The Maneater

Column: 2018 a make-or-break season for trajectory of MU football program

If Odom and his program can’t capitalize on last season’s turnaround, it spells bad implications for the future.

Missouri football coach Barry Odom speaks to members of the media after practice on August 28, 2018.

Barry Odom has seen dark days.

The Missouri football coach wasn’t afraid to say so last season in his impassioned ‘State of the Program’ address, after his team lost 51-14 at home to Auburn. At the time, the declaration seemed like a plea, like job damage control. Half a season later, it seemed like a revelation.

But even after the ensuing flip of the script that ended 7-6 with a bowl berth — and a two-year contract extension for Odom — it’s hard to forget the abysmal 1-5 start that befell the Tigers in 2017.

During Odom’s now-famed rant, one line pervaded with extra certainty — OK, maybe desperation at the time.

“I want to get one thing real straight: I’m going to win here.”

And win Odom did. Now, 364 days after that season’s ugly opening-week triumph over Missouri State, the Missouri Tigers will kick off the 2018 season against another FCS foe in Tennessee-Martin.

But four days before that, Odom first stepped to that same podium and spoke to local media about the prospective season. Mr. Odom, what is the state of the program?

“Our margin of error is still zero,” he said Tuesday after practice. “They understand that there’s a process of doing it the right way, and when you do that when the ball’s kicked off, you give your team a chance. If you don’t do it up to that point, then you’re leaving it to chance, and we don’t like that opportunity for us.”

The opportunity they’ve been dealt is a unique one. Missouri is approaching the end of an era perhaps most notably landmarked by quarterback Drew Lock’s career, but the team hasn’t put together a season reminiscent of its SEC East division titles since the top-tier NFL prospect showed up at MU.

With 11 total seniors listed as starters on the team’s week one depth chart, as well as 10 returning starters on the offense, this is a group that was at the heart of last year’s turnaround. That experience should be a blessing for Odom’s program, but with it comes pressure.

When this pioneering group leaves after the season, it’ll be hard to avoid dropping into rebuild mode. And rebuilding from a team that maxed out at seven wins isn’t very appealing.

For Missouri in 2018, it’s get better or bust.

That means eight wins. No easy task on an SEC schedule that features both teams that competed for last season’s national championship.

But the potential is there. Not only have several starters returned, but the Tigers also had seven players named to the preseason All-SEC coaches team, three more than last year. They have nine different players named to preseason award watch lists, six more than last year.

Even with all of the individual recognition, it hasn’t translated to much in the way of team potential. The Tigers were picked to finish fourth in the SEC East in a preseason media poll. They were one of only two teams not to receive a first-place vote in the division.

The problem? Missouri finished tied for fourth in the division a season ago with a Kentucky team that received votes in the 2018 preseason AP Poll.

Finishing in the same position as last year is a scary hypothetical for a team with so much potential. Lack of progress means lack of growth.

For Lock and the 10 other senior starters, there’s a lot of pressure to capitalize on the blend of factors this Missouri team has; talent, experience, chemistry.

If they improve, it spells an 8-4 regular season record at worst.

If they don’t, it leaves Odom and the program stagnant, with likely either a redshirt senior in Jack Lowary (who has seen the field twice in his career) or a redshirt junior or sophomore helming an offense that will lose that talent, experience and chemistry.

So what is the state of the Missouri football program?

Promising. Terrifying. Compelling. Welcome to a pivotal season.

Edited by Bennett Durando | bdurando@themaneater.com

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