Texas A&M was supposed to be the team that could step into the SEC and compete right away. And after a Heisman Trophy for the Aggies and seven losses for Missouri in their first trip through the league, it appeared that basic sentiment was correct.
That all changed last season, however, as Mizzou won the SEC East and 12 games in impressive fashion in just their second year in the SEC. Many will point to a chip-on-the-shoulder attitude that permeated Tigers camp last spring as the foundation for the run at an SEC championship.
Now, Gary Pinkel, Missouri's all-time winningest coach, must rebuild without his star quarterback, his cult hero tailback, a host of veteran leaders on defense and a load of lofty new expectations. There is a ton of talent left on this roster and Pinkel has proven his ability to quickly reload, so Missouri won't take too big of a step back this fall and should be right in the thick of the SEC East race again. But it all starts in spring camp.
Missouri Tigers 2014 Spring Preview
2013 Record: 12-2 (7-1 SEC)
Spring Practice Opens: March 11
Spring Game: April 19
Three Things to Watch in Missouri's 2014 Spring Practice
Find leadership on defense
Andrew Wilson, Michael Sam, Kony Ealy and E.J. Gaines will go down in Mizzou history as one of the great defensive classes to ever come through Columbia. Replacing their statistical production, especially in the front seven, will be nearly impossible but so too will be replacing their veteran leadership. Guys like nose guard Lucas Vincent and end Markus Golden will need to step up their play this spring to replace the massive voids left by SEC Defensive Player of the Year Sam and potential first round pick Ealy. Others like rising juniors Kentrell Brothers (70 tackles) and Shane Ray have a chance to step into playmaking roles at linebacker and defensive end, respectively. How Pinkel and defensive coordinator Dave Steckel fill these leadership gaps on defense will be a huge focus this spring for the Tigers.
Plug holes on the left side of the offensive line
First-team All-SEC left tackle Justin Britt and left guard Max Copeland have expired their eligibility, and Pinkel is left with a large void on the left side of his offensive line. Evan Boehm and Conner McGovern are talented players who have experience and will have to be leaders for this group because replacing Britt at the most important offensive line position won't be easy. That said, Mizzou has plenty of options and this unit shouldn't take a huge step back. Mitch Morse figures to be one of the better blockers at left tackle while others like Anthony Gatti, Ole Miss transfer Mitch Hall and a host of quality newcomers will compete for starting time up front for the Tigers. The running backs have talent despite the loss of Henry Josey, and the quarterback position is in good hands despite the loss of James Franklin, so if the offensive line comes together quickly this spring like many expect, then this offense could be as good if not better in 2014.
Get Maty Mauk ready to shine
In a league where Johnny Manziel, AJ McCarron, Aaron Murray, James Franklin and Connor Shaw departed, there are some (me included) who think Mauk has a chance to be the best signal caller in the SEC in 2014. And with his collection of elite wide receivers and his track record of elite success — both in the prep ranks and last year in spot duty for Mizzou — there is no reason to think Mauk won't press for All-SEC honors in just his first season. But getting comfortable as the leader of the program and face of the franchise isn't something that just happens. Big-time college football is loaded with tales of elite recruits and heir apparents falling well short of expectations — See John Brantley or Garrett Gilbert — so making sure Mauk is grounded, focused and maybe not speeding through campus on a scooter is just as important as getting him comfortable with his route progressions and new-look running game.
2014 Early Projected Win Range: 8-10
Despite losing a ton on both sides of the ball, Pinkel has Mizzou pointed in the right direction. This program won't win 12 games again but will be back in the thick of the SEC East title race. The crossover schedule is excellent as Alabama, Auburn, LSU and Ole Miss (the likely top four picks in the West) are absent from the schedule. The key will be surviving critical road tests within the division against South Carolina in the other Columbia, Tennessee in Knoxville and Florida in The Swamp. Should the Tigers navigate an interesting non-conference slate that includes the reigning Fiesta Bowl champs and improving Indiana squad, Missouri should be in position to compete at a high level once again.