By Braden Gall (@BradenGall on Twitter)
The journey to claim the 2012 national title begins in February, March and April, as 124 college football teams open up spring practice over the next three months. Athlon will preview some of the top teams and storylines across the nation, as the countdown to 2012 inches closer.
Missouri Tigers 2012 Spring Preview
2011 Record: 8-5, 5-4 Big 12
Spring practice: March 6-April 14
Returning Starters: Offense – 6, Defense – 5
Passing: James Franklin, 2,865 yards, 21 TD, 11 INT
Rushing: Henry Josey, 1,168 yards, 9 TD*
Receiving: T.J. Moe, 54 rec., 649 yards, 4 TD
Tackles: Andrew Wilson, 98
Sacks: Brad Madison, 4.5
Interceptions: E.J. Gaines and Zaviar Gooden, 2
* - Josey is recovering from a torn ACL and may miss some or all of 2012
Redshirts to watch: DL Shane Ray, OL Michael Boddie, LB Kentrell Brothers, LB Clarence Green, CB Cortland Browning, WR Wesley Leftwich, DB David Johnson
Injury Watch: RB Henry Josey, LT Elvis Fisher and LB Will Ebner
Sept. 1 Southeastern Louisiana
Sept. 8 Georgia
Sept. 15 Arizona State
Sept. 22 at South Carolina
Sept. 29 at UCF
Oct. 6 Vanderbilt
Oct. 13 Alabama
Oct. 20 Bye Week
Oct. 27 Kentucky
Nov. 3 at Florida
Nov. 10 at Tennessee
Nov. 17 Syracuse
Nov. 24 at Texas A&M
Offensive Strength: The quarterback-head coach combination of Gary Pinkel and James Franklin should be in complete control of the offense after a sterling first season together. Franklin's skill set fits Pinkel's offense perfectly as the junior-to-be finished fourth in the Big 12 in QB rating — in a league that featured Robert Griffin, Brandon Weeden and Landry Jones.
Offensive Weakness: Offensive skill depth could be an issue for Mizzou. The Tigers watched tight end Michael Egnew and receivers Wes Kemp and Jerrell Jackson graduate. And the return of leading rusher Henry Josey is still up in the air. T.J. Moe returns but finding a ball-carrier and pass-catchers will be key for Pinkel's staff this spring — at least, until Dorial Green-Beckham shows up.
Defensive Strength: Despite losing Luke Lambert's 82 tackles, the Mizzou linebacking corps should be the strength of this unit. Andrew Wilson and Zaviar Gooden combined for 178 total tackles last year and this group will be bolstered by the return of starter Will Ebner from injury. And top reserve Donovan Bonner would start for most teams. The secondary isn't far behind the linebackers in terms of experience and depth. It is safe to say that the back seven of this defense should be fairly stout.
Defensive Weakness: The defensive line has to overcome injuries and losses to graduation as a whole, but defensive tackle specifically is thin and green. Sheldon Richardson is recovering from offseason shoulder surgery and there are six career starts from the four names that will rotate this spring. While Brad Madison is nursing his own shoulder surgery, the end position is in slightly better shape than tackle.
Spring Storylines Facing the Tigers:
1. How does Missouri adjust to life in the SEC? No team will likely see a bigger shift in their team stats than the Tigers. After finishing 94th in the nation in pass defense, Pinkel can expect his deep and talented back seven to provide much better coverage against the pathetic SEC passing attacks. By the same token, don't expect Mizzou to finish third in its league in rush defense like it did a year ago. Solidifying the defensive line will be paramount this spring as MU prepares to face the stellar rushing attacks of Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina and Vanderbilt. Offensively, the Tigers led the Big 12 in rushing a season ago at 244 yards per game. In a league where defensive lines reign supreme, it is hard to believe that Franklin will be able to match those rushing statistics in 2012. How will Pinkel and Franklin tweak their run-first system to excel in the toughest league in America? The biggest adjustment Missouri will have to make in the SEC will be along the line of scrimmage. Pinkel has to stablize the trenches on both sides of the ball this spring if he expects to compete in the East.
2. How the major injuries play out this spring will be key to determining '12 success for Mizzou. The defensive line combo of Madison and Richardson will have to be at full strength come August if Pinkel expects to slow names like Lacy, Crowell, Stacy and Lattimore. If Will Ebner can return to full strength, the linebackers could be one of the best groups in the nation. Left tackle Elvis Fisher was a preseason first-team All-Big 12 selection before an Achilles injury ended his season. His return to form could boost a group of blockers that has some experience but watched three All-Big 12 honorable mention performers depart. In fact, the health and development of the offensive line could be the most important offensive issue facing this team in the spring.
3. All eyes will be on Franklin to lead this team into the SEC era of Tigers football and finding consistent, depenable receiving options this spring will only help him ease into the new defensive-minded conference. Moe is locked into one starting spot but there are plenty of unknowns behind him on the depth chart. Fans likely have high expectations for big-play junior-to-be Marcus Lucas and would like to see him earn the spot opposite of Moe. Finding a tight end, likely Eric Waters, and third weapon, possibly L'Damian Washington, is something Pinkel undoubtedly wants to have ironed by the end of spring. Of course, they all might just be keeping the seat warm for uber-recruit Green-Beckham.
4. The aformentioned rushing attack will be under heavy scrutiny once SEC play opens in Week 2. The first two SEC games will feature two of the best rushing defenses in the nation (with Alabama looming in Game 4 of conference play) and will certainly challenge a ground game that will likely be without its leading rusher. Franklin cannot carry the load in the SEC like he did in the Big 12 — he wouldn't last six games. And with Josey possibly looking at another knee surgery, Pinkel and the offense must find a true workhorse back. Additionally, the offensive line is rebuilding after three starters who claimed all-league mentions moved on. Pinkel has had strong lines of scrimmage in the Big 12, but whether or not he can elevate that talent to SEC-calibur remains to be seen.
Related Content Links:
2012 SEC Schedule Analysis
Top Transfers to Watch in 2012
Early Top 25 for 2012
College Football's Top Spring Storylines for 2012
College Football's Coaches on the Hot Seat
2012 Very Early SEC Predictions