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Mizzou football has one thing in common with new rival Arkansas: extreme volatility

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Here are all the reasons that could continue in 2017.

Vanderbilt v Missouri
Damarea Crockett
Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images

From 2004-13, Arkansas became one of the most volatile programs you'll ever see. The Razorbacks had three top-15 finishes and 10-win campaigns in this span; they also went 5-7 or worse five times. They averaged seven wins per year without ever actually winning seven games in a year.

Perhaps imitation is a good way to further a new rivalry.

In five seasons since moving to the SEC, Missouri is 37-27, basically an average of 7-5 every year. That sounds like a stable number.

Of course, Mizzou never wins seven games in a season. Or six. Or eight. Middle ground is boring anyway, right?

Thus far, Missouri has gone 5-7, 12-2, 11-3, 5-7, and 4-8. The Tigers had a disappointing debut, surged to two division titles, bottomed out offensively in 2015, made national headlines for something not just related to sports, and underwent a surprise coaching search after Gary Pinkel revealed he was retiring to fight lymphoma.

2016 was either the beginning of a stabler period or the continuation of a downturn that will likely result in another coaching search. Barry Odom, Pinkel’s last defensive coordinator, engineered overall improvement — the Tigers moved from 123rd to 42nd in Off. S&P+ and from 83rd to 69th in overall S&P+ — but a combination of defensive regression, a slightly tougher schedule, and iffy close-game execution led to a slip from 5-7 to 4-8.

You can see whatever you want. A combination of the 2016 offense and 2015 defense would give you a top-15 team in S&P+; the 2015 offense and 2016 defense combined would be bottom-10. You’re not supposed to produce that range, even with a coaching change, which is funny, considering part of the draw of hiring Odom was continuity.

Now, the offense returns almost literally everybody:

  • Quarterback Drew Lock who threw for 3,399 yards and 23 touchdowns last year.
  • Running backs Damarea Crockett and Ish Witter, who combined for 1,812 rushing yards and 16 touchdowns.
  • Last year’s top six wide receivers, who combined for 162 catches, 2,597 yards, and 17 touchdowns.
  • Every player who started a game on last year’s dramatically improved line, plus all but one member of the second string.

Of that batch, only five of them — Witter, receiver J’Mon Moore, and three linemen — are seniors. That tells you just how young last year’s offense was and how much more potential it might possess.

But what the heck happened to the defense? For all the gains the offense made, the D gave most of them away.

  • Def. S&P+: from 13th in 2015 to 89th in 2016
  • Rushing S&P+: from 14th to 109th
  • Passing S&P+: from 15th to 72nd
  • Standard Downs S&P+: from 14th to 83rd
  • Passing Downs S&P+: from 15th to 102nd
  • Success rate: from 29th to 89th
  • IsoPPP (which measures the explosiveness of the successful plays): from first to 92nd

Considering the Tigers returned five of their top six tacklers (and 15 of 20) from 2015, this was a stunning collapse, and in the offseason, Odom signed a boatload of what he hopes are instant-impact linemen.

Theoretically it will rebound a decent amount, as the offense did last year, but if you saw the defense getting thoroughly shredded by Middle Tennessee (595 yards, 51 points), Kentucky (582 yards, 35 points), or Tennessee (609 yards, 63 points), you could be forgiven for not believing in theories. But if it can be mediocre, there are wins on the table.

The Tigers are part of a huge batch of SEC East teams that return a vast majority of last year’s contributors, and their fate will be determined by a series of relative tossup games. An easier non-conference slate should put a bowl bid within reach, but that’s assuming a rational universe. In the universe Mizzou has defined for itself, Mizzou will either go 5-7 ... or 10-2.

NCAA Football: SEC Media Days
Barry Odom
Adam Hagy-USA TODAY Sports

2016 in review

2016 Mizzou statistical profile.

Give Odom credit for one thing: He was unafraid to make changes. He brought in offensive coordinator Josh Heupel to install basically a version of the Art Briles offense, operating with extreme tempo and taking advantage of Lock’s big arm by spreading receivers out from sideline to sideline.

On defense, he also attempted a shift, changing the philosophy of the front from extreme aggression to more of the read-and-react approach we usually associate with a 3-4 defense.

The offense played like what it was: a super-young unit with upside. It torched bad defenses but was in no way ready to punish good defenses.

  • Mizzou vs. Def. S&P+ top 40: 5.4 yards per play, 17.0 points per game, 48% average offensive percentile performance
  • Mizzou vs. No. 41-90: 6.4 yards per play, 26.8 points per game, 58% average offensive percentile performance
  • Mizzou vs. No. 91-plus: 7.6 yards per play, 61.7 points per game, 88% average offensive percentile performance

Everybody does better against worse defenses, but that’s a bit extreme. (The 2017 schedule, by the way, features five projected top-40 defenses and three projected 81st or worse, so there could be plenty of extremes again.)

The defense stumbled. Defensive end Marcell Frazier, recruited to play for Craig Kuligowski’s ultra-aggressive front, said the new philosophy was “like playing with your legs taped together and your arms behind your back.” It didn’t go well.

After getting torched by MTSU, Odom shifted back toward 2015’s defensive philosophy and took over play-calling on that side. The results were not any better on average, but the havoc plays increased, and that was enough to help the Tigers win two of three (over Vanderbilt and Arkansas) to finish.


Offense

Mizzou offensive radar

Full advanced stats glossary.

I’ll be blunt. Missouri’s offensive ceiling will be defined by one guy: WR Moore. He probably isn’t the Tigers’ best offensive player — that’s almost certainly Crockett — and he isn’t the head of their most worrisome unit. That’s the Mizzou offensive line, which might have been far steadier (and has all sorts of experience now) but might still lag behind from a talent perspective.

Moore is the X-factor. The mercurial senior has shown an incredible range between ceiling and floor. Against Georgia early last year, he caught eight of 13 passes for 196 yards; then, against LSU and Florida, he caught two of 10 passes for 31 yards, got into a trash-talking contest against LSU (no idea what trash he was attempting to talk), and seemed to get lectured by younger teammates for his atrocious body language against Florida. Drops were an issue, and at the end of his incredible Georgia performance, he lost a fumble that cost the Tigers a shot.

In the last three games, Moore exploded, and in a good way. He caught 23 of 40 passes for 407 yards and two touchdowns. He became the No. 1 target Lock hoped he would be all year.

NCAA Football: Vanderbilt at Missouri
J’Mon Moore
Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

If Moore is that guy more often, the Tigers have everything else they need. He wasn’t dramatically efficient, but Mizzou has efficiency guys in Crockett, sophomore wideout Dimetrios Mason (51 percent success rate, 8 yards per target), and tight ends Kendall Blanton and Jason Reese.

If they have a No. 1-caliber receiver, they have the depth and experience in the receiving corps to punish any strategy. But if he deals with more funks and drops, Mizzou will still have a tough go against stronger defenses.

They’ll still have Crockett, though. After a slow start to 2016, he was a revelation. He carried just 22 times for 95 yards in his first four games and lost a fumble against West Virginia, but he found his way in the glorified end-of-September scrimmage against Delaware State and maintained that rhythm.

Over an eight-game stretch, Crockett carried 131 times for 967 yards (7.4 per carry) and nine touchdowns. His season ended when he was suspended for a marijuana citation against Arkansas, but against Vandy and Tennessee, with the passing game finding its way a bit, he rushed 44 times for 379 yards.

With legitimate headliners — Lock, Crockett, and Moore — the experienced supporting cast could thrive. Witter is a decent backup back, and a receiver collective of Mason, Johnathon Johnson, Emanuel Hall, 2015 starter Nate Brown, Richaud Floyd, Ray Wingo, and maybe freshman Da’Ron Davis could be fantastic.

Johnson was one of the most fascinating players in the sport last year. He averaged 18 yards per catch out of the slot, rushed four times for 114 yards, and averaged 14 yards per punt return. He also fumbled an astounding 11 times — six from scrimmage and five on punt returns.

Heupel utilized his slot guys (Johnson, Floyd, Wingo) in dynamic ways, and Johnson is the top guy there. But damn, dude, hold onto the football.

Missouri v South Carolina
Drew Lock
Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Defense

Mizzou defensive radar

Name the category, and Mizzou’s defense was probably worse at it in 2016. And it was a “plug one leak, watch another one form” kind of situation as well. For the first half of the season, the Tiger run defense struggled but got bailed out at times by a strong pass defense. But as Mizzou attempted to get more disruptive up front, both to give its run defense more help and liven up the pass rush, it left the pass defense exposed. It also didn’t help the run defense.

  • First 5 games vs. FBS: Avg. defensive percentile performance: 49% | Yards per carry allowed: 5.3 | Passer rating allowed: 108.1 | Points per game allowed: 31.4
  • Last 6 games: Avg. defensive percentile performance: 33% | Yards per carry allowed: 5.5 | Passer rating allowed: 150.3 | Points per game allowed: 36.8

Despite a pass-rush surge, the breakdowns in pass defense became more pronounced. Meanwhile, an offense that was still learning tempo was throwing in blink-and-you-miss-it possessions.

Knowing that repair work begins up front, Odom signed eight defensive linemen in February — four JUCO transfers and four freshmen. He also replaced line coach Jackie Shipp with well-regarded former Texas and LSU assistant Brick Haley.

Combining that with the fact that four of last year’s top six tacklers up front are gone (including pass rusher and first-round draft pick Charles Harris), you can guarantee the line will be different from last year’s.

The biggest key could be a returnee, though. Former five-star prospect Terry Beckner Jr. has seen each of his first two seasons end early because of a knee injury. In 17 career games, he has recorded 10 tackles for loss and shown flashes of brilliance.

A combination of Beckner, Frazier (who had 7.5 TFLs in the last three games, once his legs were no longer taped together), and a random JUCO tackle (either Walter Palmore, Rashad Brandon, or Malik Young) is three-quarters of an exciting line. But there are still a lot of unknowns, beginning with who is starting opposite Frazier. Junior Nate Howard has potential, but his status is unknown after a felony drug arrest.

Former walk-on Jordan Harold is the only other returning end who saw the field, so either redshirt freshman Tre Williams, JUCO transfer Nate Anderson, or freshman Chris Turner might have to step up. Having an experienced linebacking corps — Eric Beisel, Cale Garrett, Joey Burkett, and Brandon Lee all logged at least 31.5 tackles, and Beisel emerged midseason as a solid play-maker — will help.

NCAA Football: Arkansas at Missouri
Marcell Frazier
Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

If the run defense is a bit more stable, Mizzou could go to its next big question: cornerbacks?

Safety should be well-stocked with Kansas State transfer and spring standout Kaleb Prewett, veterans Anthony Sherrils, Thomas Wilson, and Cam Hilton, and rising sophomore Ronnell Perkins. But Aarion Penton and John Gibson were the only two CBs to record more than nine tackles last year. They’re both gone.

The staff appears high on sophomores DeMarkus Acy and Christian Holmes, and senior Logan Cheadle has been around the block, but any gains up front could be offset by glitches on the perimeter. Acy and Holmes might be the two most important young players on the roster.

NCAA Football: Oklahoma at Kansas State
Kaleb Prewett
Scott Sewell-USA TODAY Sports

Special Teams

Mizzou had basically half of an excellent special teams unit. Junior Corey Fatony is one of the most efficient punters in the country, and two-thirds of Tucker McCann’s kickoffs resulted in touchbacks. That, plus Johnson’s explosiveness in punt returns, gave the Tigers some massive field position weapons.

Unfortunately, Johnson’s fumble issues were marked, and McCann’s place-kicking issues were even more so. McCann couldn’t control his enormous leg, missing four PATs and making just five of nine under-40 field goals. He was a disaster, but he was a freshman. So was Johnson, for that matter. If they both learn to control their explosions, there’s top-25 potential.


2017 outlook

2017 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
2-Sep Missouri State NR 28.0 95%
9-Sep South Carolina 36 -0.4 49%
16-Sep Purdue 87 13.1 77%
23-Sep Auburn 9 -13.6 22%
7-Oct at Kentucky 41 -4.5 40%
14-Oct at Georgia 20 -12.0 24%
21-Oct Idaho 119 20.4 88%
28-Oct at Connecticut 125 17.9 85%
4-Nov Florida 15 -11.4 26%
11-Nov Tennessee 24 -4.8 39%
18-Nov at Vanderbilt 63 -1.0 48%
24-Nov at Arkansas 32 -7.2 34%
Projected S&P+ Rk 53
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 22 / 94
Projected wins 6.3
Five-Year S&P+ Rk 7.0 (40)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 50 / 38
2016 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* -3 / -7.0
2016 TO Luck/Game +1.7
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 72% (89%, 54%)
2016 Second-order wins (difference) 5.2 (-1.2)

It’s time for everyone’s favorite game ... Optimist! Versus! Pessimist!

What the optimist sees

It’s not out of the realm of possibility that a young offense that ranked 42nd in Off. S&P+ could turn into a top-25 attack, especially with Crockett taking on more of a load and, in theory, Moore sustaining last year’s late gains. Lock could throw for 4,000 yards, and Crockett could go for 1,500 rushing yards.

Meanwhile, a transitioning defense could stabilize in its second year. Odom was a well-regarded defensive assistant, and Haley was a nice addition. The new blood sticks, the defense rebounds to top-60 level, and Mizzou’s a top-30 team again.

What the pessimist sees

If the offense can’t do anything against good defenses, that’s a bit of a problem, considering there are a few more projected good defenses on the schedule. The offensive line doesn’t have much more growing to do, Moore remains inconsistent, and Lock continues to deal with occasional efficiency issues.

On defense, well, just because you’re undergoing turnover doesn’t mean the new pieces are going to do any better. The offense regresses a little, the defense improves little, and in a division of improving teams, Mizzou’s at the bottom.

S&P+ basically splits the difference, projecting Mizzou 53rd with four likely non-conference wins and just enough relative tossups in conference to get to 6-6 overall. But both 3-9 and 9-3 are on the table, which means the narrative potential in Columbia is quite high.

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