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Can 2018 Mizzou continue 2017’s hot finish?

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Barry Odom’s got a seasoned, explosive offense and star power in the defensive front seven. Can the third-year coach sustain last year’s late gains?

Missouri v Vanderbilt
Drew Lock
Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images

[The text of this preview has been updated to reflect August injury news.]

Odom had more than nine months to prepare for the start of his second season as Missouri head coach.

He had nine months to find a rapport with defensive coordinator DeMontie Cross, with whom he had produced lackluster results in year one, and hone what amounted to a new 4-2-5 structure with a nickelback in place of a strongside linebacker.

He had nine months to prep a young corps of cornerbacks and find the right No. 3 receiver to line up with J’Mon Moore and slot man Johnathon Johnson.

In September 2017, he quickly found he had mostly wasted those nine months.

  • Cross was fired by mid-September, and Odom absorbed Cross’ play-calling duties and role as linebackers coach.
  • Starting WR Dimetrios Mason averaged 4.8 yards per target with a miserable 36 percent success rate and quit the team a few weeks in. He was replaced by Emanuel Hall, who dominated, averaging 13.8 yards per target with a 51 percent success rate.
  • The five-man defensive backfield got wrecked by bad positioning and communication throughout September. Nickel Kaleb Prewett moved to free safety, and SLB Brandon Lee re-entered what became once again a 4-3 base.

Mizzou started a wretched 1-5, and Odom hit the midway point of his second season looking like he wouldn’t get a third.

After a 51-14 loss to Auburn, Odom went on a rant that made headlines. “I want to get one thing real straight: I’m going to win here.” “It’s a turnaround. I don’t like it, I want to win right now, but that’s not the hand I’m given.” “I’m the man to go get it done.” “I got a guy that’s the third-team left tackle from Rock Bridge High School that’s got a Twitter account, he’s got 12 followers, and he wants to put out how terrible we are.”

It was impressive. It hit every note a paranoid, frustrated coach can. And when Mizzou ripped off six straight wins beginning a few weeks later, the rant was called “galvanizing,” deemed a catalyst. And hey, maybe it was.

Or maybe he and his staff figured out how to get the right guys in the right places (against the right opponents).

Mizzou in 2017

Category First 5 FBS games Next 6 games
Category First 5 FBS games Next 6 games
Record 0 W, 5 L 6 W, 0 L
Avg. score Opp 42, MU 18 MU 51, Opp 21
Avg. yards per play Opp 6.6, MU 5.8 MU 7.0, Opp 4.8
Avg. percentile performance 25% (36% off, 28% def) 84% (84% off, 73% def)
Avg. perf. vs. S&P+ proj. -17.9 PPG +22.0 PPG

The offense began to turn around basically the moment Hall entered and gave defenses one too many deep threats to contain. The defense got roughed up for a couple more weeks, giving up 6.4 yards per play to Kentucky and nine per play to Georgia. But when the schedule eased up, the Tigers organized.

The Tigers painted two different pictures in 2017, and we have no idea which was the more accurate one.

One one hand, even adjusting for opponent (in the average percentile performance figures above), Mizzou was dramatically better over the second half, playing like a top-20 team after playing like a top-100 team.

On the other hand, all the good teams came up early, and Mizzou’s six-win streak included Idaho, UConn, Vanderbilt, Arkansas, and collapsing Florida and Tennessee teams. When they got Michael Dickson’d in the Texas Bowl, it meant the Tigers ended up 0-5 against S&P+ top 50 teams and 7-1 against everyone else.

Which was the real Mizzou narrative? S&P+ is impressed by domination of lesser opponents — your performance against bad teams is generally as good a predictor as your performance against good ones — and gave Mizzou a final ranking of 35th. With quite a bit of returning production, the Tigers are projected 30th, second-best in the SEC East, this fall.

The dichotomy was too stark to forget, though, and Mizzou still has a lot to prove.

NCAA Football: Missouri at Connecticut
Barry Odom
David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Offense

Despite a miserable September, Drew Lock’s junior campaign finished with 3,964 yards, an SEC-record 44 touchdowns, and a passer rating of 165.7, second among returning FBS QBs (behind UCF’s McKenzie Milton). When he submitted his name for feedback from the NFL draft committee, however, he was basically told, “We need to see you in a real offense.” NFL scouts aren’t particularly fond of the Briles-style spread that coordinator Josh Heupel had created.

That put Odom in a bind. When Heupel took the UCF head coaching job, Odom had to find both a long-term replacement and a guy who could, in the short-term, help Lock in proving he can read defenses (and more of the field), make intermediate passes to go with last year’s diet of screens and deep balls, etc.

Odom’s choice came out of left field: Derek Dooley.

Yes, that Derek Dooley.

The former Louisiana Tech and Tennessee head coach spent the last four seasons as Dallas’ wide receivers coach. The odd trajectory of his career — he went straight from Nick Saban position coach to HC in 2007 — means he’s never actually been a coordinator.

Dooley knows the SEC, and he knows “pro-style” concepts (at this point, “pro-style” basically just means “more” — more reads for the QB, more protections for the line, and more potential routes). Theoretically, he’s got a cast that can handle “more.”

NCAA Football: Missouri at Georgia
Emanuel Hall
Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports
  • Lock enters his fourth year as a starter, having taken over for a suspended/struggling Maty Mauk during a miserable 2015. His trajectory under Heupel was dramatic.
  • Moore is now a Green Bay Packer, but Hall and Johnson return after combining for 74 catches, 1,541 yards, and 14 touchdowns last year. Hall averaged an absurd 24.8 yards per catch, and we’ll find out if he can handle a more fleshed-out route tree. (We’ll also find out if he can stay healthy. That’s part of the reason he didn’t play much in September. He also missed the Texas Bowl and the spring game.)
  • Tight end Albert Okwuegbunam was another reason for Mizzou’s surge. He began as a third-string redshirt freshman and finished with 11 touchdowns, most in FBS for a TE. He was the only P5 tight end to combine a marginal efficiency of at least plus-23 percent with a marginal explosiveness of at least plus-0.1 points per successful play, and he might be the best returning tight end in the country.
  • Running backs Damarea Crockett and Larry Rountree III are back. Crockett rushed for 1,062 yards as a freshman in 2016 before missing half of 2017 with injury. In Crockett’s absence, Rountree split with then-senior Ish Witter and posted sturdier efficiency numbers than Crockett.
  • An enormous, experienced line returns after ranking third in Adj. Sack Rate and 15th in Adj. Line Yards last year. All five starters are back and average a meaty 6’5, 328 pounds. Mizzou’s run game was underrated last year (22nd in Rushing S&P+) and could get even better. Plus, only two starters (right tackle Paul Adams and left guard Kevin Pendleton) are seniors, meaning Lock’s 2019 replacement will benefit from a seasoned front.
NCAA Football: Auburn at Missouri
Damarea Crockett
Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

In theory, Dooley can simply build complexity on top of what Heupel had established, giving Mizzou the capability to hit the brakes (Heupel’s offense was fourth in Adj. Pace last year) and come up with a Plan B for when solid defenses slow down the base attack.

It’s not hard to see the potential downside, though. Going from simple to complex, from “spread” to “pro-style” — though those terms grow more fungible each year — could lead to you misplacing your strengths in the name of fixing weaknesses.

And by god, if Dooley prevents us from seeing another year of Lock-to-Hall deep balls, he should be banished from college football.

If nothing else, we’ll find out what Lock, Hall, Johnson, Okwuegbunam, Crockett/Rountree, etc., are capable of this year, for better or worse. Dooley, too.

Defense

Mizzou’s defense finished 90th in Def. S&P+, but I’m not sure it ever played like the No. 90 defense. It was one of the 15 worst in FBS for the first half of the season, then it was a top-40-caliber unit the rest of the way.

Again, the caliber of opponent helped. But Mizzou’s defense also improved with a new lineup. Tackle A.J. Logan returned from a half-season suspension, Lee and freshman corner Adam Sparks took on more well-defined roles, and Prewett was far sturdier as FS than nickel.

Mizzou got organized, and the stars began to play like stars. End Marcell Frazier and former blue-chip tackle Terry Beckner Jr. combined for five tackles for loss in the first six games and 21.5 in the next seven. Linebackers Terez Hall and Cale Garrett ended up combining for 22.5 TFLs, with each taking part in at least 21 run stuffs (stops at or behind the line). Corners DeMarkus Acy and Sparks finished with six TFLs and nine passes defensed after a miserable start.

NCAA Football: Missouri at Connecticut
Terry Beckner Jr.
David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

There’s reason to believe the improvement was more than just opponent-based. But what happens now that some of those structural pieces — Frazier, Logan, Prewett (dismissed), strong safety Anthony Sherrils — have departed?

With Beckner and a grab bag of seniors Rashad Brandon and Walter Palmore, blue-chip Texas transfer Jordan Elliott, four-star sophomore Akial Byers, and others, Mizzou is so loaded at tackle that Odom and new coordinator Ryan Walters — Odom’s right-hand man going back to when he was at Memphis — have been tinkering with playing DTs at DE.

Plus, almost no one in the SEC has a linebacker trio as proven as Garrett, Hall, and Lee, and after trial by fire, Acy and Sparks were sturdy by the end.

NCAA Football: Missouri at Florida
Cam Hilton
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

That leaves two huge question marks, though.

  • Defensive end. Frazier and Jordan Harold combined for 23 TFLs and 10 sacks as seniors last year. Returnees Tre Williams, Nate Anderson, and Chris Turner combined for just seven and 4.5, respectively. Williams was yet another contributor who found himself later, but when your most proven end is a sophomore with four career TFLs, DE is a question.
  • Safety. Sherrils, Prewett, and Thomas Wilson are gone, leaving some combination of senior Cam Hilton, junior Ronnell Perkins, and sophomores Joshuah Bledsoe, Jordan Ulmer, and Tyree Gillespie to fill two starting roles and the nickel. Basically all saw time in the rotation last year.

Odom and Walters have quantity at the least proven areas, and they’ve got star power at DT and LB. But until see see sturdy safety play or a decent pass rush, we don’t know that Mizzou has it.

Either way, the run defense should be strong, but the quality of the pass defense is undetermined.

Special Teams

Also by the end, Mizzou’s special teams unit was one of the best in the country. Senior-to-be Corey Fatony averaged 44.3 yards per punt and ranked 12th in punt efficiency, kicker Tucker McCann was top-30 in both field goal efficiency and kickoffs, and after losing 12 yards on his first punt return of the season, Richaud Floyd averaged an amazing 23 per return with two scores thereafter. Mizzou ended up seventh in Special Teams S&P+.

All of these players return, which — combined with the offense’s potential efficiency and a likely sturdy run defense — should create field position advantage. But the unit does have to get around a broken leg that will keep Floyd out for the first few weeks.

2018 outlook

2018 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
1-Sep UT Martin NR 33.0 97%
8-Sep Wyoming 72 12.1 76%
15-Sep at Purdue 54 3.2 57%
22-Sep Georgia 6 -10.7 27%
6-Oct at South Carolina 35 -0.8 48%
13-Oct at Alabama 2 -20.5 12%
20-Oct Memphis 42 6.3 64%
27-Oct Kentucky 64 9.6 71%
3-Nov at Florida 32 -1.8 46%
10-Nov Vanderbilt 75 12.4 76%
17-Nov at Tennessee 79 8.0 68%
23-Nov Arkansas 52 7.7 67%
Projected S&P+ Rk 30
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 11 / 78
Projected wins 7.1
Five-Year S&P+ Rk 6.8 (32)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 44 / 40
2017 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* -8 / -1.9
2017 TO Luck/Game -2.3
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 65% (71%, 60%)
2017 Second-order wins (difference) 7.6 (-0.6)

S&P+ is pretty confident in this team. The Tigers return a majority of the reasons for their late improvement, and despite a tricky schedule that features trips to Purdue, South Carolina, and Alabama and a visit from Georgia, they are given at least a 46 percent win probability in 10 of 12 games.

Lock could end up the No. 1 QB in the 2019 NFL draft, and Missouri could easily consolidate last year’s gains with an 8-4 season. We could look back at 2017’s win streak as the moment Odom truly became Gary Pinkel’s long-term replacement.

The offense could also come out stagnant, thinking too much and trying too hard to be something it’s not. The defense could prove that last year’s schizophrenia is baked in, and the Tigers could get upset by Wyoming on their way to another 1-5 start. (Odom probably can’t count on surviving a second one of those.)

Given two extremes, I think I lean toward the former. But the latter’s on the table.

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