This week marks the first week of school at the University of Missouri. It also marks the 15th anniversary of my move to Columbia. I came from out of state, but I have long since gotten to know this university's, and this state's, eccentricities. Missouri is at once midwestern and southern, rural and urban (and also really, really rural), optimistic and scarred, proud and insecure. "I don't give a damn about what you say about me… but please say something nice." As with just about anywhere else, I imagine, it is a fascinating, often frustrating, place to live.
This offseason, then, has been a really, really interesting time to be a part of (and an observer of) the Missouri fan base. Never has the fan base been so thrilled, so proud to be a part of something bigger, than it has since the announcement of its impending move to the SEC. All of their longtime complaints, fair or unfair, about life in the Big 12 -- lack of equality, respect, etc. -- were seemingly alleviated in one swift move, and fans have responded by buying tickets in record numbers and snatching up as many "MIZ-SEC" shirts as they, or their credit cards, can handle.
At the same time, however, the insecurity has been stoked, dramatically and repeatedly. Fans from their former conference, with a sneer on their faces, have not hesitated to tell Mizzou fans just how much their team is about to get its butt kicked. Fans from their new conference, with a welcoming grin on their faces, have not hesitated to tell Mizzou fans just how much their team is about to get its butt kicked. The step up in competition is both clearly definable and drastically overstated (the Big 12 is a really strong conference, and one that plays nine conference games instead of just eight), but the good news for fans is that games begin in fewer than two weeks. At that point, for better or worse, Mizzou will begin to learn exactly what it got itself into in leaving its old conference rivals for a spate of new ones.
So what is the SEC getting in Missouri?
- A program that has won a school record 48 games in the last five seasons. The Tigers went 12-2 in 2007, 10-4 in 2008 and 10-3 in 2010 and rank 20th in five-year F/+, two spots ahead of Auburn and one spot below Arkansas.
- A program that has been good at just about everything at least once in recent seasons. The Tigers were fifth in Off. F/+ in 2008 (sixth in 2007), 14th in Def. F/+ in 2010 and fourth in Special Teams F/+ in 2008. On offense, they ranked seventh in Rushing S&P+ in 2010 and seventh in Passing S&P+ in 2007. On defense, they ranked sixth in Passing S&P+ in 2010 and 22nd in Rushing S&P+ in both 2008 and 2011.
- A program that has been bad, or at least thoroughly mediocre, at just about everything at least once in recent seasons. Mizzou ranked 71st in Def. F/+ in 2009, 41st in Off. F/+ in 2010 and 62nd in Special Teams F/+ in 2007. On offense, they were 47th in Rushing S&P+ in 2009 and 49th in Passing S&P+ in 2011. On defense, they were 56th in Rushing S&P+ in 2010 and 75th in Passing S&P+ in 2009.
Gary Pinkel has built a perfectly solid program in Columbia, with solid attendance, solid facilities, solid financial support, and solid results. But the SEC doesn't tend to reward "solid" very often. You can carve out a seven- to eight-win niche in the SEC, but is that all that this Big 12 transplant can expect? And can they achieve that level immediately, or will it take a while?
When Arkansas joined the conference in 1992, the Razorbacks went just 12-19-2 in their first three years; but they had gone just 9-14 in their final two seasons in the Southwest Conference. South Carolina went 9-13 in its first two years in the SEC, as well, but the Gamecocks had gone 9-11-2 in their last two years as an independent. Missouri is more sturdily built than either of those programs were on Day One, but how much, and how soon, will that actually matter?
Missouri's was one of the more pliable bend-don't-break defenses in the country last year. They ranked 16th in Def. F/+ despite the fact that their starting safeties registered an almost alarming 116.5 tackles. The line was a bit all-or-nothing, and the rotating crew of linebackers didn't help, but the Tigers mastered the art of bending, then stiffening in the red zone. That is a high-wire act that is sometimes hard to replicate from year to year. […] It appears that strong redzone defense is sustainable as a whole, but the combination of Mizzou's less-than-explosive passing game and their porous run defense (over the second half of the season) gave them little margin for error.
In all, this is an extremely experienced team that has begun to establish a proven track record. If James Franklin clicks, the Tigers could threaten for, at the very least, second place in the Big 12. In fact, the Football Outsiders Almanac 2011 projects them to possibly do just that. But the front-loaded schedule could be an obstacle for a new quarterback -- in Franklin's first five games, he will face trips to Arizona State, Oklahoma and Kansas State. If the Tigers survive that stretch, things become more favorable. They have to travel to Texas A&M for the second straight year, but they host Oklahoma State, Texas and Texas Tech. The numbers now give the Tigers the benefit of the doubt, but Franklin, the receiving corps and secondary both have to prove their bona fides.
Given an easier schedule (like, say, the one with which the 2009 team went 8-5), Missouri could have threatened to put together its fourth 10-win season in five years. Instead, the Tigers faced one of their most difficult slates in quite a while, facing eight teams that spent at least part of 2011 ranked in the AP Top 25. They faced Arizona State in September, when the Sun Devils were still with-it enough to destroy USC a couple of weeks later, and they faced Oklahoma before the Ryan Broyles injury. Three early, tough road games resulted in a 2-3 start, but beyond that, be it because of youth (new starting quarterback) or injuries (the starting tackle, starting running back and starting middle linebacker were all lost by the end of the season's first game), Missouri just wasn't playing very consistently on either side of the ball. But as the season progressed, and the scheduled eased up ever so slightly, the Tigers eventually began to both play better ball and win.
First Four Games (minus a 69-0 win over Western Illinois): Missouri 28.9 Adj. Points per game, Opponents 28.0 (plus-0.9)
Last Eight Games: Missouri 30.3, Opponents 25.2 (plus-5.1)
The Tigers won five of their last six, complete with their first win over Texas in 14 years and the obligatory comeback win at Texas A&M, to finish 8-5 and head into the offseason with some sustained momentum. Their reward? After facing the 11th-most difficult schedule in the country last year, the Football Outsiders Almanac 2012 says they will be facing the eighth-most difficult in 2012. But hey, at least they have an experienced quarterback this time around.
Here's something else I said in last year's preview:
The spread offense really has taken hold in a way other formations/alignments/ways of thinking have not. The Wishbone was awesome, but it's a running offense. The run-and-shoot is a passing offense. But the spread can be whatever you want it to be. And as defenses across the country get lighter and faster in an effort to adapt to the spread's success, it is likely that offenses will adapt with more size and more running. It is a constant dance between offensive innovation and defensive adaptation, and as we reach Phase Two of the spread's life cycle, Missouri is a team worth watching.
One has to give Missouri offensive coordinator David Yost one thing: what he lacks in generally acceptable hair care he makes up for in flexibility. While this will be the eighth season since Missouri moved to the spread offense, the look and feel of said spread has changed significantly from year to year, depending on the strengths of the personnel. In 2005, with previous coordinator Dave Christensen (Yost was quarterbacks coach), quarterback Brad Smith finished his career with a 2,000 (passing yards)/1,000 (rushing yards) season. From 2006-10, with quarterbacks Chase Daniel and Blaine Gabbert running the show, Missouri never passed fewer than 37.2 times per game. But in 2011, with James Franklin behind center, Missouri's identity shifted quite a bit.
At 6'2, 225 pounds, Franklin is basically the size of big Arkansas running back Knile Davis, and he combined with a hefty stable of small running backs to give Mizzou a wonderfully diverse, effective read option and running game. Franklin carried the ball about 15 times per game (occasionally doing things like this) and handed to random running backs (whoever was healthy that week) another 25 times, and Missouri's offense, one of the most run-heavy in the Big 12, ranked 19th in Rushing S&P+.
Franklin returns, and after tearing his labrum in the spring, his surgically-repaired shoulder is somehow healthier and stronger than it was pre-injury, so with that enormous question mark seemingly out of the way, we can instead discuss what identity this year's personnel will create. Last year's leading rusher, Henry Josey (1,168 yards, 8.1 per carry, in 10 games) is still recovering from a catastrophic knee injury, so the rushing load will be carried primarily by Kendial Lawrence (586 yards, 4.9 per carry) and sophomore Marcus Murphy (181 yards, 8.2 per carry in 2010), who missed 2011 with an injury of his own. (At one point or another, each of Missouri's top four backs, including initial starter Lawrence, missed significant time with injury in 2011.)
Along with the loss of Josey, the Missouri rushing attack must cope with the losses of three starters (combined: 103 career starts) to graduation and projected starter Travis Ruth to a season-ending injury in fall camp. The Tigers are still strong at the tackles, where returning starter Justin Britt joins forces with sixth-year senior Elvis Fisher (40 career starts), who missed 2011 with injury. But the interior line, which was wonderfully physical last year, is quite inexperienced this time around. Throw in the losses of some of Missouri's best open-field blockers (tight end Michael Egnew and receivers Wes Kemp and Jerrell Jackson), and it is probably safe to assume that Mizzou might struggle to match last year's success on the ground.
At the same time, however, the receiving corps is as well-stocked as it has been since the days of Jeremy Maclin and Chase Coffman. Senior T.J. Moe (649 yards, 8.3 per target, 69 percent catch rate) is one of the best possession receivers in the country, and he is flanked by quite a few lanky deep threats. You've got 6'5 junior Marcus Lucas (414 yards, 10.6 per target, 59 percent catch rate), 6'4 junior L'Damian Washington (364 yards, 13.0 per target, 71 percent catch rate), and, of course, 6'6 freshman Dorial Green-Beckham, 2012's No. 1 recruit in the country according to Rivals.com. If these three can stretch the field vertically, it could open up even SEC defenses to some slash-and-burn passing to T.J. Moe underneath the coverage, not to mention some running from Franklin (who we can probably assume will try to take fewer hits this year with the spring shoulder issue), Lawrence, Murphy, etc.
In other words, while many failed to comprehend just how run-heavy Missouri became in 2011, it is fair to assume that they might drift back toward their pass-friendly tendencies. And that should be fine with Franklin, who completed 63 percent of his passes (7.0 per attempt) last season.
Franklin's biggest problem in 2011 was simple: mistakes lingered. If he made one, another was probably going to follow, and the quality of the opponent didn't really matter. He threw 10 of his 11 interceptions in five games and only one in the other eight.
James Franklin versus Miami (Ohio), Oklahoma State, Kansas State and Kansas: 63-for-109 passing (58 percent completion rate), 707 yards (6.5 per pass), four touchdowns and eight interceptions (7.3 percent interception rate).
Franklin versus the other nine opponents (including Texas and Oklahoma): 175-for-267 passing (66 percent), 2,158 yards (8.1 per pass), 17 touchdowns, three interceptions (1.1 percent interception rate).
He threw interceptions on back-to-back possessions versus Iowa State, on back-to-back-to-back possessions versus Kansas, he turned the ball over four times in the second half versus Oklahoma State, and he almost threw picks in consecutive passes versus Miami (Ohio) (the second one was dropped). If learning to move past mistakes becomes part of the maturation process in his second year of starting, he could immediately be one of the SEC's two or three best quarterbacks. But it goes without saying that, with Alabama (No. 1 in Def. F/+ in 2011), South Carolina (No. 12), Georgia (No. 17), Florida (No. 20), Texas A&M (No. 23) and Vanderbilt (No. 28) on the docket in 2012, further inability in this regard could come with voluminous consequences.
Midway through the offseason, the meme as it pertained to Missouri's move to the SEC seemed to shift from "Yeah, we'll see how that rinky dink spread fares against big-boy defenses," to "Okay, Missouri will probably move the ball, but good luck with those physical SEC offenses."
In response to this meme, two things bear mentioning:
- Two of Missouri's best (opponent-adjusted) defensive performances in 2011 were against two of their most physical opponents, run-heavy Texas and pro-style North Carolina.
- Neither North Carolina (33rd in Off. F/+) nor Texas (62nd) were as good at being physical as some of Mizzou's 2012 opponents.
Missouri's third linebacker is quite a bit better than its fifth defensive back, and the Tigers would accordingly prefer to stay in the 4-3 as much as possible, as opposed to the nickel in which they had to spend a good portion of their time in the spread-happy Big 12. But preferred system or not, they face two major question marks.
First, how is the depth at defensive tackle? Former five-star recruit Sheldon Richardson (8.0 tackles for loss in 2011) could be in for a big season this fall, but he will need help. Lining up alongside Richardson in the starting lineup will either be sophomore Lucas Vincent (a big former wrestler who is currently coming back from a pectoral injury) or sophomore Matt Hoch, who was until recently a 260-pound defensive end (he has put on 40 pounds at an almost disturbingly quick rate). Combined tackles for Vincent and Hoch in 2011: 8.5. If both thrive, and the unit avoids injury, then all is well. But those are two pretty big ifs at a position that typically needs to be strong against physical, run-heavy attacks like South Carolina's and Alabama's.
The second question mark comes at the back of the defense. Strong safety Kenji Jackson, one of the better "safety valve" safeties in the country (an obvious key to the type of bend-don't-break defense Missouri typically tries to play), is gone after two steady years as a starter. The free safety position featured a rotating cast of either banged-up or ineffective characters, and through some combination of senior Kenronte Walker, junior Matt White, sophomores Braylon Webb and Daniel Easterly, and redshirt freshman Ian Simon, Pinkel and defensive coordinator Dave Steckel simply must find two safeties who can both support against the run and prevent disasters on play-action.
If these two question marks have happy answers, the rest of the defense should fall in line just fine. All-Big 12 cornerback E.J. Gaines (two interceptions, 16 passes broken up, 3.0 tackles for loss) returns to compare SEC No. 1 receivers to their Big 12 counterparts, and the Tigers are deep at both linebacker (Andrew Wilson and Zaviar Gooden combined for 15.5 tackles for loss, two interceptions and four passes broken up last year) and, potentially, end (senior Brad Madison had 11.0 tackles for loss in 2010 before battling injury all of last season, and four-star sophomore Kony Ealy has looked sharp, both in spring and fall camp).
When he first came to Columbia in 2001, Gary Pinkel preached that leverage was the tenet to any strong defense. Leverage players and offenses back toward the middle of the field, make the tackle, live to fight another down, and eventually hope to force a mistake. His Tigers have accomplished this better in some years than others, but while this is a style that can work in the SEC or any other conference, it helps to have as few question marks as possible at tackle and safety. We'll see.
If you count home games versus SE Louisiana, Arizona State, Vanderbilt, Kentucky and Syracuse as probable wins and games versus Alabama and at Florida and South Carolina as likely losses, that leaves you with four games (Georgia, at Central Florida, at Tennessee, at Texas A&M) that could make the difference between campaigns of 5-7 and 9-3.
The Football Outsiders Almanac 2012 gives Mizzou a 56 percent chance of finishing either 6-6 or 7-5, so how about we set the bar at seven wins? More than that would be an enormous statement that Mizzou is ready for the rigors of the SEC; fewer would further the notion that the SEC is a grind, and Mizzou just isn't yet prepared for the move.
In years past, Missouri has been a completely different team in a quarterback's rookie season and when he has found his sea legs. In Chase Daniel's first season as a starter, Mizzou went 8-5; they went 22-6 the next two years. In 2009, Gabbert's rookie year, the Tigers again went 8-5; they went 10-3 the next year. Despite the rough schedule and what Gary Pinkel called the most injuries he had ever seen in a given season, James Franklin continued the "8-5 in your first year" trend. But outside of the Mizzou fan base you would be hard-pressed to find someone suggesting that Franklin's Tigers will once again return to the land of double-digit wins in 2012.
Instead, we're in a situation where there are far more questions than concrete expectations. How will Mizzou attempt to attack SEC defenses with personnel more friendly to the pass than the run? What kind of contribution can Dorial Green-Beckham make in his first year (and how quickly can he begin to make it)? How will James Franklin respond to mistakes this time around? How will Mizzou's defense hold up to steady doses of South Carolina's Marcus Lattimore, Vanderbilt's Zac Stacy and Alabama's [Insert Random Blue-Chip Running Back Here]? Will poor safety play break a bend-don't-break defense? And will The SEC Grind™ take effect as conference proponents so often say it does? And do Mizzou fans take in nearly enough brown liquor and tailgate meat to fit in with their new conference mates? We will find out the answers soon enough.
While we’re here, let’s watch some of the many fine college football videos from SB Nation’s YouTube channel: