Preseason countdown: No. 5 Missouri

Preseason countdown: No. 5 Missouri

Published Aug. 25, 2011 1:00 a.m. ET

Missouri’s biggest opponent isn’t Oklahoma. It’s not Texas, Texas A&M or Kansas. It’s The Hump.

Under coach Gary Pinkel, these are the glory days of Mizzou football. Oh sure, there were a few Orange Bowls in the 1960s, and there were some big moments in the late 1970s and early 1980s, but for the most part, this is it.

Under Pinkel, the Tigers have had three 10-win seasons in the last four to mark the best run of seasons in school history by a 10-mile wide margin. Before 2007, Missouri had just one 10-win season (1960) and just one other year with nine wins (1969). The program has won 40 games over the last four years with two Big 12 North titles. For a school with such a mediocre football history, Pinkel is having the type of success that finishes up with a statue.

So why does it all feel so empty?


Again, it’s The Hump.

Missouri hasn’t been able to make the jump up into the elite of the elite because it always seems to lose just when there’s a chance to make the type of next-level statement needed to become truly special. The Tigers were rolling last year with a tremendous win over BCS No. 1 Oklahoma to take the record to 7-0, and one week later, Roy Helu had the greatest rushing day in Nebraska history for a 31-17 Huskers win. Missouri turned things around to close out with three straight wins and a 10-2 regular season, and then it collapsed in the Insight Bowl loss to Iowa.

In 2008, Mizzou worked its way into the Big 12 title game and got lit up by Sam Bradford and Oklahoma in a 62-21 loss. In 2007, the program’s breakthrough season under Pinkel, the national title shot was there for the taking, but a Big 12 Championship loss to OU ended that. There are only a few chances to take advantage of the moment to get to the next level in national respect and get over The Hump, and now it’s going to be harder than ever.

In the past, all Missouri had to do was win a six-team division to play for the Big 12 title. Kansas had its day in the sun, Kansas State became mediocre, Iowa State stayed Iowa State, and Colorado became bad, all while Nebraska was trying to find itself again. The timing was perfect for the Tigers to rise up, but now a harsh reality is about to set in. Now, to become Big 12 champs, MU has to not only consistently get by arch-nemesis Oklahoma, but it also has to get by Texas, and Texas Tech, and Texas A&M, and all nine other teams in the Big 12. If Missouri couldn’t get over The Hump before, why can it do it now?

All Pinkel can do is continue to field strong team after strong team, and while the school and the athletic department might be sitting by the phone waiting for the Big Ten to call with an invite, the longer the Tigers are in the Big 12, the longer the recruiting pipeline to Texas will stay open. Enough talent is flowing through Columbia on a regular basis to assume the success will continue and the 10-win seasons won’t go away, but for a program that hasn’t been to one of the BCS bowls since 1972, obviously well before the BCS even existed, the time is soon going to come to want something more.

On the plus side, Missouri should be in the mix this year with one of the strongest top-to-bottom teams Pinkel has fielded. Yes, losing Blaine Gabbert and his golden flowing locks a year early to Jacksonville stinks, and it would’ve been nice if Aldon Smith wasn’t shopping for a home in San Francisco, but the 2011 Tigers are so experienced and so deep that the loss of two top-10 NFL talents might not matter too much.

With Texas still trying to figure out what it wants to be, with Oklahoma State coming to Columbia, and with Nebraska out of the picture, the chance is there right now to make that next step forward. It’ll take at least a road split at Oklahoma and Texas A&M to do it, but the program is due.

Missouri football has been terrific over the last few seasons. Now it’s time to be better. This year, the team really is good enough to get over The Hump.

What to watch for on offense: A more efficient passing game. While new starting quarterback James Franklin isn’t Gabbert, he has a veteran receiving corps, led by phenomenal midrange targets in T.J. Moe and tight end Michael Egnew, and he has a strong line to work behind. What he doesn’t have is a sure-thing, top-shelf deep threat to make the efficiency numbers go through the roof, but after the offense finished 64th in the nation in passing efficiency, the attack should be more consistent and more explosive with a little more time.

What to watch for on defense: A devastating pass rush – even without Aldon Smith. Mizzou finished ninth in the nation in sacks and 40th in tackles for loss, and the aggressiveness and the production could be even better with great prospects at all four spots, and superior pass-rushing specialists like Kony Ealy to pick up Smith’s slack. The key for the front four will be consistency against the run. Over the last few years the Tigers have been able to do the spectacular, but they haven’t done enough against the power running teams. Nebraska and Iowa went wild.

The team will be far better if: A deep threat can be found. Moe and Egnew combined for 182 catches, but they also combined to average just 9.9 yards per catch. Each one had a moment or two taking a midrange pass deep, but they were hardly field-stretchers. Jerrell Jackson averaged 13.1 yards per catch and he needs to be more of a deep play threat, and Franklin has to prove he can get him and the other speedy targets the ball in places to do something with it. The more the field is opened up, the more the running game will work.

The schedule: Considering the regular season finale is a neutral site tilt against Kansas in Kansas City, and considering four other conference games are on the road, this isn’t that bad a slate if, and it’s a huge if, the Tigers can get to the middle of October still standing. Don’t sleep on the season opener against defending MAC champion Miami of Ohio; the RedHawks are loaded with veterans and should be the preseason favorite to win the title again. Going to Arizona State should be a big problem against a team that gets almost everyone of note back, and Western Illinois, who gave Purdue a game last year, is hardly a pushover. And then comes the Big 12 opener at Oklahoma in a revenge game followed up by a road game at Kansas State two weeks later. The pressure will be on to win the home games against Iowa State and Oklahoma State in mid-October and Texas and Texas Tech in mid-November. Lose any of those, and the Big 12 championship hopes are gone.

Best offensive player: Senior TE Egnew. Moe led the team with 92 catches, but it was Egnew who has the talent and the ability to earn the big honors after deserving to win the Mackey Award last year. He was an unstoppable midrange target catching seven passes or more in seven game and finishing with 90 catches for 762 yards and five scores. He’ll be a godsend on third downs for Franklin.

Best defensive player: Junior DE Madison. There are several linemen who could end up being the star of the show, and if DT Sheldon Richardson is eligible, he might be the team’s most dominant player, but it’s Madison who should be the leader of a great line. The team’s best pass rusher, Madison led the team with 7.5 sacks and he should do even more when turned loose in a bigger role.

Key player to a successful season: Sophomore QB Franklin. The job is all Franklin’s and he has to run with it. The line is great, the receiving corps is phenomenal and the running game will be fine. All the Tigers need is a triggerman to put it all together, and that’s Franklin. He has all the tools, the size, and the smarts, and now he has to show he can fill in the footsteps of some phenomenal players to be the next great Mizzou quarterback.

The season will be a success if: Missouri gets to a BCS bowl. Oklahoma is better, Oklahoma State is a killer, and Texas A&M and Texas Tech won’t be pushovers, but Missouri is at least the third-best team in the conference and might be No. 2 behind the Sooners. There might not be quite enough to win the conference title, but 10-2 with a second-place finish should be good enough to get to a BCS game.

Key game: Sept. 24 at Oklahoma (on FX). It’s the Big 12 opener and the Sooners will have revenge on their minds after what happened last year in Columbia. If Mizzou can pull off the upset, the conference title will be there for the taking with the toughest remaining road game at Texas A&M. With a week off after the OU game, and with winnable games against Kansas State and Iowa State to follow, Missouri will be the nation’s hot team if it can get the win.