Answering the five most pivotal questions regarding Missouri football’s 2017 season

Maneater football writers discuss the most important questions surrounding Missouri football in 2017.

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The 2017 season for Missouri football is fast approaching as the Tigers kick off the season this Saturday at Faurot Field against Missouri State. Mid-Missouri is ripe with anticipation after the program took many steps in the right direction in the offseason. Before Saturday’s action kicks off, here’s what The Maneater football beat writers Garrett Jones and Joe Noser and Sports Editor Eli Lederman think about some important issues surrounding the team.

Will Drew Lock make “the jump” in 2017?

Garrett Jones: I think so. Lock showed tremendous poise in the early stages of the 2016 season, racing to 14 touchdowns through four games. Though he tapered off to end the season, he still ranked high among his peers in the Southeastern Conference. Familiarity is Lock’s strongest ally. He enters his second season under offensive coordinator Josh Heupel and returns his leading receiver, J’Mon Moore, along with many other returning targets.

Eli Lederman: Lock’s 2016 season would be best characterized as inconsistent, leaving the junior captain with a lot to prove in 2017. In his sophomore year, Lock confidently guided Missouri’s high-flying offense early against the likes of Eastern Michigan and Delaware State, but floundered as the season went on and the competition got stiffer. In the Tigers’ four matchups against non-SEC opponents, Lock was a world-beater, tossing 13 touchdowns with zero interceptions. But against SEC defenses, he fell off, throwing just 10 touchdowns to go with 10 interceptions as the Tigers went 2-6 in eight conference matchups.

This Jekyll-and-Hyde nature to Lock’s game is what is currently keeping him from entering the upper tier of NCAA quarterbacks, and it’s why this 2017 season is so important for him. If he can step up his game against legit SEC defenses and cut down on turnovers, Lock will prove that he’s more than just a quarterback who beats up on weak competition. Improved talent around him on offense and another year of experience in offensive coordinator Josh Heupel’s system should help.

Joe Noser: I’m honestly not as sold on Lock taking a huge step forward this season. Yes, he has tremendous talent and potential, with above-average arm strength and pretty decent poise in the pocket for a guy who was asked to start at quarterback in the SEC at a very young age. But there were significant stretches of last season where it appeared he had the “yips.” He simply just could not throw it to the open man, instead opting for a receiver locked in double coverage along the sideline. Lock has plenty of weapons, and if he can actually start utilizing the middle of the field and his slot receivers on a more consistent basis, I wouldn’t be surprised if he has a huge year. But I’m not sure if he can do that against premier SEC defenses. We’ll see.

Will Mizzou get over the hump and play in a bowl game for the first time since the 2015 Citrus Bowl?

GJ: Yes. Missouri has four winnable out-of-conference games (home versus Missouri State, Purdue and Idaho, and a road contest against Connecticut), and assuming that the Tigers can match their mark of two SEC wins from a year ago, a bowl game seems more than likely. A bowl game would be huge for recruiting and a definitive improvement for Barry Odom’s second season.

JN: I think so, too. They absolutely have to win their four non-conference games, though. This is about as weak of a non-conference schedule as this team is going to get over the next three-or-so years, and they need to capitalize on that. If Lock consistently plays like we know he’s capable of and the secondary shows a little bit of life, I genuinely think this team could surprise some people. Damarea Crockett establishing himself as a premier SEC running back would certainly help the cause, too.

EL: The short answer is yes. But it’s not a certainty by any stretch. According to ESPN’s Football Power Index, the Tigers enter the season with the 51st toughest schedule in the country. Despite the fact that that schedule features four teams ranked in the preseason top 25, this season’s slate is lighter compared to recent years. Throw in the fact that Missouri returned 14 starters from its 2016 team and there is a pretty reasonable path to six-plus wins and a bowl appearance for the Tigers. That being said, last year’s team taught the fan base that no matchup is a given …cough cough Middle Tennessee on Homecoming weekend. Victories against Missouri State, Idaho and Connecticut will be imperative if the Tigers hope to have postseason football to play.

Which is the most intriguing game on the schedule?

GJ: Week 2 vs. South Carolina. Coming off what should be a tuneup against Missouri State, the Tigers will have a lot to prove in an early-season SEC matchup in the “Columbia Cup.” The team’s performance in Week 2 will go a long way in establishing a team identity and will be the team’s first true challenge. If Missouri comes out strong, it will certainly grab the attention of the SEC and go a long way toward establishing itself as a contender.

EL: Week 6 at Kentucky: The Tigers have not won a true road game since the second week of the 2015 season, when they beat Arkansas State away from Faurot. For some perspective, Maty Mauk threw three touchdowns that day, Kentrell Brothers led the team in tackles and Gary Pinkel was still manning the sidelines for the Tigers. The Tigers’ first opportunity to break the road-losing streak (which still pales in comparison to the men’s basketball team’s historic streak) comes against the Kentucky Wildcats on Oct. 7. As with the South Carolina game, this will be another litmus test for the Tigers.

JN: Week 12 at Vanderbilt I’m going to go ahead and show my bias here. Mizzou throttled Vandy at home last year, but that game did not at all represent Vandy’s 2016 football team (Vandy went on to wallop Ole Miss and beat a pretty talented University of Tennessee team in the two weeks following its loss to Mizzou on Nov. 12 of last year). Vandy mirrors Mizzou in many ways this season with a head coach still getting established, lots of offensive returners and potential defensive holes, and both teams will be fighting for a bowl game when this matchup comes in November. It’s also Vandy’s final home game of the season. I anticipate it will be a much more entertaining game than last season’s snoozer of a contest.

Which unsung player from last year’s team can make an impact in 2017?

GJ: Nate Brown Brown took a medical redshirt last season but established himself as the No. 2 receiver behind Moore in the 2015 season. The redshirt senior’s experience bodes well in Heupel’s system paired with a veteran in Lock at quarterback.

EL: Johnathon Johnson At times last season, wideout Johnathon Johnson was electrifying. Averaging 18.1 yards per reception, with 114 yards as a rusher on just four carries and 17.1 yards per kick return, Johnson was possibly Missouri’s most dangerous offensive weapon. At other times he was unreliable, fumbling the ball 11 times — six times from scrimmage, five on kick returns. His inability to hold onto the football is what kept him off the field last year, but an increased emphasis on ball security could lead to Johnson becoming another lethal option for Lock to toss the ball to alongside Moore.

JN: Cam Hilton He’s a remarkable athlete who did a nice job last season of making the transition from wide receiver to the secondary, and with a whole offseason under his belt of preparation for the defensive side of the ball, he should be much better in coverage. He’ll be one of the older guys in the secondary, and he’s the glue of this team’s pass defense. If he excels, the unit will certainly be better.

Which upperclassman has the most to prove to NFL teams this season?

GJ: J’Mon Moore Moore has improved every season, and if he can continue that trend into 2017, could certainly rocket up NFL Draft boards come next spring. He tripled his yard production alone last season, and with his 6-foot-3 frame, route-running prowess and speed in the open field, he could even see those numbers climb.

EL: Eric Beisel The redshirt senior stole the show at SEC Media Days this past July, and he now has the opportunity to do the same on the field this fall for the Tigers. After receiving limited playing time behind a deep linebacker corps, Beisel came on strong in the latter half of last season and emerged as a key playmaker for the Tigers’ defense. This year he will captain the squad, and he will have the opportunity to prove himself to NFL scouts. At 6-foot-3, 245 pounds, Beisel fits the mold of an NFL middle linebacker, and he’ll likely add more weight if he jumps to the next level. While his measurements stack up well for the NFL, the development of Beisel’s skill set was stunted while he sat behind the starters, and it will hurt his stock come draft time. But if Eric “Zeus” Beisel lives up to all of his talk and builds upon his strong junior season, he’ll find his way onto an NFL roster next spring one way or another.

JN: Terry Beckner Jr. There is no question that Terry Beckner Jr. is physically gifted. Listed at 6-foot-4 and 305 pounds, the junior defensive lineman has unusual speed for a man his size and a quickness off the line of scrimmage that stands out in practice. He’s been a highly touted prospect his entire career and arrived on campus in 2015 as the No. 2 recruit in the country, according to ESPN. But the question is: Can he stay healthy? Beckner Jr. has gone down with an ACL tear in two straight seasons (his right ACL in 2015 and the left in 2016). If he can stay injury-free, I have no doubt that he will have a monster year and open some NFL scouts’ eyes come next spring.

Edited by Sam Nelson | snelson@themaneater.com

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