For a team that lost seven starters on both offense and defense, Missouri will actually put more experience on the field than one might think in Saturday’s home opener against South Dakota State.
But that doesn’t mean the Tigers don’t need to make the most of their opportunity to gel before a big step up in competition next week. If they don’t, a freshman class with plenty of potential could see some early opportunities.
"It’s one of the top groups we’ve had," coach Gary Pinkel says about his class of 2014. "Where will that go? How hard are they going to work to be great players? How committed are they going to be?"
Those questions won’t be answered just yet with a depth chart featuring no freshmen in the first unit, though it’s worth noting five true freshmen did at least make the list. Among Missouri’s 22 starters on offense and defense, 12 started two games last year and another six saw significant playing time.
But Ian Simon’s six starts as an extra defensive back and Bud Sasser’s 361 receiving yards don’t necessarily mean they can be effective as a starting free safety and No. 1 receiver, respectively. Even preseason second-team All-SEC defensive end Markus Golden must prove he can still equal his impressive production without the presence of first-team All-SEC defensive ends Kony Ealy and Michael Sam, both NFL draft picks.
Of course, having that experience is much better than the alternative, and Pinkel’s teams have a history of lesser-known players raising their game when called upon. It also doesn’t hurt to have upperclassmen such as Golden, junior linebacker Kentrell Brothers and senior strong safety Braylon Webb to lead the three defensive units.
On the offensive side, most of the concerns rightly revolve around whether the Tigers’ passing game can pick up where it left off without its top three receivers. Senior Darius White has already heard it far too often, and he has a decidedly different view.
"That’s the funny part about it," says White, who caught seven passes for 76 yards last season. "A lot of people don’t think that our receivers have a lot of game experience because of the people that we had last year. We were rotating in behind them people in the big games, making big plays."
Most of those big plays came from Sasser, including the opening touchdown in a win over No. 22 Florida and his unforgettable 40-yard touchdown pass off a lateral to L’Damian Washington in the fourth quarter of an upset win at No. 7 Georgia. White’s best moment came on a 37-yard touchdown from James Franklin early in the second half to put away FCS opponent Murray State in the season opener.
South Dakota State will present a slightly tougher test as the No. 10 team in the FCS preseason poll, especially with running back Zach Zenner, who ran for more than 2,000 yards each of the past two seasons, including 202 vs. Nebraska in 2013. Then again, he carried the ball eight times for just 5 yards the following week against eventual national champion North Dakota State, so Zenner clearly can be stopped.
It should be a great chance for Missouri’s players to show progress on both sides of the ball, starting with sophomore quarterback Maty Mauk. He did some great things as a freshman, but it wouldn’t hurt him to make consistently smarter decisions and raise that 51 percent completion percentage.
In fact, Mizzou’s schedule shapes up quite nicely for a team focused on improvement and not nearly ready to repeat as SEC East champs just yet. Toledo, Central Florida and Indiana are all teams more than capable of reaching at least lower-tier bowls, but they’re still very winnable games.
Even the start of conference play doesn’t look quite so tough anymore after South Carolina’s embarrassing home loss to Texas A&M on Thursday night. It would be a huge mistake to put too much stock into just one game, but it’s encouraging to know Mizzou’s new-look lineup should be well seasoned by the time the Tigers travel to College Station on Nov. 15.
You can follow Luke Thompson on Twitter @FS_LukeT or email him at email@example.com.