight division title

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HOOVER, Alabama — Missouri has been one of the Southeastern Conference's best teams over the past two seasons, winning back-to-back Eastern Division titles and 23 total games.

But somehow, the Tigers often remain an afterthought in the conference they've called home for three years.

Veteran coach Gary Pinkel said Wednesday that he isn't particularly concerned with how the rest of the league views his program. Players say they've become almost used to being underestimated.

"We are going to be ready," quarterback Maty Mauk said. "It's not even a respect thing anymore. ... We are going to be disrespected. We are going to be on the bottom of everybody's polls, and it's something we can't control. So we aren't even going to worry about it."

Missouri returns 12 starters from last year's team that won the East then lost to Alabama in the league title game. Mauk has a 14-4 record as a starter and will have an experienced offensive line in front of him. Senior Russell Hansbrough is also back after running for 1,084 yards last season.

Mauk and the Tigers specialized in winning ugly last year, ranking in the middle to bottom of the SEC in several offensive categories. Mauk threw for 2,648 yards, 25 touchdowns and 13 interceptions but completed a mediocre 53 percent of his pass attempts. He also ran for 373 yards and two TDs.

PHOTO: Missouri's Evan Boehm speaks to the media at the Southeastern Conference NCAA college football media days, Wednesday, July 15, 2015, in Hoover, Ala. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)
Missouri's Evan Boehm speaks to the media at the Southeastern Conference NCAA college football media days, Wednesday, July 15, 2015, in Hoover, Ala. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

Pinkel said he needs his quarterback to be more consistent if the Tigers are going to have a shot at a third division title. Missouri ranked 11th out of 14 SEC teams last season in passing efficiency and 13th in total offense.

"Last year, I had my ups and downs," Mauk said. "We won, but sometimes it was sloppy, and I don't want it to be sloppy. The main thing is that I don't want to just talk about it; I want to go out there and do it. I have to improve on accuracy."

The Tigers will also have to find a way to replace defensive stars Markus Golden and Shane Ray, who are now in the NFL after combining for a remarkable 42 1/2 tackles for a loss last season.

Missouri expects to lean more on the secondary for production, especially veteran cornerbacks Aarion Penton and Kenya Dennis.

"We have a lot more experience than we usually have back there," Dennis said. "We have chemistry. We've played together a lot. We've seen a lot of reps together in practice. I feel like that's something the defensive line can look to and lean on."

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