IRVING, Texas — Gary Pinkel understands there won't be any excuses for the 2009 version of the Missouri Tigers.
"I don't think any of our fans really care how young we are or how inexperienced we are," Pinkel said during Big 12 Media Days on Tuesday. "They expect a good football team."
Coming off of back-to-back Big 12 North titles, the Tigers lost standout quarterback Chase Daniel, Philadelphia Eagles No. 1 draft pick Jeremy Maclin and All-Big 12 tight end Chase Coffman from last year's 10-4 team.
Losing those playmakers, along with questions about who fills those voids, is the reason Missouri was picked third in the Big 12 North media preseason poll.
The Tigers will be counting on a 2008 recruiting class which was ranked No. 25 in the nation according to Rivals.com and featured 10 players who saw the field as true freshmen in 2008.
"We played 10 true freshmen on a highly experienced team," senior offensive lineman Kurtis Gregory said. "That says good things about what coach Pinkel has been able to do (recruiting)."
Blaine Gabbert, Daniel's potential replacement at quarterback, was ranked No. 14 overall on the Rivals100 in 2008 and is "clearly number one" heading into Missouri's fall camp according to Pinkel. The true sophomore is expected to lead an offense likely to experience growing pains with seven true sophomores sitting atop the post-spring depth chart.
"This year, defense has to win some games," senior linebacker Sean Weatherspoon said. "Last year, we had a lot of guys on offense who could change the game. This year, as a defensive unit, there is no room for error because we'll have tough times on offense just because we are replacing so many guys."
It's clearly a test for the Missouri program which is entering its ninth year under Pinkel. In Pinkel's first four years at Missouri, the Tigers went 22-25. During the next four seasons, Missouri was 37-16 including a 12-2 record in 2007.
It's easy to see why Pinkel is pleased with the progress he's made to this point.
"We've re-established the winning tradition at Missouri," he said.
But that progress could take step backward with a disappointing record this season, which makes this year the test of whether the Tigers have become a program that reloads or are a program that has to rebuild when its stars move on.
"We don't have the hype, we do have the talent," senior defensive tackle Jaron Baston said. "(But) nobody knows about it. If you lose six people then come back and win 10-plus games this season, (it will) show people Mizzou's still here, Mizzou's still stacked with talent. This could be one of the most special moments in Mizzou history."
Or it could be a forgettable moment, a signal there's still work to be done.