Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - It didn't take long for the Missouri Tigers to make a name for themselves in the SEC.
After Missouri went just 5-7 in 2012 in its first season in the conference after switching over from the Big 12, it made an incredible turnaround in 2013 with a 12-2 mark (7-1 in conference play) while coming within a shootout loss to Auburn in the SEC Championship Game (59-42) from earning a bid in the BCS National Championship Game.
The team temporarily erased the pains of the loss to Auburn with a stellar, 41-31 victory over Oklahoma State in the Cotton Bowl to match its highest win total in school history. The outstanding campaign led to a generous contract extension for Gary Pinkel, the program's all-time winningest head coach who's led the squad to a 102-63 record since taking over in the 2001 season.
Now the Tigers are out to prove they are not just a one-year wonder in the nation's most challenging conference.
All great teams have to face the reality of player turnover each offseason, but Missouri heads into the 2014 campaign rather depleted, especially on the offensive side of the ball, where it ranked among the nation's best in points per game (39.1) and yards per game (490.7).
The Tigers' three-year starter at quarterback, James Franklin (2,939 total yards and 23 touchdowns in 11 games in 2013), has graduated, and a large portion of his supporting cast, including running back Henry Josey (1,166 yards, 16 TDs) and receivers Marcus Lucas (58 receptions, three TDs) and L'Damian Washington (50 receptions, 893 yards, 10 TDs), also will try their luck at the NFL.
On the defensive side of things, the team will also need to find suitable replacements for Andrew Wilson (113 tackles), E.J. Gaines (75 tackles, five interceptions) and Michael Sam (19 tackles for loss, 9.5 sacks).
Pinkel has faced this dilemma before, but he and his team will be put under the microscope in 2014 more this time. After Missouri established itself as a legitimate power, failing to build upon last season's success will be viewed as a major step backward for the program. Heading into camp this spring and summer, Pinkel was very clear about how his team's nucleus will be constructed moving forward.
"The foundation of our program is competition," Pinkel said. "It always has been and it always will be. There are no guaranteed positions on the team. Everyone has to go out there and earn their spots, earn their playing time. If a young guy beats a veteran out, they beat them out. It's good for the team.
"There's a lot of examples over the years," the head coach continued, "but one I always point to is when Brad Smith won the quarterback job as a redshirt freshman. He beat out a senior who had been a starter for a couple of seasons."
Pinkel made it clear early on in spring practice that no one has sewn up a starting spot just yet, leaving the competitions for the top of the depth chart fierce across the board.
Despite Pinkel's open competition policy, it seems Maty Mauk has a definitive leg up in the starting quarterback race. Mauk filled in admirably last season when Franklin went down with a shoulder injury, throwing for 1,071 yards with 11 touchdowns to just two interceptions in four starts while leading his team to a 3-1 record.
Corbin Berkstresser, who was the primary replacement when Franklin was injured in 2012 (1,059 yards, five TDs, seven interceptions), also will be in the mix if something unforeseen happens with Mauk.
Josey may have earned the majority of the carries a season ago, but the Tigers are still expected to have one of the nation's best rushing attacks yet again this season. Russell Hansbrough (685 yards, four TDs) and Marcus Murphy (601 yards, nine TDs) both averaged at least six yards per carry and will assume an expanded role in 2014.
"In the SEC, you have to be very deep at every position certainly, but tailback is crucial to have three or four guys who can get the job done," Pinkel said. "We were very deep last year there, and a guy like Morgan Steward (21 carries for 84 yards as a freshman) didn't get a ton of opportunities, but he's trying to show now that he can be someone to depend on."
Defensively, the squad has some holes to fill, but tackles Matt Hoch and Lucas Vincent, linebacker Kentrell Brothers, and safeties Braylon Webb and Ian Simon all return to the starting lineup.
"We had a really outstanding year defensively overall," Pinkel said. "We were really physical, really good with turnovers and that's one of the most important factors in winning, so we need that to continue."
While the Tigers have plenty to be optimistic about for next season, their list of concerns is just as long.
At receiver, the loss of Lucas and Washington makes arguably the team's biggest strength a huge question mark moving forward, but now Dorial Green-Beckham (59 receptions, 883 yards, 12 TDs) has been suspended indefinitely following his alleged involvement criminal assault investigation, putting his future with the program in serious jeopardy. The five-star recruit also was arrested earlier this year on suspicion of drug activity in addition to being charged with marijuana possession in October 2012.
"It's unfortunate, but it's the right thing to do for our football program, for the athletic department and also for Dorial," Pinkel said of his star receiver's suspension. "It's frustrating because we work very hard to instill responsibility and discipline in our young men so that our program represents Mizzou the right way. These actions aren't representative of those expectations, and we are addressing these issues head on."
Without Green-Beckham, the inexperienced receiving corps will be anchored by Bud Sasser (26 receptions, 361 yards, TD) and Jimmie Hunt (22 receptions, 252 yards, TD).
It doesn't appear much immediate help will be coming through first-year players, either. Even following such an outstanding season, Missouri failed to make a splash on the recruiting trail. Seven SEC teams ranked among Rivals.com's top-10 recruiting classes, but the Tigers came in at just 34th as they failed to lock down a five-star recruit.
At least the Tigers dodged a few bullets from the schedule makers. Sure, they'll have to play their regular SEC East foes South Carolina, Georgia and Florida, but they have avoided West Division powers Alabama, LSU and Auburn, instead drawing a rebuilding Texas A&M squad as well as the underachieving Arkansas Razorbacks.
More than just about any other SEC team, Missouri's potential for success is in flux and nearly impossible to predict, but if the Tigers can come anywhere close to matching their production from 2013, it'll be a testament to just how great a program Pinkel has built in Columbia.