Editor’s note: Our annual Crystal Ball series continues with Mizzou and the SEC East. Coming Friday: South Carolina.

Usually there’s a certain narrative after a program like Mizzou replaces a player like Drew Lock.

He finished 2nd in SEC history in passing yards and 3rd in passing touchdowns. Usually, a player of that caliber at Mizzou would be at the center of the top offseason storyline.

But nationally, that’s been a bit of an afterthought for a couple of reasons.

Lock’s replacement, Kelly Bryant, has been a popular topic of discussion in college football after the way he left Clemson in the middle of the 2018 season to preserve his final year of eligibility. His decision to spend that at Mizzou quickly silenced the notion that the Tigers would feel a massive absence in the wake of Lock’s departure.

Instead, Mizzou’s offseason storyline has been about a strange NCAA punishment that included a bowl ban for 2019 as a result of academic fraud from the pre-Barry Odom era. That violation, which stemmed from a part-time tutor giving improper assistance to athletes, prompted an immediate appeal by Mizzou to the NCAA.

Mizzou has appealed, but as of now, the bowl ban is still in effect. There’s still a belief within that locker room that won’t be the case, but even if it is, how much will it impact this season? Will the Tigers follow Ole Miss’ path to mediocrity in a sanction-filled year? Or will the “us against the world” narrative be more evident than ever?

Maybe both. Let’s explain.

2018 record: 8-5 (4-4), T-4th in SEC East

The Kelly Bryant Show

There’s a trend throughout college football that I’ve noticed in the past couple of years. Grad transfer quarterbacks are going to new places and winning over locker rooms. With ease. We saw Joe Burrow do it at LSU. We saw Jalen Hurts do it at Oklahoma. I believe we’ve already seen Bryant do it at Mizzou.

It’s the little things that make the difference. When the day of the bowl ban news came out, Bryant squashed the transfer rumors before they could even pick up steam. It’s showing up to camp like an adult and praising the supporting cast at every turn. It’s extinguishing 1-day offseason headlines like Dabo Swinney not giving him a championship ring.

Everything about Bryant suggests that he’s ready to lead. He went to Mizzou in part because he’d have an opportunity to do that. For once, he’s finally not in Deshaun Watson’s shadow, nor is he battling it out with Trevor Lawrence to try and keep his job.

Mizzou belongs to Bryant, and he’s ready to be the face of the program in his final year of eligibility.

Can Barry Odom continue that defensive progress?

I was extremely critical of the Mizzou defense in last year’s Crystal Ball. I thought if there was one SEC unit that needed to show year-to-year improvement, it was the Mizzou defense. To Odom’s credit, he did exactly that.

Mizzou defense
2017
2018
Run defense
160 yards/game
126.5 yards/game
Pass defense
254.5 yards/game
262 yards/game
Scoring defense
31.8 points/game
25.5 points/game

The run defense was noticeably better. The Tigers produced a run defense that was 4.5 yards per game worse than Alabama in 2018.

There’s good news and bad news. The bad news is that replacing guys like Terez Hall and Terry Beckner Jr. from the front 7 won’t be easy. In his roller-coaster career, Beckner had 32 tackles for loss and served as a key piece in that defensive improvement last year.

The good news is that Mizzou still returns 67% of that production from last year, including one of the conference’s top linebackers, Cale Garrett. There’s more pressure on guys like former Texas transfer Jordan Elliott and Chris Turner. Mizzou needs to improve its pass rush to take another step up in 2019.

But Odom’s unit answered the call last year. That at least gave me hope that he can produce a solid SEC defense as a head coach and not just as a coordinator.

Avoiding the 0-4 start to SEC play

Crazy concept, right?

Mizzou started 0-4 or worse in SEC play in each of the past 3 seasons. That perhaps explains why Lock’s numbers were somewhat overlooked because Mizzou was already out of contention by mid-October.

Yeah, that can’t happen this year. If it does, yikes.

In Mizzou’s first 4 SEC games, it will face South Carolina, Ole Miss, Vanderbilt and Kentucky. You can’t ask for a much more favorable way to kick off conference play. There’s a chance that Mizzou will be favored in all 4 games.

The great unknown is what happens if this bowl ban sticks. I tend to think that start to conference play dictates the mindset for teams without postseason possibilities. Guys can start thinking about their NFL Draft stock — Mizzou has a handful of players who will hear their names called next year — or they can mentally check out if there’s any sort of adversity that comes along (injuries, quarterback struggles, coach on the hot seat, etc.).

I do wonder about that in the event of a slow start. But fortunately for Mizzou, I don’t see that happening this year.

Game-by-game predictions

Week 1: at Wyoming (W)

Welcome to the SEC, Kelly Bryant. Your first task is strolling up to Laramie and beating a Mountain West team. Got it? Good. I expect far more Larry Rountree III than I do Bryant. A Wyoming team that ranks No. 120 in FBS in percentage of returning production struggles to slow down the Tigers.

Week 2: vs. West Virginia (W)

Timing is everything, right? Tennessee had to open against a West Virginia squad that returned Will Grier and David Sills V to a Dana Holgorsen offense. Mizzou gets to host a West Virginia squad that has neither guy with first-year coach Neal Brown. In a battle of grad transfer quarterbacks — the Mountaineers’ version of Bryant is Austin Kendall — I like the Mizzou defense to do the heavy lifting en route to a solid nonconference win.

Week 3: Southeast Missouri State (W)

This is the type of game in which Lock would throw for 8 touchdown passes and 560 yards. So in other words, pad those stats, Bryant.

Week 4: vs. South Carolina (L)

Wait a minute. I thought Mizzou was going to avoid the bad start to SEC play? I think Will Muschamp’s defense shows up ready to roll against a Tigers offense that still needs to work out some kinks. Perhaps talk of starting 6-0 or 7-0 has Mizzou a touch unprepared for the speed that the Gamecocks bring. In a game that they just can’t seem to get over the hump, the Tigers start in familiarity territory in conference play.

Week 5: Bye

Week 6: vs. Troy (W)

Maybe I just have a bad taste in my mouth from the way Auburn’s offense spiraled, but I have a tough time envisioning first-year Troy coach Chip Lindsey walking into Columbia and pulling off an upset. This should be a big game for Bryant and Albert Okwuegbunam coming off the bye.

Week 7: vs. Ole Miss (W)

One reason people are high on Mizzou is the crossover matchups. Hosting Ole Miss and traveling to Arkansas is as favorable as it gets. Mike MacIntyre should improve that Ole Miss defense, but to the point where it can contain Rountree for 60 minutes and win on the road? I’m not there yet.

Week 8: at Vanderbilt (W)

This is a sneaky good test for Garrett and the Mizzou defense. Game planning to shut down Vandy’s Big 3 of Ke’Shawn Vaughn, Kalija Lipscomb and Jared Pinkney will be tricky. Shoot, it wasn’t a successful plan last year. That trio combined for 398 yards from scrimmage and all 4 Vandy touchdowns scored in a down-to-the-wire game. But just as it did last year, Mizzou lets its ground game go to work and take over down the stretch.

Week 9: at Kentucky (L)

A lot of people seem to think that Mizzou starting 8-0 to set up a massive showdown with Georgia is a realistic possibility. I’m not saying it can’t happen. I’m saying it won’t happen. I think Kentucky will be more versatile and balanced offensively than it was last year when it needed Terry Wilson’s late heroics to win in Columbia. Wilson throws the ball early and often while Mizzou struggles to exploit Kentucky’s inexperienced secondary.

Week 10: Bye

Week 11: at Georgia (L)

Home game against an SEC East team? Yeah, I just can’t. Georgia’s offensive line paves the way for a comfortable victory and Mizzou suffers its first losing streak of the season.

Week 12: vs. Florida (L)

I know, I know. Mizzou has a 50-point advantage on Florida the past 2 years. That’s not a typo. Maybe Odom just has Florida’s number? That’s possible. Florida was vulnerable over the top the past couple of years and Lock was the perfect person to exploit that. I need to see Bryant make strides with his downfield accuracy before penciling Mizzou to make it 3 consecutive against the Gators.

Week 13: vs. Tennessee (W)

Derek Dooley got his revenge in Knoxville last year. What are the odds that he pulls off a similar 50-point showing this year? I’d say not great, but I still think a 33-point win last year would be an awfully difficult result to flip, especially with this one being played in Columbia. Senior day for Bryant and Co. yields a nice bounce-back win to close out the home slate.

Week 14: at Arkansas (W)

Can we call this the Bryant Bowl? Please? It’ll be interesting to see what the reception for Bryant is in Fayetteville after he chose Mizzou instead of Arkansas. I do expect him to have a big game with a season’s worth of reps to get comfortable in Dooley’s offense. I expect this game to mean a lot for Arkansas sitting at 5 wins, and I think it’ll be much closer than last year’s 38-0 drubbing. But Bryant twists the knife one more time and Arkansas comes up empty again.

2019 projection: 8-4 (4-4, 4th in SEC East)

#Mizzou

I think a lot of the people who are predicting Mizzou to have a 9- or 10-win regular season are underestimating just how valuable Lock was. Or maybe that’s not the best way to phrase it. Lock hit the home run play as well as anyone in college football. That can sometimes cover up things.

On the flip side, I think this Mizzou offense has a better chance of sustaining more drive-to-drive consistency. Bryant is better in the intermediate passing game than Lock. We know that Bryant can use his legs, and even though he’ll use them less than he did in Clemson’s system, he’ll still use them some.

But I still have a couple of concerns. I want to see how Bryant improves at stretching the field. I want to see this Mizzou run defense avoid a step back.

Most important, I want to see how the Tigers handle this bowl ban situation for better or worse. That can change the entire trajectory of the season.

I’m not quite at the “Mizzou is a sleeper East contender” level that some are, but all things considered, having a chance for a 9-win season in the first year of the post-Lock era would be a sign that Odom’s foundation is sturdy.