The ninth-ranked Tigers left the Big 12 two years ago, got off to a rocky start but won the SEC East Division this season in somewhat of a surprise.
The question came up again with Missouri (11-2) representing the SEC in the Cotton Bowl tonight against No. 13 Oklahoma State (10-2), its former Big 12 and Big Eight rival.
“We didn’t change anything, how we recruit or how we train our student-athletes other than trying to keep our players healthy in the grind you go in,” said Pinkel, whose team lost to No. 2 Auburn in the SEC championship game. “The Big 12 has some real good football teams, but the SEC just has more. That is the difference.”
Pinkel diplomatically pointed out Thursday that there are 14 teams in the SEC. The Big 12 has 10.
Like it has in recent national championship games, the SEC has dominated the Cotton Bowl — winning nine of the last 10 games in the Dallas area, all against Big 12 teams. The lone exception was Missouri, then in the Big 12, defeating Arkansas six years ago.
Oklahoma State came close to an overall league title this season, falling short of a Big 12 championship and the Bowl Championship Series after losing 33-24 at home to Oklahoma in the regular season finale.
“It’s been tough,” said All-Big 12 cornerback Justin Gilbert, one of 28 Oklahoma State seniors. “‘We’re just grateful that we get another opportunity ... so we don’t have to end on that.”
When they were Big 12 rivals, Oklahoma State won the last three games, including a 45-24 victory in Columbia in 2011 when Missouri quarterback James Franklin threw three interceptions.
Oklahoma State is trying to win 11 games for the third time in four seasons. Before Mike Gundy became the coach in 2005, the Cowboys had never won 11 games.
Missouri is going for its 12th win, which would match the school record set with its Cotton Bowl victory six years ago. This is already their fourth season with at least 10 wins in that span.
“2007 was important for us, it was kind of us getting going,” Pinkel said. “We got a pretty good boost out of it, but it’s all about consistency.”
Here are three things to know when former Missouri and Oklahoma State meet in a bowl for the first time:
FRANKLIN AND CHELF: Franklin’s last two seasons at Mizzou have been plagued by injuries. Oklahoma State senior Clint Chelf lost his starting job for parts of this season.
The senior quarterbacks wrap up their college careers starting the Cotton Bowl.
Franklin missed most of four games during the middle of this season with a shoulder sprain. He has 8,481 total yards and 72 touchdowns in his 41 career games.
Chelf started the opener for the Cowboys, but was replaced for several weeks before regaining his starting spot. He has thrown for 1,792 yards with 15 TDs and six interceptions this season.
BIG 12 REUNIONS: Missouri and Texas A&M both left the Big 12 for the SEC after the 2011 season. Ironically, in both seasons since, they’ve represented the SEC in the Cotton Bowl, which through this year’s game has matched teams from those two leagues.
When a four-team playoff replaces the BCS next season, the Cotton Bowl will become part of the rotation to host semifinal games.
BEEN ON BOTH SIDES: When Gundy was the offensive coordinator at Oklahoma State from 2001-04 before becoming the Cowboys coach, the tight ends coach and recruiting coordinator was Josh Henson, who stayed for Gundy’s first year as head coach before going to LSU and then Missouri in 2009.
Gundy and Henson, who spent countless hours together preparing game plans, are on opposite sides in the Cotton Bowl. Henson wraps up his first season as the Tigers’ offensive coordinator, a promotion he got after last season.
ONE TO BE BEST: Pinkel has 101 wins in his 13 seasons as Missouri’s coach, matching Don Faurot (1935-42, 46-56) for the most in school history. Pinkel, who went to Missouri after 10 seasons at Toledo, is 174-100-3 overall.
Of the current 14 SEC coaches, none has been at their school longer than Pinkel. Mark Richt arrived at Georgia in 2001, the same year Pinkel joined the Tigers.
FINISH AND START: Oklahoma State is playing the first of consecutive games at the Dallas Cowboys’ massive NFL stadium.
After ending this season tonight in the Cotton Bowl, Oklahoma State will be back in the stadium to start their 2014 season against Florida State on Aug. 30 in the annual Labor Day weekend college game at the stadium.