Column: Tigers face season-determining test over next three weeks

After an inconsistent six weeks, the next three games will determine the success of Missouri football's season.
Senior safety Cam Hilton stretches out to defend a throw to junior wide receiver Mecole Hardman in Missouri's loss to Georgia on Sept. 22, 2018.

As the time ticked down in the fourth quarter of an early September contest between Mizzou and Wyoming, a chant broke out in the student section of Faurot Field.

We want Bama.

Putting aside the genuinely impressive arrogance of calling for the undisputed best college football team on the planet after taking down Wyoming – a team currently winless in its home conference, the Mountain West – it turned out Mizzou fans were sorely mistaken in its want for the Crimson Tide. The Tigers hung around for a quarter last Saturday before Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa and his marauding army of an Alabama offense took control and never looked back.

The loss brought the Tigers to 3-3 on the year and 0-3 in SEC play. All this before entering a critical crossroads in their season, starting with Homecoming against Memphis this Saturday. All three of the Tigers’ consecutive losses have been – to some extent – excusable. Alabama and Georgia are both top programs in the country and both played for a national title last year. The latest loss against South Carolina had several plays that could have swung Missouri’s way. But those are in the past, and after three wins followed by three losses, it’s the next set of three that will determine the success of Mizzou’s season.

It’s been a Jekyll and Hyde act for the Tigers this year, and the next three weeks will serve as a barometer as to which team is the real Mizzou. There’s the offense that put up 131 points in its first three games and the defense that held strong against a high powered, then-No. 2 Georgia offense in the first half of the teams’ September matchup, allowing a single offensive touchdown.

But there’s also the defense that allowed second-string Purdue quarterback David Blough to throw for 572 yards in a game. Possibly the sourest note in all of this has been Drew Lock’s recent performance. Usually Lock statistically stands out for the better, but he’s thrown six interceptions and one touchdown pass since Sept. 15. Facing potentially evenly matched competition will reveal what the reality is of this team.

It starts this Saturday with the Homecoming game against the Memphis Tigers, another team with something to prove. The other Tigers enter the game with a record of 4-3 and are also trying to show that they can win more than just cupcake games, with their victories coming against Mercer, Georgia State, South Alabama and Connecticut. Aside from No. 10 UCF – who Memphis lost to last weekend, although holding the lead early and throughout most of the game – the Tigers from Missouri are Memphis’ second-most high profile opponent this year. They’re also Memphis’ only regular season power five matchup this year.

Next up is Kentucky, followed by Florida, two teams with a surprising number of parallels to Mizzou. If anything, they represent what Mizzou hoped they would be this year. Both entered the season with expectations of being solid but unspectacular teams, but have surprised with hot first halves to the year.

The Wildcats started the year receiving one vote in the preseason AP Poll. After knocking off Florida on the road, they put the SEC on blast and eventually jumped into No. 17 in the rankings after trouncing Mississippi State. They haven’t looked back, as they’re currently sitting at No. 14.

Then there’s the Gators who gave up the home loss to Kentucky. Dan Mullen’s first year back in The Swamp since coaching Tebow and maintaining those mid-2000s National Championship-winning offenses wasn’t supposed to be this successful. However, back-to-back wins over ranked opponents – one of which being No. 5 LSU – quickly propelled Mullen’s Gators to No. 14 in the AP.

Those two games will be every bit as important to Florida and Kentucky as they are to Mizzou. They are season-defining for everyone involved. A loss for Kentucky and Florida pushes both down in the AP and could derail promising seasons. A loss – God forbid, losses – for MU derails a season that was supposed to finish better than last year’s 7-5 regular season and Texas Bowl loss. If Missouri lost to both teams and hypothetically won out, they’d finish at 7-5. Right back where they were a season ago. And that’s assuming they beat Memphis this Saturday, which isn’t a certainty.

Since Barry Odom took over coaching duties in 2016, Mizzou has played teams ranked in the top 25 six times. They’ve lost all of them.

It’s easy to forget that before running into the buzzsaw of top opponents in three games, Missouri was knocking on the door of the AP top 25, receiving votes following its victory at Purdue. While there’s hardly a chance of sneaking into the poll after three straight losses, neither Florida nor Kentucky has played Georgia or Alabama, bringing up the question of how much strength of schedule has played into their and Mizzou’s success this year.

If Mizzou didn’t play two mainstays atop the SEC and, instead, had Florida’s schedule, playing hapless teams like Tennessee and Vanderbilt in those weeks, where would they be now?

It speaks to why these next three games are so important. They’ll answer questions, removing most, if not all, doubt of who this Missouri football team is. For better or worse, it will have a clear identity in three weeks, either sitting as a borderline top-25 team or sitting at the bottom of the SEC.

Edited by Adam Cole | acole@themaneater.com

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