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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

The Countdown

No. 28: Missouri

Another 10 wins. Ho-hum, move along, nothing to see here. What stands out to me when considering Missouri in 2010 is the fact that, once again, Gary Pinkel led a team beyond its early expectations, beyond the perceived eight-win goal to another fine performance. The big picture statement, if it even needs to be said: Pinkel has built Missouri to the point where one player doesn’t make or break the team’s success, where a strong enough system is in place to expect nothing less than consistent contention for the Big 12 crown. That such a statement is light years removed from being a stretch means we’ve entered a new era of Missouri football. And I don’t think that even needed to be said.

Conference
Big 12

Location
Columbia, Mo.

Nickname
Tigers

Returning starters
15 (9 offense, 6 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 33

2010 record
(10-3, 6-2)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 18

2011 schedule

  • Sept. 3
    Miami (Ohio)
  • Sept. 9
    at Arizona St.
  • Sept. 17
    W. Illinois
  • Sept. 24
    at Oklahoma
  • Oct. 8
    at Kansas St.
  • Oct. 15
    Iowa St.
  • Oct. 22
    Oklahoma St.
  • Oct. 29
    at Texas A&M
  • Nov. 5
    at Baylor
  • Nov. 12
    Texas
  • Nov. 19
    Texas Tech
  • Nov. 26
    Kansas

Last year’s prediction

Even if the Tigers land an upset win over Nebraska — doable, without question — I don’t believe their final record, even with the tiebreaker, will be good enough to prevent the Cornhuskers from taking a second consecutive conference crown. Which is unfortunate: this team will be markedly better than last year’s version. Quarterback play will be improved, barring injury. The offensive line is stout. The defensive line has two talented edge rushers, one that ranks among the best in the conference. With its experience and young talent, the secondary is poised to put forth a better effort. Without question, Missouri is a borderline Top 25 team; I think the Tigers will rise into the ranking through mid-October, but will find it difficult to remain ranked by the end of the month. This team remains very young, however, and should rebound to play its best football in November and heading into bowl season.

2010 recap

In a nutshell I warned Nebraska not to print those 2010 Big 12 North Champions t-shirts too soon, and Missouri did make the Cornhuskers sweat things out a bit in November. But a head-to-head loss to their bitter rivals prevented the Tigers from taking home another division title, which is likely the lone black mark on a regular season that saw Missouri take home 10 wins for the third time in four years. The year was highlighted by three awfully impressive wins: San Diego State, Texas A&M and Oklahoma, the latter in back-to-back weeks. The win over the then-No. 1 Sooners was a magical moment for the program, one that was paced by a sterling defensive effort and set off pandemonium in the university’s surrounding environs. The year ended poorly, with Missouri dropping the Insight Bowl to Iowa, but 2010 was yet another banner year for Pinkel and the Tigers. The good news continued in April, when Missouri had two players taken early in the N.F.L. Draft. Recruits that have been watching Missouri’s success on the field must now also pay respect to the fact that Pinkel’s players get some pretty big paychecks at the next level.

High point A 36-27 win over then-No. 1 Oklahoma on Oct. 23. One could say this was the best win in program history, even if Missouri was unable to capitalize on the boost it received from knocking off the undefeated Sooners.

Low point That win over O.U. was followed up by successive conference losses to Nebraska and Texas Tech, the latter by a touchdown after Missouri held a 17-3 second quarter lead. Despite coughing up a lead against the Red Raiders, it’s the loss to the rival Cornhuskers that will stay with Missouri long into the future.

Tidbit Missouri entered 2010 having made 237 consecutive extra points, a streak that dated back to a 41-12 loss to Colorado on Nov. 5, 2010. In Missouri’s sights was the N.C.A.A. record of 262 consecutive made extra points, set by Syracuse from 1978-89. Missouri went 2-2 on extra points against Illinois, 6-6 against McNeese State and 3-3 against San Diego State to enter a Sept. 25 date with Miami (Ohio) with a streak of 248 straight converted extra points. Just a matter of time, right? The Tigers hit on their first four tries to push the number to 252, but missed an extra point in the third quarter to end the streak. So Syracuse lives on in the N.C.A.A. record books.

Tidbit (Pinkel edition) How good a coach is Gary Pinkel? Good enough, in my mind, where if I was the athletic director at a major program — Michigan, for example — Pinkel would be on the very, very short list of coaches I’d have on speed dial. Take note of the following factoids: one, Missouri’s 40 wins since 2007 tie the Tigers for sixth-most among B.C.S. conference programs; two, Missouri’s five first round draft picks since 2009 are the second-most in the nation, trailing only Alabama. One more fact about Pinkel: Missouri won more than nine games only once in the century prior to his arrival in 2001. Pinkel has won at least 10 games three times over the last four years.

Tidbit (Big 12 South edition) So the new nine-game conference schedule will pit Missouri against the division formerly known as the Big 12 South on a yearly basis. How have the Tigers fared against that sextet since the Big 12’s formation in 1996? Not too poorly, actually. Missouri is 7-1 against Baylor, 2-7 against Oklahoma, 5-3 against Oklahoma State, 1-6 against Texas, 4-3 against Texas A&M and 5-2 against Texas Tech. That’s 24-22 overall.

Former players in the N.F.L.

20 WR Danario Alexander (St. Louis), C Tim Barnes (Baltimore), OG Colin Brown (Buffalo), TE Chase Coffman (Cincinnati), QB Chase Daniel (New Orleans), QB Blaine Gabbert (Jacksonville), LB Andrew Gachkar (San Diego), WR Justin Gage (Tennessee), CB Carl Gettis (Cleveland), DE Ziggy Hood (Pittsburgh), WR Jeremy Maclin (Philadelphia), S William Moore (Atlanta), DT C.J. Mosley (Jacksonville), TE Martin Rucker (Dallas), CB Kevin Rutland (Jacksonville), DT Justin Smith (San Francisco), WR Brad Smith (Buffalo), LB Aldon Smith (San Francisco), LB Sean Weatherspoon (Atlanta), K Jeff Wolfert (Cleveland).

Arbitrary top five list

Scientific sorts born in Missouri
1. Edwin Hubble.
2. George Washington Carver.
3. Jack Kilby.
4. Richard Smalley.
5. Norbert Wiener.

Coaching

Gary Pinkel (Kent State ‘75), 77-49 after a decade with the Tigers. Last fall saw Pinkel, for the fifth consecutive season, lead Missouri to at least eight wins. He did so with a talented, experienced group of starters better equipped for the Big 12 after learning the ropes in 2009. Missouri has now won at least 10 games in three of the last four seasons, including a program-record 12 in 2007. Prior to 2006, Missouri had reached 10 wins only twice in its 117-year history: 1896 — with the help of a 16-game season — and 1960. This stretch of stellar play has boosted Pinkel’s career record from a pedestrian 37-35 to its current status of nearly 30 games over .500. It was a slow, steady process to take Missouri from second-tier status to Big 12 contender, and the credit goes solely to Pinkel and his underappreciated staff. Missouri won nine games from 2001-2 before breaking through with eight wins in 2003; that season was followed by a disappointing 5-6 finish, but the program has now won 55 games over the last six seasons. Before being hired at Missouri in 2001, Pinkel spent a decade at Toledo, where he compiled a 73-37-3 record and won one MAC championship, in 1995. That Rocket squad went 11-0-1, earning a national ranking. In all, Pinkel’s final six teams combined to go 50-18-1, including a 10-1 mark in 2000. His experience as an assistant includes 12 years at Washington, including the final seven seasons as offensive coordinator. Quietly, under the radar and with little fanfare, Pinkel has done enough with the Tigers to warrant inclusion in the upper echelon of coaches in the country. Few outside of the Big 12 will put his name up for such consideration, but he deserves the acclaim.

Players to watch

First one Gabbert left and then another, but only the elder Gabbert’s early departure for the N.F.L. really hurts. James Franklin was winning this quarterback job regardless, and Tyler Gabbert’s transfer simply cleans up what could have been a divisive competition. Nah, not really. Franklin had a hold on this job way back in the spring, and all the younger Gabbert’s transfer — and then transfer again, as it turned out — did was make it official: Franklin, a sophomore, will be Missouri’s starting quarterback in 2011, 2012 and 2013, and it’s perfectly acceptable to be excited about that prospect.

Here’s what we know about Franklin: he’s Missouri’s first true dual-threat quarterback since the sublime Brad Smith, and that should lend another dimension to an already potent offensive attack. Franklin didn’t make much of a mark as a passer last fall as Gabbert’s backup, hitting on 11 of 14 attempts for 106 yards, but he did show a knack for running the football in rushing for 116 yards and 2 scores. And that’s the story surrounding Franklin heading into the fall: Missouri knows he can make it happen on the ground, but whether he can do what the Tigers want to achieve downfield remains to be seen. That’s the only question I have about Franklin’s ascension to a starting role. It’s an issue, but not a huge one. He’ll be fine — better than fine, perhaps. I’m just excited to see what this Missouri offense can do with a quarterback suited to run the zone-read. One thing Gabbert’s transfer does is damage depth, so sophomore Ashton Glaser needs to show his worth as Franklin’s backup.

Franklin has weapons at his disposal. Every single player who made a reception in 2011 is back in the fold; seriously, every single reception. The receiver corps is paced by senior T.J. Moe, a second-team all-Big 12 pick who paced Missouri in receptions (92), receiving yards (1,045) and touchdowns (six). Moe ended last year with a bang, notching 15 catches for 152 yards against a very good Iowa secondary in the Insight Bowl. Moe’s two leading running mates at receiver will again be seniors Jerrell Jackson (50 catches for 656 yards) and Wes Kemp (39 for 420), with countless options lining up in reserve. Just a few: Gahn McGuffie, Bud Sasser, L’Damian Washington and Rolandis Woodland. The list goes on.

But there’s a star here, and it’s not a receiver. It’s yet another all-American tight end for the Tigers, Michael Egnew (90 for 762), who will be Franklin’s security blanket, much as he was for Blaine Gabbert a year ago. Egnew’s importance only grows with the first-year starter under center, as while Franklin’s ability to throw the ball deep is in question he should have little problem consistently hitting on Missouri’s intermediate passing game. It’s safe to say that Egnew will once again challenge for all-American status and national hardware at the end of this season.

Similar depth exists in the backfield, where Missouri returns three of last year’s four leading rushers. The Tigers took a slight hit when sophomore Marcus Murphy (181 yards, 8.2 yards per carry) underwent season-ending shoulder surgery earlier this month. But the running game will be fine, led by junior Kendial Lawrence (422 yards, 4 scores) and senior De’Vion Moore (517 yards, 6 scores) with sophomore Henry Josey (437 yards, 5 scores) just behind that pair.

And having a stout offensive front won’t hurt. Four of last season’s starters return, though the one departure, center Tim Barnes, is a tough one. Junior Travis Ruth will step into his shoes, bringing 16 games of experience to the table. Don’t sleep on how hard is to replace a center like Barnes: having four incumbent starters will help Ruth’s development, but Missouri has lost its anchor up front. The line has two all-conference bookend tackles in Elvis Fisher and Dan Hoch, two seniors who we’ll see next fall on Sundays. Another pair of seniors, Jayson Palmgren and Austin Wuebbels, will line up at left and right guard, respectively. The only question is at center. And about who starts in 2012. Let’s tackle that in 12 months.

It’s only natural to have some worries about Missouri’s defense. While the offense lost only a pair of starters — albeit valuable starters — the defense moves forward without five indispensable performers, including three starters in the secondary. If you do have concerns, however, tempter them somewhat with the knowledge that there is returning experience and good depth. And take comfort in the fact that coordinator Dave Steckel always seems to get the best out of his charges.

The defensive line moves forward without Aldon Smith, who opted to forego his final two seasons of eligibility and enter the N.F.L. Draft. That loss hurts, as I imagine Missouri thought it would have Smith’s services for at least one more year. What his departure does is open a full-time starting spot up for junior Brad Madison, who paced the Tigers in tackles for loss (11.5) and sacks (seven) despite coming off the bench for all but two games. Madison will team with senior Jacquies Smith (35 tackles, 10 for loss, 5.5 sacks) to give Missouri two all-conference ends, but Aldon Smith will be missed.

The interior of the line remains intact, but the Tigers need a full season from senior nose guard Dominique Hamilton. He was lost seven games into last season thanks to a broken foot, and while he seems to have regained his prior form those sort of lower-body injuries can linger for the bigger guys up front. Junior Jimmy Burge gained valuable experience as Hamilton’s replacement last fall, though he’s moved over to tackle, behind senior Terrell Resonno (35 tackles, 2 sacks). What about JUCO transfer Sheldon Richardson, who originally signed with Missouri coming out of high school? He’s on the way, according to reports, and should be a major factor along the interior of the line. If Richardson’s as good as some have suggested, the line goes from being good to potentially great.

Steckel knows what he’ll do at outside linebacker: Zaviar Gooden (team-best 85 tackles, 3 sacks) on the weak side, sophomore Andrew Wilson (42 tackles) on the strong side. Gooden will take center stage for this defense in 2011 after being overshadowed by a few lost starters a year ago. Where Missouri goes in the middle remains up for debate. One option is senior Will Ebner, who started eight games in 2010. The second is senior Luke Lambert, who received a medical redshirt after missing all but four games last fall. Both have injury concerns to address.

Position battle(s) to watch

Secondary Losses are certainly felt along the line and at linebacker, but while both Smith and Andrew Gachkar will be tough to replace it’s the secondary that faces the largest retooling project heading into September. Missouri lost three starters in the defensive backfield, including two multiple-year starting cornerbacks in Kevin Rutland and Carl Gettis. That pair, along with departed free safety Jarrell Harrison, helped Missouri make an enormous improvement against the pass from 2009-10; the Tigers finished last season ranked 37th nationally in yards allowed per game, giving up 13 touchdowns against 18 interceptions. Finding equal production won’t be easy, and the search for new contributors will be of paramount importance as Missouri prepares for a schedule that includes Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Texas A&M and more. Missouri hopes junior Kip Edwards (36 tackles, 1 interception) can fill one of the cornerback spots left vacant by graduation. Missouri considers Edwards a returning starter despite his having not started a single game, thanks to the snaps he played as Missouri’s third cornerback. That experience will come in handy as he takes on full-time starting duties. On the other side, the Tigers could go with fast-rising sophomore E.J. Gaines (26 tackles) or more experienced options like senior Trey Hobson or junior Robert Steeples. Senior Kenji Jackson (66 tackles, 2 interceptions) is back at strong safety, and he’s the key to the whole deal: experienced, talented and productive, Jackson will be a team leader on and off the field in 2011. He’s also a clear all-conference candidate. It’s all about youth at free safety, with sophomores Tavon Bolden and Matt White and redshirt freshman Braylon Webb battling it out to replace Harrison.

Game(s) to watch

The games against the old Big 12 South members: Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Texas and Texas A&M in particular. Any hopes of a national ranking hinges on a split of that quartet. The Tigers also have a marquee non-conference game with Arizona State in September. If the Sun Devils want to prove their worth, they’ll beat the Tigers at home. Don’t see it happening.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell Another eight-win season is a guarantee. The Tigers have four clear wins: Miami (Ohio), Western Illinois, Iowa State and Kansas — Missouri could win the last one by 40 points. Then there are four games where the Tigers just have better team: Arizona State, Kansas State, Baylor and Texas Tech. Not to say that Missouri will sweep that quartet, but anything less than 2-2, it not 3-1, would be very surprising. Baylor could take down the Tigers, which has happened before, and everyone seems to love Arizona State, so maybe there’s strength in numbers in that regard. But I think Missouri will be 7-1, at worst 6-2, outside of the four games that will define its season: at Oklahoma, home for Oklahoma State, at Texas A&M, home for Texas. I think you can write off beating O.U. in Norman, especially after last season. And while College Station has been kind to the Tigers, this A&M team is far removed from the one Missouri beat by 21 points last October. In short, Missouri’s going to do what good teams do, which is beat the tar out of the lesser teams on the schedule. How the year turns out hinges on how Missouri plays against the cream of the crop, as it always does. So what’s the ceiling? The Tigers can absolutely take three of four, and if that happens I’ve severely underrated this team. Two of four is extremely doable, depending on how quickly Texas rallies around its new staff. But you can see why Missouri might end up fifth in the Big 12: there’s a new quarterback, even if Franklin has all the talent to be superb; there’s a rather large hole to fill in the middle of the line; some injury worries at linebacker; and, perhaps biggest of all, several new starters in the secondary. These aren’t crippling concerns. Not in the least. But to me, these are the slight, nitpicking issues that spell the difference between 10-2 and 8-4. But if I know one thing about this program, it’s to never underestimate what Pinkel and this staff can achieve. And now that I’ve done just that, I have my doubts.

Dream season A loss to Oklahoma is the lone blemish on the season. While it prevents Missouri from taking the Big 12, an 11-1 finish pushes the Tigers into a B.C.S. bowl.

Nightmare season I’d say 7-5 would be a disappointment.

In case you were wondering

Where do Missouri fans congregate? Start with Tiger Board, the best independent Web site. For recruiting coverage, check out Power Mizzou and Inside Mizzou. Continue with Rock M Nation, a very in-depth Missouri blog.

Word Count

Through 93 teams 286,081.

Up Next

Who is No. 27? Past coaches at tomorrow’s university have had the same first names as 10 Vice Presidents and seven Presidents, if we include shortened names (like Franklin for Frank), elongated names (like John for Jonathon) or nicknames.

You can also follow Paul Myerberg and Pre-Snap Read on Twitter.

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Comments

  1. Charlie says:

    Utah?

  2. Patrick says:

    Utah definitely fits the bill on the presidents’ side:

    Thomas Fitzpatrick (Thomas Jefferson)

    Ike Armstrong (Eisenhower)

    Jack Curtice (Jack Kennedy)

    William “Bill” Meek (Clinton, Harrison)

    Tom Lovat – YES (see above)

    Jim Fassel (Madison)

    Ron McBride (Reagan)

  3. michael says:

    I was hoping we’d see UGA or the Longhorns soon… Both finished the previous season below .500 and both were re-ranked in the PSR 120 below 50. Both look better, but top-25 better? Mixing them in around 25-35 seems a safer hedge than calling either one of the top 25 teams in the land, so i’ll be interested to see what they’ve done in the offseason to so impress as to merit thir move from outside the top half to inside the top 25…

  4. Troy says:

    Utah fits on the vice-presidents side too.

    Nelson Norgren (Rockefeller)
    Thomas Fitzpatrick (Jefferson, Hendricks, Marshall)
    William ‘Bill’ Meek (King, Wheeler)
    Tom Lovat (See above)
    Charles ‘Chuck’ Stobart (Fairbanks, Dawes, Curtis)
    Jim Fassel (Sherman)

  5. Eksynyt says:

    Seriously, I can’t stand when teams like Georgia get a high preseason ranking because “their schedule is easy.” All that means is that they will be this year’s Michigan State.

  6. Brian says:

    Missouri at #28 is too low

  7. schedule nit says:

    There’s a world of difference between Texas and Georgia, talent-wise and recent results-wise. Except the freshmen talent, those are pretty similar. Texas had a one-year blip after aiming for titles repeatedly. Georgia has been mediocre at best ever since 2007.

    Yes, I immensely enjoyed Texas’ down season, but I always remembered Paul’s prediction from last year’s preview; “…this year won’t end with Texas in the national title hunt, though the Longhorns won’t find themselves outside of this conversation for very long — try one season.”

    Between Florida and Texas (two of the best teams in 2009) I anticipate one will be ranked in the top ten around the end of the season. My guess is Florida, but Texas could certainly be there. Zero chance that Georgia is any part of that conversation.

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