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Missouri needs to focus on consistency
It might seem like an overstatement to call this the most important season in the history of Missouri football, and possibly the university and its standing on a national scale, but yeah, this really might be the most important season in the history of Missouri football.
The times are changing in the Big 12, soon to be the real Big 10, and Missouri has to establish itself as a mega-power player and not just a solid perennial bowl team in order to get on the radar in the realignment discussions (and no, this is not a dead issue).
With Nebraska and Colorado bolting from the league, there’s one final shot for the Tigers to make a run for the Big 12 title by winning the North first before getting their puncher’s chance at the Texas/Oklahoma winner in the championship game. Once the league is down to ten teams, then Mizzou won’t just play the Sooners and/or Longhorns once in a while; the two powerhouses will be on the slate every year. Good luck with that.
Missouri is not a traditional powerhouse, as it so rudely realized after being led on by the Big Ten and all of the expansion talk this offseason. Of course the program wants out of the Big 12 and into the Big Ten, where the bowl and TV money are better. Of course the university would rather be aligned with the Northwesterns and Wisconsins of the world over the Kansas States and Oklahoma States (some school officials have said as much). But for the moment, that’s not going to happen, and the only way to change that and to become, for lack of a better way of putting it, hot, is to become a bigger player on the football field. Again, this year might be the best chance to do it before Texas is fully reloaded from its monster 2010 recruiting class and with Oklahoma not going anywhere any time soon.
For all the great things head coach Gary Pinkel has done to make Mizzou football relevant over the last decade, he has yet to prove that he and his ultra-athletic teams can win the big game, or have its head screwed on straight enough to not gack away the winnable ones.
Even with its precision offense, Navy should never beat a BCS team, and it shouldn’t be running over a defense as good as the Tigers’ was. Mizzou didn’t even make the trip in an ugly 35-13 Texas Bowl loss to the Midshipmen, found a way to be the one team able to give away a home game to a Robert Griffin-less Baylor, and showed it wasn’t ready for primetime by failing to close out Nebraska in a crushing fourth quarter loss.
There was the wild collapse against Kansas in 2008, followed up by the blowout loss to Oklahoma in the Big 12 Championship. There was the unacceptable loss to a bad Iowa State team in 2006, topped by a late gag against Oregon State in the Sun Bowl, and before that came several strange losses like a nationally televised ten-point loss at Troy in 2004 and a shootout home loss to New Mexico in 2005. On top of the strange losses, the Tigers have a 4-16 record against Nebraska, Texas, and Oklahoma (with the four wins all coming over the Huskers) since Pinkel took over.
Yes, every program loses games it shouldn’t, but this program can’t afford them. Consistency has been a problem, and to finally take another step forward in the progression it’s time to win all the games they’re supposed to. Very quietly, this might be the team to do it.
A veteran team doesn’t lose the Nebraska game last year, and this season’s squad is loaded with experience. Ten players have regular starting experience returning on defense and seven on offense. Blaine Gabbert is poised to become one of the Big 12’s top quarterbacks, if not a signature star. The offensive line is terrific, there’s speed to burn in the backfield and the receiving corps. The linebackers might be the best in the Big 12, the secondary gets all the key parts back and Aldon Smith leads a fearsome pass rush from the front four. Throw in one of the nation’s best kicking games, and the pieces are all there for the Tigers to get to their third Big 12 title game in the last four years.
Considering Oklahoma is rebuilding and Texas appears to be a year away from being Texas again, the time is now to pounce.
What to watch for on offense: The running game. Missouri didn’t ignore the ground game with 444 attempts compared to 467 passes, but it wasn’t effective. The Tigers only averaged 127 rushing yards per game and a meager 3.7 yards per carry; both numbers inexcusable for a team with so much speed in the backfield and so much talent up front to pave the way. The temptation will be to let Blaine Gabbert bomb away since he’s the star of the show and the passing attack will eat up yards in chunks, but to win the North, Derrick Washington and the backs have to be more effective.
What to watch for on defense: A more aggressive secondary. Everyone has had pass defense problems over the last few years in the Big 12, but Mizzou has had particular issues in key games. Most opposing offenses have had to bomb away to keep up the pace, and if the defense could tighten up the difference could be night-and-day for a secondary that finished 11th in the league and 104th in the nation in passing yards allowed. The Tiger D came up with a paltry eight interceptions, and now the goal will be to go after more passes and take more chances. The secondary is getting burned anyway; there might as well be a payoff once in a while.
The team will be far better if … it could close. Mizzou has lost some big games under Pinkel because it couldn’t bring in Mariano Rivera to get the save, and with an experienced, smart team returning, that has to change. The Tigers were about to be the lead dog in the North up 12-0 on Nebraska at home before allowing 27 unanswered points in the fourth quarter. The defense gave up 14 points in the fourth to Baylor, while the offense came up with a measly three points in the second half in the shocking loss. Those were two home games the team HAD to win, and if it did, it would’ve won the North.
The schedule: The Tigers will get time to fatten up the record with a cakewalk of a first half of the season. Illinois might be better, but Mizzou will be favored in the opener. They won’t be an underdog, or anything lower than a seven-point favorite, until mid-October. Going 5-0 with this slate is a must for a team with any realistic hopes of winning the North, and then the fun kicks in dealing with a trip to Texas A&M and getting Oklahoma from the South before the showdown for the North against Nebraska in Lincoln. Throw in a trip to Texas Tech and the Tigers going on the road for three games in four (with the OU date the home game) and are away from Columbia for five of the final six games. However, the last three games against Kansas State, at Iowa State, and against Kansas (to be played in Kansas City) are very winnable.
Best offensive player: Junior QB Blaine Gabbert. The 6-5, 240-pound junior had a whale of a first year bombing away for 3,593 yards and 24 touchdowns, and while he threw nine interceptions, they all came in four games (three of them losses). He’s a strong, accurate passer with just enough mobility to take off from time to time (rushing for 94 yards against Kansas). He should be even better with a great line in front of him to provide the time to work, and with a healthy ankle that wasn’t quite right throughout the second half of last season.
Best defensive player: Sophomore DE Aldon Smith. Expected to blossom as the team’s newest pass rushing star, the 6-5, 255-pounder didn’t disappoint, cranking out 11.5 sacks, turning into a terror over the second half of the year, with 19 tackles for loss and 64 stops. Very quick with great closing speed and a high-motor, he’ll be on everyone’s All-America short list if he can come up with a repeat of last year.
Key player to a successful season: Senior CB Kevin Rutland. The difference between possibly winning the Big 12 title and being an also ran could be as simple as improved play in the secondary. Rutland, a senior, might not be the team’s top cover corner, that’ll likely be senior Carl Gettis on the other side, but he’s the vocal leader now that LB Sean Weatherspoon is gone and he’s the one who has to come up with the big play at the right time. He’s not going to be perfect in the pass-happy Big 12, but he has to win his share of battles.
The season will be a success if … Mizzou wins the Big 12 North. Nebraska might be a bit better, and the showdown is in Lincoln, but with so much returning experience and so much firepower, anything less than getting to the title game for the third time in four years will be a disappointment. Along the way, a win over Oklahoma would be nice.
Key game: Oct. 30 at Nebraska. The winner of this game over the last four years has gone on to play for the Big 12 title, and this year probably won’t be any different. The last time the Tigers went to Lincoln was 2008 with a 52-17 win. Don’t think Husker head coach Bo Pelini won’t bring that up about ten thousand times before gameday.