After starting Barry Odom’s tenure with 13 losses in 18 games, Missouri has stabilized. The Tigers have gone 14–6 since a 1–5 start in 2017, and they haven’t lost in November since 2016.
Not that Mizzou fans have noticed. The Tigers’ 2015 collapse coincided with the Mizzou racial protests and the football team’s brief boycott; due to either or both of those causes, attendance has dipped 21 percent since 2014.
Maybe the emergence of a new rival — the NCAA — can help spur some energy.
In January, the NCAA announced that Missouri was banned from the 2019 postseason for the actions of a rogue tutor who helped former student athletes complete coursework. The sanctions also included vacated wins, a five percent reduction of scholarships and, for some reason, recruiting restrictions. The school not only appealed the punishment but also launched a statewide Make It Right campaign. The fan base appears more united at the moment than it has been for four years. Will that energy bring fans back to Faurot Field, bowl ban or no?
Previewing Missouri's Offense for 2019
It appeared there might be a reset for the offense following the departure of four-year starting quarterback Drew Lock. Instead, Odom and offensive coordinator Derek Dooley elected to bring in a ringer.
Former Clemson starter Kelly Bryant knows all about succeeding first-round QBs — he helped to guide those Tigers to the College Football Playoff in their first year without Deshaun Watson. Bryant completed 66 percent of his passes over parts of four seasons at Clemson, and he’s a more willing runner than Lock was.
Lock was expected to lean heavily on receiver Emanuel Hall and tight end Albert Okwuegbunam in 2018, but due to injuries, they were rarely on the field at the same time after September, and freshmen Jalen Knox and Kam Scott combined to catch 35 passes for 633 yards and five touchdowns. Knox is more experienced than anyone expected now that he must replace Hall for good.
Bryant will be helped by the veteran presence of both Okwuegbunam and senior slot man Johnathon Johnson, who has 124 career catches. He could also benefit from the arrival of fellow grad transfer Jonathan Nance, who led Arkansas in receiving in 2017.
Running back Larry Rountree III enjoyed quite the 2018 breakout. The junior-to-be rushed for 1,216 yards as a sophomore, starting slowly and exploding late. He might have been the best back in the SEC at the end of the year. Sophomore second-stringer Tyler Badie is a custom-made third down back; he and Rountree complemented each other well and should do so again.
With Bryant and a burly offensive line, they could help Dooley to establish one of the league’s more formidable run games. Three of last year’s starting linemen return, led by all-conference guard Tre’Vour Wallace-Simms. Mizzou enjoyed some of the best blocking stats in the conference last year, and while losing right tackle Paul Adams hurts, the continuity is still solid up front.
Previewing Missouri's Defense for 2019
The Missouri defense was for years built around a seemingly endless supply of star ends, but in 2018, Missouri ranked 108th in sack rate; no end had more than 2.5 sacks.
Mind you, the Tiger front was still pretty formidable in other ways. Mizzou allowed just 126.5 rushing yards per game (22nd nationally) and allowed just 3.7 yards per carry (32nd). Jordan Elliott, a former Texas Longhorn, is a potential star in the middle, and junior end Akial Byers is rock solid against the run as well.
You know what can make your defensive tackles even more successful? Having a tackling machine behind them. Kearney, Mo., native Cale Garrett has logged 264 combined solo and assisted tackles in his career.
End remains a question mark. Junior Chris Turner is experienced, Junior college transfer Sci Martin Jr. is a former LSU Tiger, and the staff has been high on sophomore Trajan Jeffcoat for a while. Can someone actually emerge to scare the quarterback every now and then?
Because the pass rush was lacking, it’s hard to know what to think of the secondary. That the Tigers ranked 31st in completion rate allowed (55.7 percent) is impressive considering how much time quarterbacks had, but Mizzou’s performance oscillated constantly between great and terrible.
Cornerbacks Christian Holmes, DeMarkus Acy and Adam Sparks all return, as do four veteran safeties. Mizzou was young for years in the defensive backfield, but that is most certainly not the case in 2019.
Previewing Missouri's Specialists for 2019
After four dominant seasons, punter Corey Fatony departs. He averaged nearly 44 yards per kick for his career. Tucker McCann, who has steadily improved in his placekicking, will get the first crack at replacing him.
The specter of the appealed sanctions makes it hard to set expectations for the Tigers. On paper, if Bryant thrives, they are as qualified as anyone for the label of “SEC East dark horse.” But we don’t even know if they’re eligible for the title. Regardless, Bryant will help to smooth out what could have been a bumpy transition from Lock et al. Another season in the seven--to-nine-win range seems pretty realistic.
National Ranking: 23
(Top photo courtesy of Zach Bland/Mizzou Athletics)