Column: Mizzou football poised to surprise

An anonymous SEC coach was quoted as saying that Mizzou could be a “sneaky 8-to-9-win team.”

J'mon Moore practices on Aug. 25 in Columbia.

There’s no way things could get worse, right?

Last season, Mizzou football was bad. Like historically bad. Like so bad that punter Corey Fatony set the single-season record for total punts with 81. Coming off of a second consecutive Southeastern Conference title game appearance, the Tigers heavily regressed in 2015, losing four more games than the previous season.

After an encouraging 3-0 start, the team finished the season 2-7. Worse yet, they won just a single conference game, dropping seven against SEC opponents. The dynamic Gary Pinkel offenses of the early 2010s were nowhere to be found. The anemic Tiger offense averaged just 13.6 points per game, landing them second to last among FBS schools, and just 0.5 points ahead of Kent State — not exactly a football powerhouse. They even went over a month without scoring a touchdown. It was brutal.

Ultimately, the team was defined more by headlines off the field — the dismissal of quarterback Maty Mauk, the team’s role in nationally covered campus protests and Gary Pinkel’s abrupt departure — than by what they accomplished on the field. Never a good thing.

Such a disappointing year has also cast a mum over the Mizzou football program as we head into a new season. Sure, the general excitement you can find at just about any major football university is there, but the sentiment on campus really just isn’t that positive. Jokes are made about the futile offense, and at the idea of Mizzou once again trying to compete in the SEC.

Mauk still remains common fodder for jokes, while also functioning as the poster child for the the disappointing 2015. One student remarked that he is excited for Saturdays, though he plans on spending more time at tailgates than the actual game.

“The goal is to not make it to the stadium,” he said.

Something tells me that if the football team was better, that wouldn’t be the case.

Despite all of the negativity, there may be reason for optimism in Columbia. Last week on KTGR radio, Jeff Parles reported a quote from an anonymous SEC coach stating that Mizzou could be a “sneaky 8-to-9-win team”. Maybe it was just a rival coach trying to blow some smoke up Mizzou’s skirt, or Nick Saban trying to throw a bone to one of the SEC’s lowly members. For all we know, it was Barry Odom just trying to pump up his team. Either way, it’s exciting. After such an unpleasant 2015 season, it’s good to know that someone outside of Columbia has some confidence in Mizzou football.

While nine wins might seem overly optimistic, there are plenty of signs pointing to a brighter year for Mizzou.

The first, of course, is new head coach Barry Odom. The former Tiger linebacker-turned-coordinator-turned-head-coach will be looking to distinguish himself in his first season. The hope is that a fresh voice in the locker room, and a new mentality will bring success. At the very least, we know that for better or worse, Odom is a whole lot different than Pinkel. Odom brings the energy and vigor one might expect from a 39-year-old first-time head coach.

In an article in the Columbia Missourian, linebacker Michael Scherer was quoted as saying, “Not to say Coach Pinkel's way was not the right way, but Odom is much more active. He jumps in, tells me what to do, and then goes down to the offensive side and is active with their side, too. He's a very open and player-friendly coach."

The optimistic, player-friendly rookie head coach is far from a novel archetype, but classics are classics for a reason. Odom’s confidence is a much needed elixir for a team that finished last season on life support, and fans in Columbia can only hope that this injection of spirit will breathe fresh life into the team.

Offensively, the team is going to be better. Like I said before, there’s no way it could get worse. The offensive line will remain an issue, due to both injuries and a general lack of depth. The O-line is without a doubt the Tigers’ largest weakness, but improvements in just about every other spot on the offense should help remedy those issues.

The Tigers’ receiving corps will continue to grow. Last year, freshmen and sophomores accounted for 121 of 186 receptions. Now a year older, those receivers will only get better. Last year’s leading wideouts J’Mon Moore and Nate Brown, both juniors, will be joined by Alabama graduate transfer Chris Black. Black should provide sophomore quarterback Drew Lock with a slot weapon he can work with.

The outlook at running back may be slightly less bright. Even with the arrival of Oklahoma graduate transfer Alex Ross and freshman back Damarea Crockett, the O-line still leaves any hope of successfully running the ball in question. Still, the Tigers possess more depth and talent at the position than they did last year, and this group of runners should be able to top the lowly five rushing touchdowns Mizzou put up in 2015.

The most important aspect of the offense, of course, is second-year quarterback Drew Lock. Thrown into the starting role after Mauk’s dismissal, Lock struggled, going 2-6 in his 8 games, completing just 49 percent of his passes. A year later, Lock appears poised to bounce back and improve. With a season of experience under his belt, improved weapons around him and a new offensive coordinator in Josh Heupel the sophomore is ready to make a big jump. He doesn’t have to be Blaine Gabbert or Chase Daniel, but if he can get that completion percentage north of 60 percent and manage the offense well enough, the Tigers will be in good shape.

Look, the offense is not going to put up Oregon type numbers, especially not against harsh SEC defenses. A better offense still won’t be enough to carry the team. But, in reality, it doesn’t have to. Not with Mizzou’s defense, which finished last year among the best in the country.

Anchored by preseason all-SEC honoree Charles Harris, the defense returns five of its six leading tacklers from 2015. While leading tackler Kentrell Brothers will certainly be missed, the defense should be able to fill his void.

The Tigers also finished fifth in pass defense last year, and with Anthony Sherrils and Aarion Penton manning the secondary, that dominance should continue. We know the defense will be good. The question is just how good, and whether, when paired with the offense, it it will be good enough.

Okay, so maybe don’t go buy tickets for Atlanta in December or anything like that. The reality is that this team is a work in progress, and there plenty of questions left to be answered. A lot can be said about Mizzou’s lack of experience, and its weaknesses are certainly apparent. What we do know, however, is that this team will be intriguing.

Edited by Peter Baugh | pbaugh@themaneater.com

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