Eight years later, Brad Smith chooses to remember the disappointment as part of a process. That’s the easiest way. It was a season that humbled, one that began with breakthrough hopes but ended on a frigid November day in Ames, Iowa, with nothing to play for but a fifth victory.
The 2004 campaign was a different time for Missouri. It was before Smith led the Tigers to the Independence Bowl the following season, the start of a seven-year bowl streak. It was before Chase Daniel elevated the program from a mediocre contender to a consistent Big 12 North threat. It was before Blaine Gabbert guided Mizzou to 18 victories over two campaigns and James Franklin led it to eight triumphs and an Independence Bowl title in the final Big 12 Conference year.
There were lessons in the letdown of 2004. The reflections are relevant as Missouri closes its first Southeastern Conference season – an experience that, like eight years ago, included many tests.
“It was a learning experience,” said Smith, a junior quarterback in 2004. “You learn how to win. You learn how to learn from your losses, and you keep moving. As a program, I think that’s kind of what we did – kept learning, kept learning what we needed to do to be more consistent.”
Consistency is at stake Saturday. Missouri travels to No. 9 Texas A&M, with a 5-6 record needing a victory to extend the bowl streak. Few expect the Tigers to win. If they don’t upset Johnny Manziel and the resurgent Aggies, missing a bowl will be further evidence of the program’s slide.
Back in 2004, expectations were different. Before then, Missouri was largely dormant for two decades. The Tigers went to the Holiday Bowl in 1983 and 1997, the Insight.com Bowl in 1998 and the Independence Bowl in 2003. Postseason berths were viewed as a luxury.
“I know that they struggled for a while before we first got there, in 2001 for myself,” said Marcus King, a junior cornerback in 2004. “At the same time, toward the end, we tried to do our best to get them out on a good note and win for them.”
Standards differed then, but the 2004 season began with buzz. Smith was considered a Heisman Trophy contender, and then-senior linebacker James Kinney was considered a possibility for the Butkus Award. That July, athletic director Mike Alden wrote a column for Missouri’s athletics website that included the line, “It is a season that will open with high expectations from our fans and the media.”
But those visions were dashed quickly. There was the primetime loss to Troy in early September. There was the five-game losing streak that included second-half collapses against Oklahoma State and Kansas State. By the end, after an overtime victory over Iowa State, then-junior cornerback A.J. Kincade summed the 5-6 campaign well when he said the Tigers wanted to prove they weren’t quitters.
“I just remember the bottom falling out early in the season,” said Sean Coffey, a junior wide receiver in 2004.
“There was just a lot going on and a lot from top to bottom. Some people can say it was coaching – some people can say we weren’t executing, but everybody was taking turns. But we weren’t doing things we know we could have done. We weren’t winning games we should have won.”
Of course, shortcomings in 2004 gave way to the best postseason run in school history. In many ways, the last seven years made Missouri attractive to the SEC, securing the Tigers’ place in the tenuous college football landscape.
The stretch included 63 victories from 2005 to 2011, including three seasons with at least 10 victories. In 2007, they earned their first No. 1 ranking since 1960.
Throughout the stretch, few in the program could have guessed how important the progress would be when seeking escape from a shaky Big 12 last year.
“I think you’ve got guys who want to do things the right way,” said Smith, who had 2,185 yards passing with 17 touchdowns and 11 interceptions in 2004. “As players, you’ve got to get a feel for what you need to do, what you’re good at and what it takes to be successful. You learn how to do that – you learn how to win, and you learn how to make plays. I just think that kept building and building as the years went on.
“It’s an adjustment period going from a different style of football, from the Big 12 to the SEC. This year it seems like it’s definitely an adjustment. Get the guys used to it, and I think we’ll be all right.”
That was one of the lessons from 2004: Adjust to challenges and evolve. Coffey says everyone on that team – players and coaches alike – shared blame for the underwhelming year, which produced the program’s fifth losing season in the last six campaigns.
No matter the Texas A&M game’s result Saturday, Missouri faces a similar situation as King, Smith and Coffey did eight years ago. A preseason standard failed to be met. (Remember the Tigers’ “RESPECT” theme in preseason camp?) As a result, there will be pressure next fall to show that the program can be competitive in the SEC.
“My guess is this year has just been pressure with the new conference,” said King, who led the team with seven passes broken up in 2004. “I think we’ve just got to get used to playing that type of system. … It will be a challenge for them. I believe it will make the (offensive) line a little stronger and the defensive line a little stronger as well. But at the same time … it will take all of the athletes, in general, to understand that every conference has its strengths and every conference has its weaknesses.”
How will Missouri adapt after its first SEC season? If the Tigers lose Saturday, as expected, the bowl’s streak end could represent a beginning. Pinkel said no staff changes will take place in the offseason, but a philosophy adjustment could be necessary to survive.
Injuries to Franklin and to the offensive line hurt, but there were other issues throughout the fall. It’s easy to notice that Missouri’s talent at skill positions has declined from its 2007 height. And it was curious how acclaimed freshman wide receiver Dorial Green-Beckham was underused most of the season.
“Just continue to fight and continue to work hard,” Smith said, when asked what advice he’d give returning players. “There are many who are doing a lot of great things on the field. … It’s just a matter of putting it altogether.”
Still, as the 2004 team learned, putting it together is harder done than said. That season represented lost opportunity, but it also set in motion the most consistent stretch in program history.
“They just need to study themselves,” said Coffey, who had a team-high 648 yards receiving and 10 touchdowns in 2004. “Whether they study together or study by themselves … learn and see things that you know you wouldn’t do now that you’re more mature than you were 12 weeks ago.”
Gain maturity. Move on.
The Tigers must revisit their process – just as they did after the 2004 season.