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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. 33: Missouri

Missouri fans have had plenty to cheer about, such as a pair of Big 12 North titles.

The true test of a program is how it fares when rebuilding, when replacing several all-conference contributors, for example. In that case, Missouri passed that test in 2009. Perhaps the program didn’t pass with flying colors: only 4-4 in conference play, the Tigers lost a tough prime time affair to rival Nebraska and suffered a dreadful home loss to Baylor. Nevertheless, Missouri — and its coach, Gary Pinkel — served notice to the rest of the Big 12 with an eight-win finish, even when breaking in new starters at many key positions. Nebraska, take note: even in a down year — by its recent standards — Missouri had you on the ropes. Don’t start printing those Big 12 North championship t-shirts just yet.

Conference
Big 12, North

Location
Columbia, Mo.

Nickname
Tigers

Returning starters
15 (9 offense, 6 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 53

2009 record
(8-5, 4-4)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 45

2010 schedule

  • Sept. 4
    Illinois (in St. Louis)
  • Sept. 11
    McNeese St.
  • Sept. 18
    San Diego St.
  • Sept. 25
    Miami (Ohio)
  • Oct. 9
    Colorado
  • Oct. 16
    at Texas A&M
  • Oct. 23
    Oklahoma
  • Oct. 30
    at Nebraska
  • Nov. 6
    at Texas Tech
  • Nov. 13
    Kansas St.
  • Nov. 20
    at Iowa St.
  • Nov. 27
    Kansas (in Kansas City, Mo.)

Last year’s prediction

On the defensive side of the ball, much will depend on the play of the secondary. If that group can hold its own against the explosive passing attacks in the Big 12, Missouri could be the North champs. Doable? Yes. Do I think those stars will align for Missouri in 2009? No, I don’t. Too many question marks, too many holes to fill. There is no doubt that when considering the youth of this team, especially on offense, Missouri could be back atop the North division in 2010. For this year, I predict the Tigers to hover around the .500 mark: 6-6, 3-5 in the Big 12. However, no other team in the North has as much upside.

2009 recap

In a nutshell The season turned in a three-game losing streak, which came on the heels of an undefeated September and dropped the Tigers to 4-3 heading into the final day of October. More importantly, the three-game skid forced Missouri into an 0-3 hole in Big 12 play, effectively ending its hopes of again repeating as North division champs. Four wins in five games to end the regular season — including a narrow Border War victory — pushed the Tigers into bowl play on a high note, as well as continued the program’s four-year stretch of seasons with at least eight wins. That high note remains, but any semblance of momentum was extinguished in a 22-point bowl loss to Navy. With the benefit of hindsight — foresight would have worked — it was clear that the offense, though piloted by a talented first-year starter at quarterback, was not quite as productive as the Chase Daniel-led version of 2007 and 2008. The numbers bare this case out: 591 points scored in 2008, a school record; 377 points last fall, a drop of nearly two touchdowns per game.

High point Missouri’s 4-0 start was pretty, but Missouri’s 4-1 record over the final month of the regular season allowed the program to post a solid 8-4 record despite all that lost firepower. Only three of those eight wins came against teams with a winning record, however: Bowling Green, Nevada and Iowa State.

Low point A midseason three-game losing streak against Top 25 competition. It began with a home loss to Nebraska in prime time, which ended Missouri’s hopes of a third straight North division championship. (Hopes were officially dashed after a home loss to Baylor.) That defeat was followed by a loss in Stillwater – the Tigers never recovered from a Oklahoma State touchdown to end the first half – and a blowout loss at the hands of Texas. To lose to three strong conference opponents, even if two losses come at home, is one thing; to come to play unprepared, as Missouri did against Navy in the Texas Bowl, is inexcusable.

Tidbit Last season’s win over Kansas did more than just give Missouri bragging rights over its long-standing rival, though that certainly cannot be discounted. The victory gave the recently-graduated senior class 38 career victories, setting a new class record. The previous mark was held by the 2008 class — the group led by Daniel — which accounted for 37 career wins. The difference, of course, was one: as freshmen in 2005, the 2008 class won seven games; last year’s senior group won eight.

Tidbit (short shot edition) Missouri has made 237 consecutive extra points, a streak that dates back to a 41-12 loss to Colorado in 2005. Most of that work was done over Jeff Wolfert’s strong career, as the former Missouri kicker was perfect on all 190 of his tries over his three-year starting career. The N.C.A.A. record is held by Syracuse: the Orange made 262 straight extra points from 1978-89. Barring the unexpected, Missouri will do in six years what it took Syracuse a dozen years to accomplish.

Former players in the N.F.L.

15 OG Colin Brown (Kansas City), TE Chase Coffman (Cincinnati), QB Chase Daniel (New Orleans), DT Atiyyah Ellison (Jacksonville), WR Justin Gage (Tennessee), OG Kurtis Gregory (Carolina), DE Ziggy Hood (Pittsburgh), WR Jeremy Maclin (Philadelphia), S William Moore (Atlanta), DT C.J. Mosley (Cleveland), WR Jared Perry (Philadelphia), TE Martin Rucker (Philadelphia), DT Justin Smith (San Francisco), WR Brad Smith (New York Jets), LB Sean Weatherspoon (Atlanta).

Arbitrary top five list

Missouri’s most meaningful wins over Nebraska
1. 2007: Missouri 41, Nebraska 6.
2. 1973: Missouri 13, Nebraska 12.
3. 2008: Missouri 52, Nebraska 17.
4. 2003: Missouri 41, Nebraska 24.
5. 1978: Missouri 35, Nebraska 31.

Coaching

Gary Pinkel (Kent State ‘75), 67-46 after nine years with the Tigers. Last fall saw Pinkel, for the fourth consecutive season, lead Missouri to at least eight wins. He did despite needing to replace countless stars on both sides of the ball, particularly on offense. Missouri won 22 games over the previous two seasons, a school-record, and posted back-to-back double-digit win finishes for the first time in program history. The heart of those teams, of course, graduated following the 2008 season. 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 more than 20 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 45 games over the last five 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 spot in the Top 25. 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. Perhaps Missouri’s two-year ascension to the top of the Big 12 North had much to do with Nebraska’s decline. Yes, perhaps. Don’t count out the job Pinkel has done with this program — and don’t rule out Missouri’s chances at unseating the hated Cornhuskers from atop the division in 2010.

Players to watch

In Missouri’s eight wins, first-year starting quarterback Blaine Gabbert threw 19 touchdowns against only two interceptions. In its five losses, Gabbert threw five touchdowns against seven interceptions. What does this mean? Well, that the junior is pretty good, as that first number indicates. Gabbert might not have duplicated his predecessor’s numbers — few would have — but he did play very well, especially when healthy; an ankle injury suffered against Nebraska limited his mobility for a handful of mid-season games, with Gabbert not returning to full health until November. On the year, the junior threw for 3,593 yards and 24 touchdowns while completing slightly less than 59 percent of his passes. His totals as a sophomore are strikingly similar to Daniel’s as a second-year player — Daniel threw for 3,527 yards and 28 touchdowns against 10 picks — though his predecessor did complete passes at a slightly better rate. Daniel, however, brought far more playing experience into his sophomore season.

The earlier numbers — Gabbert’s splits when winning or losing — also indicate how important he is to the overall welfare of this offense. He gutted it out last fall, impressing many with his toughness when playing on a banged-up ankle, but if Gabbert is lost for an extended period of time, watch out: who will serve as his leading reserve remains to be seen, but junior Jimmy Costello’s 17 career attempts are the most of any other returning quarterback — outside of Gabbert, of course. Keep an eye on incoming freshman James Franklin, who with a strong fall camp can solidify his place as Gabbert’s current backup, future replacement.

The offensive line returns four starters, with this group undergoing some very slight movement in an effort to replace a multiple-year starter at right guard. It won’t be easy to replace Kurtis Gregory, whose strong character and leadership skills augmented an already sizable skill set, but Missouri plans to replace the lost starter with a familiar face: junior Austin Wuebbels, a starter at left guard last fall, moves over to the right side. Pinkel and his staff have been effusive — or as effusive as I imagine Pinkel can get — with their praise for redshirt freshman Justin Britt, who looks to earn the starting nod at left guard come the season opener. The rest of the line is superb. Junior Elvis Fisher and Dan Hoch will again bookend the line, one year after both earned all-Big 12 accolades; Fisher on the second-team, Hoch honorable mention. Senior Tim Barnes, a national awards candidate, returns for his third season at center. This line should rank among the best in the Big 12.

Senior running back Derrick Washington saw his numbers dip somewhat last fall, though that decline can certainly be attributed to diminished returns from the quarterback position. After rushing for 1,036 yards and 17 touchdowns in 2008, Washington rushed for 865 yards — on 13 more carries — and 10 scores a year ago. If the passing game takes a step forward — as it should do — look for Washington to again challenge the 1,000-yard mark. As always, he doubles as a valuable asset in the passing game, accounting for 55 receptions over the last two seasons. Missouri also returns two capable reserves in junior De’Vion Moore and sophomore Kendial Lawrence, each of whom accounted for at least 219 yards rushing a season ago.

The secondary returns intact. One returning starter, however, might find it difficult to retain his starting job. Senior strong safety Jarrell Harrison, a six-game starter last fall, is mired in a competitive battle with junior Kenji Jackson. This really isn’t much of a surprise: Jackson made five starts of his own in 2009, with both jostling for the top spot on the depth chart throughout the second half of the season. Regardless of which lands the starting role, look for both to earn significant playing time in the secondary. One of the pair will line up alongside senior free safety Jasper Simmons, who finished fourth on the team with 73 tackles (3 for loss) last fall.

There’s more senior leadership at cornerback: Carl Gettis and Kevin Rutland, both 13-game starters last fall, continue to stand atop the depth chart. Like the rest of the secondary, Gettis and Rutland are good, solid, serviceable defensive backs — not stars. The performance of the secondary left something to be desired last fall, with Missouri allowing 251.5 yards per game through the air to go with 20 touchdowns. However, this group’s experience and the ascension of several young players to key spots in the rotation should lead to an improved performance in 2010.

Sean Weatherspoon was more than just a devastating tackler, an explosive closer in space with an underrated head for the game: he was a barking dog, the angry leader of an otherwise passive defense. Obviously, he’ll be missed. As on the offensive line, Missouri will force a key contributor to change positions in an effort to replace a departed starter: Andrew Gachkar, the team’s leading returning tackler, will move from the strong side to the weak side. The senior made 80 tackles (3.5 for loss) and 3 sacks a season ago.

The Tigers also have options in the middle, with junior Will Ebner starting seven games in Luke Lambert’s stead when Lambert, a senior, was lost to injury. Ebner played well enough to deserve every opportunity to remain in the starting lineup, but it seems to be Lambert’s job to lose. What about on the strong side, a spot left vacant by Gachkar’s move? In a logical decision, Missouri will simply promote last season’s understudy, Zaviar Gooden, into a starting role. This makes sense: there’s a chance, given what Gooden flashed last season, that he’s the next great Missouri outside linebacker.

What does a sophomore coming off a 19-tackle for loss, 11.5-sack redshirt freshman season do for an encore? It’s a pretty good dilemma to face. Well, Aldon Smith is a pretty good football player, one able — without real polish — to make his case for the finest rookie lineman in the country a season ago. Certainly, no other true or redshirt freshman lineman can approach his numbers, let alone his importance to an eight-win team. Don’t automatically expect Smith to exceed, or perhaps even duplicate last season’s numbers; no more coming in under the radar for the sophomore. Regardless of his statistical output, Smith will play a vital role up front for Missouri.

It will be junior Jacquies Smith at the opposite end. I though Jacquies would have a greater impact than he did a year ago, even if he chipped in with 39 tackles (4 for loss) and 1.5 sacks over 13 games, five of which were starts. Junior Dominique Hamilton will transition from tackle to playing over the nose; he added some weight — 15 pounds, give or take — in an effort to replace lost starter Jaron Baston. Terrel Resonno, with one career start under his belt, will fill the tackle spot left vacant by Hamilton’s move.

Position battles to watch

Wide receiver How can Missouri possibly replace the production of Danario Alexander? The departed all-American burst onto the national scene as a senior, obliterating his previous career bests — and the Missouri record book — in pulling in 113 receptions for 1,781 yards and 14 scores. I could go on: Alexander had at least 123 yards receiving in nine games, including each of his last six; averaged more than 40 yards per his 14 touchdown grabs, by far the most in the country; a single-handedly carried an offense breaking in a new starter under center. Obviously, barring another Alexander-like explosion, Missouri cannot expect to replace his production with a single player. A single receiver is bound to become Gabbert’s new favorite target, however, with this team returning a few players capable of filling that role. One is junior Wes Kemp, whose 18.2 yards per catch average on his 23 grabs led the team. Kemp, along with fellow junior Jerrell Jackson, are the only returning Missouri receivers to have made at least eight receptions a season ago; that’s a bit troubling. Having said that, Missouri does not lack for talent at the position: Pinkel and his staff can turn to senior L’Damian Washington or sophomores T.J. Moe and Rolandis Woodland, among others. In fact, one could very well make the case that Missouri is deeper at wide receiver in 2010 than it was a year ago; I actually believe that. Whether Gabbert can take advantage of this deep, or continues to focus on one go-to target, as he often did as a first-year starter, remains to be seen.

Game(s) to watch

Nebraska. That game, yet again, will decide the Big 12 North. For one last time, I might add. The Tigers travel to Lincoln this year, where they won convincingly in 2008. That road test is one of four difficult games played from Oct. 16 — Nov. 6: the Cornhuskers are preceded by Texas A&M and Oklahoma, followed by Texas Tech. Unfortunately, three of those four games come on the road.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell Yet again, Missouri is a lock for eight wins. This has some to do with the weak non-conference schedule, which will allow the Tigers to enter Big 12 play with a 4-0 mark — just like last season. In addition, Missouri has three very winnable games in conference play: Colorado, Kansas State and Iowa State. A fourth, the season finale against Kansas, is nearly always a toss-up; in terms of talent, the advantage clearly goes to Missouri. As with Texas A&M in yesterday’s preview, Missouri’s season will be defined by a four-game stretch against Texas A&M, Oklahoma, Nebraska and Texas Tech. The Tigers failed last season’s test, dropping their conference games against Top 25 competition. Unfortunately, three of those four come on the road — Oklahoma is the lone team coming to Columbia. If for no other reason, this stretch will prevent Missouri from reclaiming the Big 12 North. 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.

Dream season Missouri returns to the top of the Big 12 North with a 10-2 mark, 6-2 in conference play. One of those conference wins comes over Nebraska, giving the Tigers the important head-to-head tiebreaker. Unlike in 2007 and 2008, however, Missouri caps off a division championship with a win in the Big 12 title game.

Nightmare season For the first time since 2004, Missouri wins less than seven games: 6-6, 3-5 in the Big 12.

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.

Up Next

Who is No. 32? Our next program has won 16 games over the past three years, the program’s worst three-season stretch since winning 12 games from 1961-63.

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

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Comments

  1. pfz10 says:

    Notre Dame is next

  2. tulaneoutlaw says:

    Next up is Notre Dame.

  3. Mike says:

    This is good. You have Missouri covered — all the strengths and weaknesses. I don’t know how you do it, but it’s very thorough and objective.

  4. M Meyer says:

    If Notre Dame is next, how many ranking spots do you suppose Brian Kelly is worth, 15? 20?

  5. Spencer says:

    excellent in-depth look at Mizzou. Kudos to the writer

  6. Scott says:

    A couple things to add-

    First, this will be the second year for the OC, DC, and Off line coach on the job- I think there were some struggles last year, but I expect to see a significant improvement from these units.

    Second, it was noted in the preview, but the overall amount of talent on this team is impressive (especially compared to previous teams). Without a doubt, Mizzou is the second most talented team in the B-12 North and pretty even with the middle of the B-12 South (Texas Tech and A&M). When the B-12 goes to 10, this will become all the more important and Mizzou is going to have start beating the Texas schools consistently. That is why the Tech and A&M games will be so important this year.

    Go MIZZOU!

  7. Jack says:

    Mizzou clearly has the most talent in the Big 12 North. Without a quarterback, and with the loss of Suh, Nebraska shouldn’t be taken seriously as a contender. They were an eyelash from going 6-6 last year.

    The only thing that will possibly hold MU back, is a brutal Big 12 schedule. They easily have the toughest North schedule.

    However, they had the toughest schedule in 2007 in the North as well and still got to #1 and 11-1. They played 3 ranked teams in a row to start conference play… Neb-Oklahoma-Texas Tech. And they faced their two toughest games (OU 10-2 and KU 11-1) away from Faurot Field.

  8. [...] the country heading into the season opener. Today’s team, No. 33, is Missouri. You can find a larger Missouri preview at Pre-Snap [...]

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