This is where most fans thought Missouri would be when it said sayonara to the Big 12 and joined the best conference in America back in 2012.
The Tigers are coming off a terrible 4-8 campaign than included a 2-6 mark in league play. While the offense threw the pigskin well more often than not under first-year offensive coordinator Josh Heupel, this once-proud defense couldn’t get itself off the field consistently.
Florida, Georgia and Tennessee are the blue bloods in the East, leaving Mizzou alongside Kentucky, South Carolina and Vanderbilt as second-class citizens. The Wildcats, Gamecocks and Commodores all went to bowl games this past season, so momentum is on their side. That’s not the case for coach Barry Odom in Columbia.
Those back-to-back division titles in 2013-14 already seem like forever ago. Maybe they were indeed a fluke after all.
2016 Projection: 5-7 (2-6)
Actual Record: 4-8 (2-6)
You never want to be the guy who replaces the legend. You want to be the guy who replaces the guy who replaced the legend.
Taking over for Gary Pinkel, who retired after the 2015 season largely due to health issues, Odom — he was a linebacker for Missouri in the ’90s — was promoted from within following a successful one-year run coordinating the defense.
Recruiting is the lifeblood of any college football program, and Odom is yet to make a legitimate dent on the living-room circuit. The Tigers only signed the No. 42 class in the nation in February according to 247Sports, behind every team in the SEC except Vandy. The projected haul for 2018 is just 38th, although that’s better than Arkansas and Ole Miss.
Plain and simple, Mizzou doesn’t have the kind of players needed to be consistently competitive, even in the inferior East.
Drew Lock is akin to Mississippi State’s Nick Fitzgerald over in the West. Those two QBs can shred an inferior opponent statistically with the best of them.
While he isn’t the running threat that Fitzgerald is, twice last year Lock threw for 400-plus yards and 5 touchdowns. Still, those take-it-with-a-grain-of-salt performances came against cupcakes Eastern Michigan and Delaware State at Faurot Field.
Missouri only faced two ranked opponents in 2016, but Lock couldn’t get anything done in either of those contests. In Week 5, he was 17-of-37 for 167 yards with an interception in a 42-7 humiliation at LSU. In Week 7 — coming off a bye, remember — he could do no better than 4-of-18 for 39 yards with a pair of picks in a 40-14 beatdown at Florida.
Lock did throw for 376 yards and 3 touchdowns vs. Georgia, but he also had 3 INTs and came out on the losing end 28-27 at home.
Strengths & Weaknesses
This is Year 3 for Lock and his second in Heupel’s speedy system, so he’s a genuine candidate to lead the SEC in passing yards.
In the backfield, Damarea Crockett assembled one of the quietest 1,062 yards rushing in recent memory. Even bigger things are expected of him for 2017. Out wide, J’Mon Moore is the only receiver in the conference coming off a 1,000-yard season.
But if the Tigers are going to get out of the East cellar, the defense needs a total overhaul immediately. The fact that end Charles Harris left early for the draft certainly won’t help, although Marcell Frazier can rush the enemy passer effectively. Former 5-star signee Terry Beckner Jr. has to be healthier and more productive at tackle.
On special teams, while Mizzou was fairly average across the board last year, kicking was a headache. An embarrassing 6-of-13 field-goal tries were actually converted.
Week 1: vs. Missouri State (W)
This matchup is right up Lock’s alley. Expect plenty of fireworks through the air and an early exit some time in the second half.
Week 2: vs. South Carolina (W)
The Gamecocks are in fantastic shape offensively at the skill positions, although Lock’s runners and receivers are pretty good, too.
Week 3: vs. Purdue (W)
A must-win situation for Odom, the Boilermakers are a Power 5 bottom-feeder with a first-year coach. A loss here would be catastrophic.
Week 4: vs. Auburn (L)
In this battle of Tigers, the ones from The Plains are a more complete team and have plenty of defense to frustrate Lock and Co.
Week 5: bye
Week 6: at Kentucky (L)
If Missouri defends the run like it did in 2016, then the Wildcats will have a field day between the tackles and play keepaway.
Week 7: at Georgia (L)
The Bulldogs needed a last-minute TD toss to get past the Tigers last season in Columbia. They should have an easier time in Athens.
Week 8: vs. Idaho (W)
The first of back-to-back non-conference foes, the Vandals shouldn’t be able to keep up with the Tigers on the scoreboard.
Week 9: at UConn (W)
An odd road date for a member of this league, Mizzou faces a Huskies squad that lost six straight to close out this past season.
Week 10: vs. Florida (L)
Not only do the Gators look to be better on offense, but their defense has survived a bevy of NFL defections the last two years.
Week 11: vs. Tennessee (L)
The Volunteers don’t know who their signal caller is at this point. But by November, either Quinten Dormady or Jarrett Guarantano should be very comfortable with the job.
Week 12: at Vanderbilt (W)
If Missouri can slow down Ralph Webb, Lock should be able to move the ball on a feisty Commodores defense and secure victory.
Week 13: at Arkansas (L)
Sure, the Battle Line Rivalry is a bit forced, but the Razorbacks will be in revenge mode after last season’s collapse on the road.
2017 Projection: 6-6 (2-6)
Final Standings: 6th in SEC East
The Tigers are probably going to be better in 2017 than they were a year ago, but that’s not a high hurdle to jump.
Offensively, most of the pieces are there to be downright explosive. Lock is yet to reach his full potential. Crockett and Ish Witter might combine for 2,000 yards on the ground. Moore is one of several wideouts who can do damage vertically.
But it still comes down to Odom’s D. Mizzou gave up 36 rushing plays of 20 yards or more last season, most in the league, and that was in just 12 games — every other program except for LSU and Ole Miss played 13 or more. There were also 48 plays of 20-plus yards surrendered through the air. Only Mississippi State was worse in that category.
Being middle-of-the-road defensively will likely get Missouri back to a bowl game, but Atlanta feels a million miles away.