No. 44: Missouri
By Paul Myerberg // Jul 26, 2012
The lineage begins with Brad Smith, who came to Missouri from Ohio, took a redshirt in 2001 and began one of the greatest careers by a quarterback in N.C.A.A. history in 2002. It continues with Chase Daniel, who carried a clipboard in 2005 before replacing Smith a year later, eventually leaving as the most prolific passer in program history. Then comes Blaine Gabbert, who swapped a verbal commitment to Nebraska for a commitment to Missouri and left, one year too soon, as a first-round draft pick. Filling out the lineage is junior James Franklin, the next in line, and he may end up being the best of them all. There’s only one question surrounding Franklin, but it’s a big one – and one that will end up defining Missouri’s initial foray into the unfriendly SEC: How’s the shoulder?
11 (5 offense, 6 defense)
Last year’s ranking
- Sept. 1
- Sept. 8
- Sept. 15
- Sept. 22
at South Carolina
- Sept. 29
- Oct. 6
- Oct. 13
- Oct. 27
- Nov. 3
- Nov. 10
- Nov. 17
- Nov. 24
at Texas A&M
Last year’s prediction
Another eight-win season is a guarantee. In short, Missouri’s going to do what good teams do, which is beat the tar out of the lesser teams on the schedule. 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.
In a nutshell Not as many wins as in 2010, and not quite the most eye-popping resume of wins. But looking merely at the end result, eight wins, ignores Missouri’s trials and tribulations along the way. The Tigers lost five starters off the 2010 defense: Aldon Smith – as good in college as he was this year for the 49ers – Andre Gachkar and three members in the secondary. Losing your best pass rusher and retooling your secondary is often a recipe for disaster in the Big 12, and Missouri’s pass defense did struggle, as most expected. Then the offensive line encountered its own fair share of injury-related calamities. But the Tigers persevered. A very good season, and the strong finish sent Missouri into the SEC on a high note.
High point A 17-5 win over Texas on Nov. 12. It was the first of four straight victories to end the season, and marked a fine return for the defense after an ugly three-game stretch.
Low point An overtime loss to Arizona State in September. I realize September’s Sun Devils differed from December’s Sun Devils, but still: a game Missouri should have won. You can understand the rest, seeing that the Tigers’ four remaining losses came to Oklahoma, Kansas State, Oklahoma State and Baylor.
Tidbit How many F.B.S. programs have won at least eight games in each of the last six years? I’ll give you a hint: Missouri is one. There are eight others: Boise State, L.S.U., Oklahoma, T.C.U., U.S.C., Utah, Virginia Tech and West Virginia. Say that list aloud and then add Missouri on the end. You could make the case – not that you would, but you could – that Texas A&M earned a spot in the SEC based on its history and potential; Missouri, on the other hand, earned a place at the table by reinventing itself as a national contender.
Tidbit (scoring edition) This isn’t an apt comparison, but take this tidbit as one way to express the dichotomy between the Big 12 and the SEC. Missouri never finished higher than fourth in the Big 12 in scoring offense from 2007-11: sixth last fall (32.8 points per game), eighth in 2010 (29.8 points per game), sixth in 2009 (29.0 points per game), fourth in 2008 (42.2 points per game) and fourth in 2007 (39.9 points per game). In comparison, Missouri’s scoring output would have ranked third in the SEC in 2011, eighth in 2010, seventh in 2009, second in 2008 and second in 2007.
Tidbit (SEC edition) So how has Missouri fared against its new conference rivals? Quite well: 24-15-1 overall, with a 5-7 mark against former Big 12 cohort Texas A&M. If you take the Aggies out of the equation – which seems fair – the Tigers are 19-8-1 against the SEC. Let’s go down the line: Missouri is 2-1 against Alabama, 3-2 against Arkansas, 1-0 against Auburn, 1-0 against Florida, 0-1 against Georgia, 0-2 against Kentucky, 1-0 against L.S.U., 5-1 against Mississippi, 2-0 against Mississippi State, 2-0 against South Carolina and 2-1-1 against Vanderbilt. The Tigers have yet to play Tennessee – but the Volunteers play host in November.
Former players in the N.F.L.
25 WR Danario Alexander (St. Louis), C Tim Barnes (St. Louis), OG Colin Brown (Buffalo), TE Chase Coffman (Tampa Bay), QB Chase Daniel (New Orleans), TE Michael Egnew (Miami), QB Blaine Gabbert (Jacksonville), LB Andrew Gachkar (San Diego), DT Dominique Hamilton (Oakland), OT Dan Hoch (Jacksonville), DE Ziggy Hood (Pittsburgh), WR Jerrell Jackson (Houston), WR Jeremy Maclin (Philadelphia), S William Moore (Atlanta), DT C.J. Mosley (Jacksonville), TE Martin Rucker (Kansas City), CB Kevin Rutland (Jacksonville), LB Aldon Smith (San Francisco), DE Jacquies Smith (Miami), DT Justin Smith (San Francisco), QB Brad Smith (Buffalo), LB Sean Weatherspoon (Atlanta), K Jeff Wolfert (Cleveland), OG Austin Wuebbels (Denver).
Arbitrary top five list
Active coaches who served as head coach at alma mater
1. Steve Spurrier, Florida.
2. Frank Beamer, Virginia Tech.
3. Mike Gundy, Oklahoma State.
4. Frank Solich, Nebraska.
5. Brady Hoke, Ball State.
Gary Pinkel (Kent State ‘75), 85-54 after 11 seasons with the Tigers. Last fall saw Pinkel, for the sixth consecutive season, lead Missouri to at least eight wins. He did so with one of his younger teams, not to mention a team that battled injuries and a degree of inconsistency for much of the regular season. Missouri has now won at least 10 games in three of the last five 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 29-31 after the 2005 season to its current status of more than 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 63 games over the last seven 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. He’ll move firmly onto the national radar once the Tigers take the field as part of the SEC.
Tidbit (coaching edition) It’s rare that Pinkel makes any changes to his coaching staff, and when he does, it’s always due to the fact that one of his assistants has taken a step up the ladder – as with Dave Christiansen, who left for the head coaching job at Wyoming in 2009, and as with former safeties coach Dave Odom, who left this winter to become Justin Fuente’s defensive coordinator at Memphis. Pinkel didn’t look far for Odom’s replacement: Alex Grinch, who spent the last three seasons as Christiansen’s secondary coach with the Cowboys, was a Missouri graduate assistant from 2002-4. Outside of Grinch, it’s the same old story: Steckel with the defense, Yost with the offense, Hill with receivers, Jones the running backs and so on down the line.
Players to watch
With a healthy James Franklin at the center of this offense, Missouri should be considered a very realistic contender in the SEC East – not a team that should win the division, but one that will certainly go toe-to-toe with teams like Georgia and South Carolina in the battle for a SEC title game berth. Without Franklin, Missouri’s season takes on an entirely different feel; if he can’t go, the Tigers would need to rebalance their preseason expectations. With Franklin: seven to nine wins, a solid debut in this new league. Without Franklin: four to six wins, with a bowl bid standing as one of the greatest feats of Pinkel’s coaching career. On Franklin’s right shoulder – his throwing shoulder – lie Missouri’s hopes for the 2012 season.
This is the case not merely because Franklin has the makings of a superb college quarterback – though that’s certainly part of the equation. Last fall, his first as the starter, Franklin threw for 2,872 yards and 21 touchdowns against 11 picks, adding another 981 yards and a team-best 15 touchdowns on the ground. Franklin’s dual-threat success harkened back to Brad Smith’s days in Columbia – his later days, when he developed his skills as a thrower – but with a twist: Franklin is by far a better passer than Smith ever was. Put simply, it’s not a stretch to say that Missouri lost a first-round N.F.L. Draft pick yet landed superior play at quarterback; Franklin was that good, that fast, and he’s only scratching the surface of his potential.
A bigger issue is Missouri’s extreme lack of depth at the position. Outside of Franklin, no quarterback has taken a snap on the F.B.S. level. Last year’s backup, Jimmy Costello, has graduated; Missouri also lost junior Ashton Glasser, who transferred last month. So where do the Tigers stand if Franklin can’t go? It’ll be redshirt freshman Corbin Berkstresser followed by true freshman Maty Mauk. That’s not a great situation – not in the Big 12, the SEC, the WAC, what have you.
The good news is that Franklin’s recovery is on schedule, according to Pinkel. The better news is that Franklin didn’t necessarily need the snaps during the spring and over the summer. In fact, you could probably make the case that getting Berkstresser first-team snaps in March and April will ultimately be to Missouri’s benefit. However, it’s impossible to predict just whether he’ll be ready to go by September or, even if he is medically cleared, how his arm will react to his second surgery since enrolling at Missouri. As he goes, Missouri goes. Franklin must be in the lineup if the Tigers hope to make noise in the SEC.
One player who won’t return in 2012, barring a medical miracle, is running back Henry Josey. The junior suffered a devastating, one-in-a-million knee injury in the win over Texas, cutting short one of the greatest seasons by a back in school history – he’ll take a redshirt this fall, leaving him with two more seasons of eligibility. With Josey out and De’Vion Moore gone, Missouri will lean heavily on senior Kendial Lawrence (566), who came on strong in Josey’s absence over the final four games of last season.
Lawrence averaged 92.8 rushing yards per game from Texas through North Carolina, adding three scores on the ground. He ran hard, perhaps taking a page out of Josey’s book, and showed an ability to serve as Missouri’s every-down back. It’s a role that the Tigers need him to fill, even if this team has a few serviceable backups. One is sophomore Marcus Murphy, who played well in spurts as a freshman in 2010 but missed all of last season with a shoulder injury. The Tigers also have a pair of bigger backs in sophomore Greg White and senior Jared Culver (116 yards) – very big, in Culver’s case. Missouri will miss Josey, but the running game should work fine if Lawrence carries his strong finish over into 2012. I also have a feeling that Murphy is primed for a breakthrough.
Missouri gets Elvis Fisher back from his one-year sabbatical in the doctor’s office; the Tigers also plan on getting a full season out of senior Travis Ruth. With that, any concerns over Missouri’s ability to put forth a capable offensive line fly out the window. Fisher reclaims his spot at left tackle after missing all of last season due to injury. His return pushes junior Justin Britt over to right tackle – and the one positive of Fisher’s injury is that gave Britt valuable time in the starting lineup. The Tigers also have a third intriguing option in sophomore Chris Freeman, who has prototypical tackle size. He won’t start, but Freeman is one outside lineman to watch; perhaps Missouri gives Freeman some experience in the lineup to prepare him for a starting role in 2013.
Would Missouri actually move Ruth to left guard? It’s something the Tigers considered during the spring. Whether it becomes permanent depends on whether Pinkel and his staff are willing to throw the reins to sophomore Mitch Morse, who took some first-team snaps at center during the spring. I wouldn’t take the chance: Ruth should be in the middle, flanked by senior Jack Meiners and either Morse, should Missouri switch him to guard, or sophomore Nick Demien, a former four-star recruit.
It’s just lovely when a plan comes together, even if the original plan didn’t include a two-year detour through the JUCO ranks. Better late than never, you can say, and doubly so when it comes to junior defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson (37 tackles, 8.0 for loss) – it took some time, but Richardson lived up to the expectations that surrounded his long-gestating arrival in Columbia prior to last season. He developed somewhat slowly, partly due to the fact that he was new to this system, but by the end of last fall, Richardson was one of the top defensive linemen in the Big 12.
Looking for a reason why Missouri won’t simply get manhandled by the big, bad SEC? Check out Richardson, who will be even better after spending an entire season in Missouri’s defense. He’s a difference-making interior linemen; he demands attention, occupying blockers inside, but can also be extremely disruptive both against the run and when rushing the quarterback. Enjoy him while you can: I’d be surprised if Richardson returns for his senior season.
He’ll be joined inside by sophomore Lucas Vincent, the odds-on favorite to replace Dominique Hamilton at nose guard. With Richardson out during the spring, the Tigers were able to get senior Jimmy Burge and junior Marvin Foster some key snaps with the top unit. That’s your top four inside, if Foster can remain healthy, with a slew of unproven tackles in reserve.
Hopefully, getting a big year out of Richardson will open things up for Missouri’s ends. This group was a bit of a disappointment last fall, though it should be noted that senior Brad Madison (25 tackles, 4.5 sacks) was never at 100 percent. If he’s healthy, Madison must give Missouri some consistent pressure coming off the edge; the Tigers will be in trouble if Steckel is forced to bring heat from his back seven. Missouri’s options on the other side include sophomore Kony Ealy and juniors Brayden Burnett and Michael Sam (29 tackles, 3.5 for loss) – with Sam the best pick for a starting role. Missouri needs to get better end play, something that might come with a healthy Madison and Richardson drawing blockers inside.
The sky is the limit for senior Zaviar Gooden (80 tackles), a weak side linebacker straight out of central casting. Big, strong, agile and deadly in space, Gooden gives Missouri some flash on the second level. He’s one of three linebackers locked into starting roles heading into September, joining senior Will Ebner in the middle and junior Andrew Wilson (98 tackles, 9.5 for loss) on the strong side. The only issue with Ebner is his inability to stay healthy, which might be a byproduct of his unbridled ferociousness – Ebner treats every play like it’s his last, which makes him positively delightful to watch and an injury waiting to happen. If he can remain on the field, Missouri has a very strong linebacker corps. If not, the Tigers would be forced to move Wilson back inside and shuffle starters on the strong side, which would be bad for the defense’s bottom line.
In a conference loaded with N.F.L.-ready secondary talent, Missouri’s dearth of proven options stands out. Yes, the Tigers have a very solid starting cornerback in junior E.J. Gaines (69 tackles, 2 interceptions), who earned all-Big 12 honors last fall and could challenge for the same accolades in the SEC – though it’s a long shot, considering how deep this league goes at cornerback. But when you look at where Missouri stands at the second cornerback spot and at safety, well, you see some warning signs.
Senior cornerback Kip Edwards (55 tackles), returns on the opposite side. While he’s got enough size to handle the SEC’s bigger receivers, Edwards remains a bit of an enigma – whether due to injuries or otherwise, he always seems close to putting his entire game together but lacks optimal consistency. Don’t look for another cornerback to leapfrog past Edwards and into of a starting role, but do look for SEC quarterbacks to knock on Edwards’ door early and often.
Former JUCO transfer Kenronte Walker (44 tackles) shifts from free to strong safety, stepping in for Kenji Jackson – one lost starter who will be more difficult to replace than some might imagine. This move opens up free safety to sophomore Braylon Webb (36 tackles), who got his feet as a four-game starter last fall. The issue? It’s probably safe to say that neither was overly impressive over the later stages of spring ball and during Missouri’s final scrimmage.
One thing is clear: You can say that Missouri’s front seven is ready for the more physical pro-style offenses of the SEC – if Madison can stay healthy, that is – but you cannot say the same of this secondary. While this new conference is defined on defense, the SEC contains miles of all-American-caliber receivers; from familiar faces like Texas A&M’s Ryan Swope to new targets like Cobi Hamilton, Da’Rick Rogers, Emory Blake and others, Missouri is going to have some difficulty cutting down on big plays. And you know what will happen if the Tigers are forced to alter their alignment and mentality up front if this pass defense struggles – trouble, that’s what.
Grant Ressel’s unforeseeable issues last fall gave strong-legged senior Trey Barrow a chance to handle kicking responsibilities in addition to his work as the team’s punter and kickoff specialist. Barrow delivered, making seven of nine attempts over the year’s final six games. Barrow should handle all three duties this fall, hopefully giving the Tigers a weapon on longer field goals.
Position battle(s) to watch
Wide receiver Missouri won’t have too much trouble replacing receivers Wes Kemp and Jerrell Jackson. A bigger issue will be finding a new tight end to step in for Michael Egnew, a first-team all-Big 12 pick who was Franklin’s security blanket over the middle of the field. Missouri has two options: one, try to replicate Egnew’s production with another tight end, like junior Eric Waters; or two, alter the offense slightly to feature a bigger receiver filling an Egnew-like role – a target who can run past linebackers and bully defensive backs. I think you know where this is going.
Even if he’s slow to grasp Yost’s offense, Dorial Green-Beckham should be able to fill this role from the start: Green-Beckham can be Missouri’s bigger receiver, someone the Tigers can use to create mismatches against the opposition’s back seven. You know he’s going to play; he’s was the nation’s top recruit, after all. It’s merely a matter of how much he plays, and in what manner Missouri uses him. The expectations are high, but Green-Beckham shouldn’t be viewed as an immediate star – that’s putting a lot of his plate. Instead, he can clearly be a valuable weapon if used correctly, not force-fed but fed piecemeal, developing his confidence and putting him in can’t-fail situations. If used correctly, Green-Beckham can not only give the Tigers the bigger target they need but also make things easier for the team’s returning receivers. By November, I imagine that he’ll be the centerpiece of Missouri’s passing game.
T.J. Moe can win press conferences. He can also move the sticks, with the last two seasons as our evidence. But one thing that seemed missing last fall was a rapport with Franklin; Moe had this with Gabbert, cracking the 1,000-yard mark as a sophomore, but his numbers took a slight dive last fall – as did most of Missouri’s receiver, to be fair. For now, the Tigers’ three starters are Moe, junior Marcus Lucas (23 catches for 414 yards) and junior L’Damian Washington (20 for 364). Add Green-Beckham into the mix and you have one of the five best receiver corps in the SEC.
Game(s) to watch
Hello, Georgia. Hey there, South Carolina. Oh, Tennessee! Nice to finally meet you. The Tigers see you there, Alabama and Florida, and even you, Vanderbilt. It’ll be a schedule full of firsts – if not first-time meetings, first-time meetings as conference rivals. For Missouri, the SEC East runs through dates against the Bulldogs and Gamecocks; with those two games coming by Sept. 22, the Tigers will know whether they’ll be an SEC factor by the end of the year’s opening month. The must-win games just to grab a bowl berth: Southeastern Louisiana, Arizona State, U.C.F., Kentucky and Syracuse. The final SEC East standings will be decided against Georgia, U.S.C., Vanderbilt, Florida and Tennessee. This should be interesting for Missouri. Fun? Only if the Tigers win.
Season breakdown & prediction
In a nutshell There are unknowns here that stretch beyond the program’s new conference environs, which is an issue in itself – Missouri will be forced to alter the way it does things on both sides of the ball, on defense most of all. But in terms of personnel, the Tigers do need to address a few concerns. One is the factor completely outside the team’s control: Franklin’s health. I’m going to hedge myself by saying that if Franklin was at 100 percent – or if I knew he’d be at 100 percent by September – I’d peg Missouri to make some noise in the East, finishing above .500 in conference play and nabbing a third-place finish behind Georgia and South Carolina. That he’s not has me putting the Tigers here, just behind Tennessee at fourth, with three or four wins in the SEC.
But that’s not the only issue facing Missouri as it prepares for fall camp. Another is this secondary, which must play with greater consistency to combat the SEC’s athletic receivers. In addition, this defensive line – the ends in particular – must get pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Can Madison stay healthy? Is Richardson ready to take the next step? Is there enough depth inside to combat one or more injuries? In a dream scenario, the Tigers get full seasons from Madison and Ebner and can get stops against the run – making things a little easier for the secondary. It’s a bit of stretch to say that Missouri is going to do so from the start in the SEC. For now, the defense is a bit of a question mark.
What’s not a stretch: Missouri is going to win games in this league. The Tigers are going to win games from the start, giving teams like Georgia and U.S.C. a run for their money and, in the process, proving to those outside the Big 12 that this is a program built to last, not some underdog, flash-in-the-pan team unprepared for life in the nation’s toughest league. I think that a perfect 4-0 mark during non-conference action and three wins during SEC play is in the cards for Missouri in 2012. But… if Franklin is ready, the defensive line better than advertised and the secondary improved, the Tigers are going to end up loving life in the SEC – and eventually ranked far higher than No. 44.
Dream season The Tigers make themselves known by knocking off Georgia and South Carolina, locking up the SEC East title. While Missouri loses two games in conference play, to Alabama at home and to Tennessee on the road, it heads into the conference title game at 10-2, 6-2 in the SEC. Just for old time’s sake, let’s say that Nebraska goes 5-7 — old habits die hard at Missouri.
Nightmare season In late August, Pinkel announces that Franklin won’t be ready for the season. In addition, the Tigers suffer several key injuries along the front seven. This leads to an inauspicious SEC debut: 4-8, 2-6 in conference play.
In case you were wondering
Where do Missouri fans congregate? Start with Tiger Board, the top independent Web site. For recruiting coverage, check out Power Mizzou and Inside Mizzou. Continue with Rock M Nation, one Big 12 institution that has suffered no decline in production since making the move to the SEC. And a new option: Hairy Truman.
Missouri’s all-name nominee TE Stephen Drain.
Through 81 teams 319,130.
Who is No. 43? Five of tomorrow’s program’s last seven losses have come by a touchdown or less. This is similar to the program’s luck from 2007-8, when 9 of its 13 losses came by eight points or less.
Tags: Andrew Wilson, Brad Madison, Corbin Berkstresser, Dorial Green-Beckham, E.J. Gaines, Elvis Fisher, Gary Pinkel, Henry Josey, James Franklin, Justin Britt, Kendial Lawrence, Kip Edwards, Lucas Vincent, Marcus Lucas, Michael Sam, Missouri, Mitch Morse, SEC, Sheldon Richardson, T.J. Moe, Travis Ruth, Trey Barrow, Will Ebner, Zaviar Gooden
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