Is Missouri the Big 12's Surprise Team?

Can the Tigers challenge Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Texas A&M?

Can the Tigers challenge Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Texas A&M?

By Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)

Defining what is a surprise team is no easy task. Over the next couple of weeks, Athlon will take a look at a team from each of the BCS leagues that could be a surprise contender in their conference. Each of the candidates to surprise will be ranked fifth or worse in Athlon’s 2011 predictions.

The new-look Big 12 is expected to be a battle between Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Texas A&M for the conference title. Although those three teams appear to be by far the class of the Big 12, don’t count out Missouri. The Tigers return 16 starters, just behind Texas A&M for the conference lead.

Is Missouri the surprise team in the Big 12? Here are four reasons to like and four to doubt the Tigers in 2011.

Reasons to like the Tigers to surprise:

1. A look at last year’s stats can be deceiving regarding the defensive line. The Tigers ranked No. 62 nationally against the run, but that number increased due to the injury to tackle Dominique Hamilton against Oklahoma. After Hamilton’s injury, the Tigers allowed 197 rushing yards a game, compared to 114 when he was in the lineup. With Hamilton back and the emergence of junior end Brad Madison and Kony Ealy, the line shouldn’t miss first-round pick Aldon Smith. The Tigers could get another valuable addition to the line if highly-touted tackle Sheldon Richardson qualifies this year. It’s no secret games are won and lost in the trenches, and Missouri boasts one of college football’s top defensive lines.

2. Even though Missouri is breaking in a new quarterback, recent history suggests it won’t be a big deal. The Tigers have had an impressive run of quarterbacks – Brad Smith, Chase Daniel and Blaine Gabbert – and James Franklin could be the next star to emerge. Franklin played sparingly last year, completing 11 of 14 throws for 106 yards and one score, while adding 116 yards on the ground. The key to Missouri’s season could rest with Franklin’s development.

3. With Franklin making his first start this year, it certainly helps to have one of the Big 12’s best offensive supporting casts surrounding him. The Tigers return two likely All-Big 12 performers in the receiving corps – receiver T.J. Moe and tight end Michael Egnew – and four starters on the offensive line. Center Tim Barnes finished his eligibility last year and will be difficult to replace. However, with four seniors likely to start, there’s plenty of experience. Considering the returning pieces around him, Franklin is arguably stepping into one of the nation’s best situations for a first-year quarterback.

4. It may have taken a few years for Gary Pinkel to get Missouri in contention for a Big 12 North title, but it looks like the Tigers are well-positioned in the remodeled conference. The Tigers have won at least 10 games in three out of the last four seasons and earned a bowl appearance in six straight years. The bowl streak is the best in school history. Pinkel’s 77 wins in 10 years ranks as the third-most victories in Missouri history, trailing only Don Faurot (101) and Dan Devine (93). Considering the steady improvement made by Pinkel, the Tigers aren’t a flash in the pan and will remain a yearly contender.

Reasons to doubt the Tigers will surprise:

1. Even though there’s a lot of positive buzz about Franklin, he’s never started a game. First-year quarterbacks have had plenty of recent success, but you just never know until they step onto the field. Missouri needs to get Franklin comfortable, especially with two difficult road dates in the first month of the season – Arizona State and Oklahoma.

2. The road dates in September are tough, but things won’t get any easier in mid-October. The Tigers host Oklahoma State, before hitting the road for back-to-back games against Texas A&M and Baylor, followed by home dates against Texas and Texas Tech. Missouri won at Texas A&M last year, but this is a much different team than the one that lost 30-9. If the Tigers are going to surprise in the Big 12, it’s not going to be an easy road – especially with Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Texas, Texas A&M on the schedule every year now thanks to the round-robin format.

3. It’s a good thing Missouri has one of the top defensive lines in the nation. With three new starters in the secondary, there’s a lot of pressure on the line to get to the quarterback and help prevent big plays in pass defense. Safety Kenji Jackson is back after collecting 66 tackles last season and should be the leader for this revamped unit. This is one area the Tigers showed big improvement last year, going from 104th to ranked 37th nationally against the pass. Even though the coaches are optimistic about the replacements, it will be difficult to repeat last year’s play. If the Tigers continue to rank near the top of the nation in sacks, the new starters will have some time to settle into starting lineup. However, with a talented group of passers back in the Big 12, this unit should expect to be under fire all year.

4. Although Gary Pinkel seems to have elevated Missouri football in recent years, it’s time to start delivering more victories against the top teams in the conference. The Tigers have lost six in a row to Texas, with the last victory coming in 1997. Missouri has lost three out of the last four to Oklahoma State and are 1-7 in its last eight games against Oklahoma. If Missouri wants to become a yearly contender in the Big 12, winning against those three teams and Texas A&M will be critical. 

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<p> Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Texas A&amp;M appear to be the class of the Big 12. Could Missouri challenge one of those three teams this year?</p>

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