Sept. 23, 2017. The Missouri Tigers had just lost 51-14 at home to a tough Auburn team, falling to 1-3 with lopsided losses to Auburn, South Carolina and Purdue.
That sent coach Barry Odom over the edge, and he delivered one of the most iconic rants of the 2017 season, promising that things would get better for the Tigers.
After a bye week, the Tigers hit the road, losing at Kentucky and at Georgia to fall to 1-5. Some (including me) were questioning whether Odom would lose his job at the end of the year. But then, things changed quickly.
The Tigers didn’t lose again in the regular season, rattling off six consecutive victories to qualify for their first bowl game since 2014. They lost the Texas Bowl to the Texas Longhorns after OC Josh Heupel took the head coaching job at UCF, but overall, the season was a big success.
That, of course, sets the stage for the 2018 campaign, when expectations will be even higher. The Tigers need to avoid a setback, and in order to do that, they’ll need to answer a few questions over the summer.
These are just a few of the questions that will have a major impact on how well Mizzou fares in 2018:
1. Can Drew Lock contend for the Heisman Trophy?
Lock led the nation in touchdown passes last year, throwing an SEC record 44 to Heisman-winning Oklahoma QB Baker Mayfield’s 43. However, the Mizzou offense will likely run at a little bit slower of a pace this fall, so Lock will need to evolve if he wants to lead the nation again.
Lock will enter the 2018 season as one of the country’s best quarterbacks, and his Heisman fate will be tied to how well the Tigers perform. If Mizzou improves on last year’s 7-6 record, Lock could earn a trip to New York for the Heisman ceremony.
His stats weren’t just a product of Heupel’s system, as he has one of the strongest arms in college football. He’d be the first to admit that he still needs to improve, though, and if he becomes a more polished product in 2018, the sky is the limit for him and the Missouri offense.
2. Will Derek Dooley’s offense put enough points on the board?
When Heupel took the head coaching position at UCF, he took his fast-paced, high-octane offensive system.
The Tigers only ran vanilla and boring offensive sets during the spring game (by design), so not much is known about new OC Derek Dooley’s offensive system. Obviously, Heupel’s offense was rough on the Mizzou defense (see below), so Dooley would be wise to slow things down a bit.
However, to win, the Tigers will need to score. How Dooley balances that need with the need to possess the ball for more than 25:01 per game (which ranked 129th out of 130 teams last year) will be the biggest key to Mizzou’s success.
3. Can the defense get some more rest?
As mentioned, the Tigers’ defense has spent a ridiculous amount of time on the field. The offense finished 129th in time of possession last season, and the year before, they finished 128th — which was last place before the FBS added two teams for the 2017 season.
To be fair, the Tigers still miss too many tackles early in games and haven’t been the dominant unit they were when Mizzou won the SEC East in 2013 and 2014, but Heupel’s offense wasn’t doing them any favors.
Even 29 minutes of possession per game would have landed the Tigers in 87th place last year. So, while the offense should still score on plenty of big plays simply because they have Lock throwing the ball, putting together more sustained drives will be important for the team as a whole.
4. Who will step up to replace J’Mon Moore?
Emanuel Hall will slide seamlessly into the No. 1 receiver spot vacated by Moore, but they have very different styles. Hall is more of a big-play threat, so Mizzou will need to develop more talent in the receiving corps.
Fortunately for Dooley, Johnathon Johnson should be ready for a bigger role as a slot receiver, and TE Albert Okwuegbunam should be a more frequent target for Lock. Outside of them, guys like Nate Brown and Richaud Floyd are the most likely candidates to get more looks.
Moore had some issues with drops, so the receiving corps as a whole could fill some of his production simply by limiting their errors. However, replacing a guy who had back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons won’t be easy.
5. Is there another elite pass rusher?
The Tigers have sent some incredible pass rushers to the NFL in recent years — Sheldon Richardson, Shane Ray, Michael Sam, Markus Golden, Charles Harris, Aldon Smith and Kony Ealy among them.
They already have their next first-round NFL Draft talent on the roster in DT Terry Beckner Jr. In his first fully healthy season, Beckner recorded 7 sacks from his interior line position, which is an impressive number.
However, if more pass rushers don’t develop alongside him, Beckner will face even more double teams than he did last season. At the defensive end position, the Tigers will have an unproven group that includes Nate Anderson, Chris Turner, Tre Williams and Franklin Agbasimere. If one or two of those guys don’t put their stamps on the starting jobs this summer, the Mizzou defensive line could be in trouble for the first time in a long time.
6. Will Damarea Crockett return to his 2016 self?
Crockett ran for 1,062 yards and 10 touchdowns in 11 games as a true freshman in 2016, with many of those yards coming in the second half of the season after he earned the trust of the coaching staff.
Injuries limited him to only six games last season, but he was still effective when he touched the ball. Ish Witter is gone, but Larry Rountree III emerged as a legitimate backfield option last year and will also get plenty of work this fall.
Still, if Crockett is healthy, he has skills that could make him one of the SEC’s top rushers when all is said and done.
7. Can the Tigers avoid another 1-5 start?
The Tigers start the year with a home game against UT Martin — a team that went 6-5 in the Ohio Valley Conference last year. Assuming they start 1-0, they’ll then take on a Wyoming team that will be without star QB Josh Allen, who is now a Buffalo Bill.
Then, they travel to Purdue for a revenge game against the Boilermakers in what should be their first real test of the year. They then return home to host Georgia before the bye week.
Based on that schedule, the Tigers should be at least 2-2, perhaps even 3-1, before their Week 5 bye. A start like that would keep the pressure off of Odom and make the second half of the season a little less stressful. Still, Mizzou isn’t good enough yet that it can overlook any opponent, so the Tigers will need to make sure they’re ready to play each and every week, or there could be some big-time letdowns.
8. Can the secondary improve enough to keep games competitive?
As we’ve detailed at length in this post, Mizzou’s defense simply spends too much time on the field. However, that doesn’t excuse the secondary for its abysmal performance in 2017.
While facing only one more attempt than South Carolina (441 to 440) last year, the Tigers finished last in the SEC (the Gamecocks were 10th out of 14 teams) in passing yards allowed per game.
Giving up 254.5 yards per contest isn’t going to cut it this fall. The Tigers lost a few key secondary contributors from last year in S Anthony Sherrils, S Thomas Wilson and CB Logan Cheadle. That puts more pressure on CBs DeMarkus Acy, CB Adam Sparks, S Ronnell Perkins and S Cam Hilton this year. If they’re not up to the task, it’ll really hurt the Mizzou defense in games against teams like Alabama, Georgia, Purdue, South Carolina and other squads with strong passing attacks.
9. Will Corey Fatony win the Ray Guy award?
If you thought I’d end this article without sending some love to America’s favorite punter, you were wrong.
Fatony’s yards-per-punt average has improved every year at Mizzou, from 42.9 to 43.8 to 44.3. Based on that, expect punts that average about 45 yards this fall. Having a punter that can consistently pin opponents deep in their own territory is a great weapon to have, and that’s what Fatony does.
Also, he has world-class punt celebrations, which should absolutely be a factor in the Ray Guy award voting:
There's always time to work on your swing…even in the middle of a football game. pic.twitter.com/Ul9OcnVP7j
— GOLF.com (@GOLF_com) September 18, 2017
Hopefully Mizzou isn’t down 35-3 very much this year, though, so Fatony can break out his great celebrations at more appropriate times.
10. Can they get to 8 (or more) wins?
Going back to question No. 7, the Tigers should start the year 2-2 or 3-1, depending on the Purdue game or a major upset against Georgia. Following the bye, they have a brutal two-game stretch at South Carolina and at Alabama, so we’ll be optimistic and predict a 3-3 record through Week 7.
Home games against Memphis and Kentucky won’t be easy, but both should be winnable, especially with Lock at quarterback. That makes the Tigers 5-3 heading into a stretch of games at Florida, vs. Vanderbilt and at Tennessee. If they go 2-1 there, that puts them at 7-4 heading into the rivalry game vs. Arkansas. The Razorbacks made a good coaching hire in Chad Morris, but they should still be a couple of years away from contending, so that makes Mizzou 8-4 entering the bowl game.
Even if they lose to Purdue in Week 3 (which is the wildcard game from above), a 7-5 record like last year would give them a shot at eight wins in the bowl. After finishing 7-6 last season, anything less than eight wins should be seen as a disappointment, but the schedule is such that eight wins should be an accomplishable task if all goes well.