KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Last fall, nobody saw them coming. This year, the Missouri Tigers roll up to the carnival with a giant "division championship" banner over their heads.
And a big ol’ target on their collective backs.
With Southeastern Conference media days upon us, college football is officially in overture mode, the opening curtain just around the corner. Which brings us to one of the more interesting questions for the autumn to come: Will coach Gary Pinkel’s 2014 crew look more like the 5-7, injury-riddled mess of 2012? Or the airtight, surprising 12-2 SEC East winner and Cotton Bowl champion of 2013? Or will it fall somewhere in the middle?
Huge swaths of a good offensive line must be replaced; so must the top receiver on the roster in Dorial Green-Beckham, who managed to police-blotter his way into a transfer to Oklahoma. There appear to be capable replacements at defensive end for two of the best in the SEC last year in Michael Sam and Kony Ealy, but is there solid enough depth behind those replacements? After a trial run because of injuries midway through last year, Maty Mauk takes the keys at quarterback with some healthy experience under his belt. But if the same health mojo dogs Mauk the way it dogged James Franklin last year … oh, doctor.
Still, the Tigers don’t draw Auburn, Alabama or LSU; their conference foes posted just a 24-40 record in league play a year ago. So while Mizzou is a long shot to return to the SEC Championship Game in Atlanta for a second straight year, after last season, that shot doesn’t seem nearly as long as it looked to be in December 2012.
THE DANCE CARD
Game 1: vs. South Dakota State, Aug. 30
The last time we really saw Jackrabbits up close, tailback Zach Zenner carried the ball on the first play of the Charlie Weis Era at Kansas — and promptly ran it back 99 yards for a touchdown. Now a senior, he went for 183 yards that day and rolled for another 202 last fall at Nebraska. Mind you, SDSU wound up getting rolled in those two contests by a combined score of 90-37. Take the scrappy over. Guesstimate: W
Game 2: at Toledo, Sept. 6
The Glass Bowl ain’t The Swamp, but it’s tougher than it looks. The Rockets are, too, returning 16 starters — seven on offense — from a group that pushed Mizzou at Faurot Field last fall and had made Florida sweat in Gainesville the year before. This is a soft-spot series for Pinkel, a former Toledo coach, but beware: Rockets coach Matt Campbell, entering his third season in northern Ohio, has yet to lose a non-conference tilt at home. As MAC tests go, this is a salty one. Guesstimate: W
Game 3: vs. Central Florida, Sept. 13
Cinderella of ’13 vs. Cinderella of ’13. No Blake Bortles under center — thank goodness — but nine defensive starters return to a crew that won at Penn State, at Louisville and at SMU last fall, then "held" Baylor — 60-points-per-game Baylor — to 42 in an upset victory in the Fiesta Bowl. Since 2010, George O’Leary’s Knights are 1-2 in road openers against Big Five conferences, but the average margin of defeat was just 9.5 points. With size and experience and four starters back across the secondary, this might be one of the best defensive backfields the Tigers see all season. Guesstimate: W
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Game 4: vs. Indiana, Sept. 20
The Hoosiers are kind of a poor man’s Oregon — super quick, lightning offense, but still struggling to build a Big Ten-caliber defense. Coach Kevin Wilson is feeling the pressure in Year 4 to get the Crimson and Cream back to a bowl, though — and this one, like Central Florida and Toledo before it, could be a hell of a lot trickier in person than it looks on paper. Guesstimate: W
Game 5: at South Carolina, Sept. 27
Sure, the Gamecocks don’t have Jadeveon Clowney anymore — but some will tell you they didn’t really have him last year, either. The offensive line is a veteran, Tim Howard-esque brick wall and Mike Davis is a hammer at tailback, while Dylan Thompson — like Mauk — has been deputized well enough to know what he’s in for. The Tigers could shake up the division with a victory here, but it’s a bear of a league opener. And we ain’t talkin’ Yogi. Guesstimate: L
Game 6: vs. Georgia, Oct. 11
New signal-caller Hutson Mason, like Mauk, was called into duty because of injuries last year and got good mileage out of the experience; plus, running back Todd Gurley, when he’s right, can chew up yards like nobody’s business. And Gurley was one of the many big pieces Uga had to do without when Mizzou went between the hedges and shocked the world last October. Linebacker Ramik Wilson is a load. And a half. Guesstimate: L
The Gators’ Dante Fowler is arguably the best defensive end still kicking on Planet Slive with Clowney, Sam and Ealy all chasing quarterbacks at the next level. Coach Will Muschamp claims Florida’s kids were humbled by a bowl-less, 4-8 stinker last fall — and few teams humbled them as much as the Tigers did last fall in CoMo. Guesstimate: L
Game 8: vs. Vanderbilt, Oct. 25
Coach James Franklin is gone, but Franklin’s stamp remains. After back-to-back nine-win seasons, Vandy isn’t anybody’s idea of a perfect breather anymore. But the Commodores have only 10 returning starters, so this is the kind of week (and draw) that has to be capitalized upon. Guesstimate: W
Game 9: vs. Kentucky, Nov. 1
Surely, Mauk won’t throw five touchdowns against the Wildcats this time. No, wait. We take that back. Actually, he just might. Guesstimate: W
Game 10: at Texas A&M, Nov. 15
You want to know why it’s so freaking hard to repeat as division champions in the SEC? Trips like this one. But the Aggies might well be caught in sandwich mode, as they’ll be coming off a toughie at Auburn the week before and will be setting up for a big intra-division showdown with LSU on Nov. 27. Before Johnny Manziel turned up, Pinkel had won his previous two visits to College Station by an average score of 34-20. Guesstimate: L
Game 11: at Tennessee, Nov. 22
The Vols have done a good job talking the talk before this one. Walking the walk, though, not so much. Talk about a sign of a different era: After dominating the SEC at the end of the 20th century, Tennessee has averaged 6.7 wins (and 5.8 losses) over the past decade. The Tigers, over that same stretch? 8.5 wins, 4.4 losses. Guesstimate: W
Game 12: vs. Arkansas, Nov. 29
In Madison, damn near everything Bret Bielema touched turned to gold. In Fayetteville, he was handed a bag full of rocks. When things go bad in the SEC West, they can go bad in bunches, as Bielema learned the hard way. The Hogs could get this ship turned around, but it probably won’t be this fall. Guesstimate: W
THE FINAL VERDICT: 8-4, 4-4 SEC
With only eight starters back on both sides of the ball returning, Pinkel’s cupboard isn’t exactly stocked — but it isn’t bare, either. Tailbacks Russell Hansbrough and Marcus Murphy have the goods, but a reliable, consistent target at wideout — and maybe two — will have to be found for the gunslinging Mauk to really show his wares. Defensive end Markus Golden is a sneaky-good candidate for all-league honors once the dust settles; so are fellow pass rusher Shane Ray and cornerback Aarion Penton.
Mizzou won’t sneak up on anybody — and might not for a long time, having announced their presence with authority last fall by handing some old-money programs their respective lunches. Getting to the top of the mountain in the SEC is one thing. But staying there, once those bluebloods start punching back, is quite another.