There’s been a ton of success, and a lot of surprises, but …
By Pete Fiutak | @PeteFiutak
Congratulations, Missouri. You have now made it to the No. 1 spot on the list of college football programs that have done really, really big things over the last decade, but without actually winning anything massive.
Nebraska is right there, Texas A&M is close, and UCLA is in the hunt. This used to be Michigan State’s title until it broke through and won the 2013 Big Ten championship and Rose Bowl.
This isn’t a knock on Mizzou in any way – especially considering the move from the Big 12 to the SEC. You have to be consistently fantastic to earn this honor, but it’s hard to break through, especially when there’s a brick wall of an SEC champion there to run into over the last two seasons.
In 2007, Missouri got to No. 1 in the nation, but couldn’t pull off the Big 12 championship with a loss to Oklahoma. In 2008, same thing, only without the top-ranking. 2013, one SEC championship win away from playing for the national title, but lost to Auburn. Last season, had Mizzou beaten Alabama in the SEC championship, a theoretical argument would’ve been made that it deserved a spot in the playoff as the SEC champ, but the Crimson Tide took care of that 42-13.
Even with the big-game losses over the last two seasons, and with the last BCS-level bowl appearance coming in the 1972 Fiesta, the success since the move to the SEC has gone far better than even the most hopeful Tiger fans could’ve asked for. The program could take the college basketball NCAA tournament theory that the goal is to get into the thing with a good team year after year, and eventually things will break the right way.
Or, on the flip side, the concern could be that Mizzou just got two years of massive breaks in a down SEC East, and while the window isn’t shut, playtime is over.
Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina are all going to be solid again, Tennessee is turning back into a powerhouse, and even Vanderbilt and Kentucky are improved. That’s not to say Missouri can’t keep making its own magic and can’t keep being a major player in the division, but the days of rolling through a down division are over.
The Tigers will still be solid, but they don’t have the same level of pass rushers ready to do what the last several teams have been able to come up with. The receivers are painfully inexperienced, the O line might not be quite up to normal snuff, and there are just enough lost starters to assume a step back from the lofty status over the last two seasons.
But it’s not like Missouri cares about not appearing to be good enough. Doubted when it came into the SEC, doubted after a losing first season in the new league, doubted on the way to its first SEC East title, and totally and completely dismissed when it came to any thought about repeating, the program has defied the expectations.
It’s still the two-time defending SEC East champion. Winning those two titles over the last two seasons has been big enough.
What You Need To Know About The Offense: The attack wasn’t nearly as dangerous, consistent or as explosive as an SEC champion O should’ve been, and it’s going to take a few minor miracles to hope for a massive change. Maty Mauk is back at quarterback, but he has to be more consistent and has to make everyone around him better considering the receiving corps needs a total overhaul. There’s a ton of talent and athleticism, but there’s little experience to count on. Russell Hansbrough should run wild behind a veteran line that has the potential to be terrific if the left tackle situation is settled quickly.
What You Need To Know About The Defense: Will there once again be a strong pass rush? Shane Ray and Markus Golden are both gone, and now it’ll be up to Charles Harris to get the first look to be the new star up front. Fortunately, the linebacking corps should be fantastic with size, experience and the SEC talent needed to be solid against the run again. The secondary was strong last season, but that was partly due to the tremendous pass rush. If the line doesn’t do its job again, the Tiger defensive backs will be okay, but not special.
What to watch for on offense: Where are the proven productive receivers? There’s reloading at a position, and there’s what Mizzou has to do this season. The Tigers have always been able to quickly replace star power targets with new producers – Jeremy Maclin, to Danario Alexander, to T.J. Moe, to Dorial Green-Beckham, to Bud Sasser – but this is crazy. Including running back Marcus Murphy, the top four pass catchers and 24 of the 25 touchdown catches are gone. The leading returning wide receiver caught five passes last season. On the plus side, there are plenty of athletic and promising options starting with J’Mon Moore to go along with Eric Laurent and DeSean Blair. They can all fly and they can all stretch the field.
What to watch for on defense: Where are the proven productive defensive ends? Talk about a pass rushing factory, and this doesn’t even include Justin Smith – Aldon Smith, to Michael Sam, to Kony Ealy, to Shane Ray and Markus Golden. So who’s next? Charles Harris? Ricky Hatley? The two became part of the depth last year, but now it’s showtime with Harris the most dangerous of the prospects. Best of all, they’re still young and improving. These two should grow into their roles, but the defense is going to need them to be ready for primetime right away.
The team will be far better if … Maty Mauk is consistent. The Tiger QB has been around long enough to know what he’s doing, and now the days of being a good-looking baller who makes things happen have to be over. Now he has to be a steady, solid passer to make sure all the young and inexperienced receivers are able to produce. Mauk had his moments, but he never seemed to have the same game twice. There was a 331-yard performance in the loss to Indiana, and there was a four interception meltdown against Georgia. There was a 272-yard day against Alabama, and there was a 6-of-18 day for 20 yards and a pick against Florida. He’s the veteran leader now, and the team needs to count on him to perform at the same solid level every week.
The schedule: Yeah, yeah, yeah, Arkansas State might win the Sun Belt, but it’s not that bad a road trip for the Tigers – only 300 miles – and the opener against SE Missouri State and third game against UConn makes for a relatively easy start to the year. Facing BYU on November 14th in Kansas City makes up for it.
– The Tigers can’t really complain about the SEC slate, starting out at Kentucky and getting South Carolina and Florida at home. If they can hold serve in Faurot, they should be 6-0 before going to Georgia.
– Mississippi State will be good, and Arkansas will be great, but there’s no Alabama or LSU to deal with from the West. The regular season finale against the Hogs comes after three straight home games – calling the BYU game a home date.
– Again, all things considered when it comes to dealing with SEC schedules, if you could ask for any two road games, you’d request Kentucky and Vanderbilt.
– WATCH OUT FOR … The back-to-back home games against South Carolina and Florida. There’s a lot of SEC action left to deal with, and the Tigers might have to win these two to have any real shot at a third straight East title.
Best offensive player: Senior RB Russell Hansbrough. While Marcus Murphy was supposed to be the No. 1 back at times, Hansbrough came up with a team-leading 1,084 yards and ten touchdowns. He fits the Mizzou mold with tremendous quickness and a great burst, but he won’t have to do it alone. Ish Witter is a good prospect with a little bit of experience, and there are more where that came from. There are some big options to play around with, but the offense will rely on Hansbrough in a pinch.
Best defensive player: Senior LB Kentrell Brothers. Eventually, the hope is for Charles Harris to become the new pass rushing superstar, but Brothers is the steady veteran linebacker who does all the dirty work. He’s a big, tough presence who can move just well enough to be a factor in pass coverage, but he’s at his best against the run. The likely biggest of the linebackers who’ll be in the mix, he’ll bring the thump.
Key player to a successful season: Junior OT Malik Cuellar. There are plenty of options to replace Mitch Morse at left tackle, but several big problems would be solved if Cuellar turns out to be good enough and consistent enough to handle the gig. The 6-5, 300-pound JUCO transfer from CC of San Francisco has excellent athleticism and the experience at the lower level to be ready – but the spotlight will be on. There’s going to be a lot of shuffling going on, but if Cuellar is great, Taylor Chappell can stay at home at right tackle or even kick inside to left guard once the season starts.
The season will be a success if … Missouri wins the SEC East for a third straight year. That’s a really, really,really high goal for a team with so many question marks, and with the division so much better, but after the last two years, it’s going to be hard to hope for anything else. Fortunately, with Tennessee, South Carolina and Florida at home, and missing Alabama, Auburn and LSU, the schedule isn’t awful. If the Tigers can use September to gel and can be ready to rock and roll by the time October kicks off the SEC slate with Kentucky, things might be back to normal.
Key game: Oct. 17 at Georgia. Mizzou might have won the East last season, but the brutally ugly 34-0 home loss to the Dawgs sort of put a damper on the fun. Yeah, yeah, yeah, you have to play with who you’ve got, but Georgia was beaten to a pulp when the Tigers won in Athens in 2013. This time around, Missouri has to make it a third straight road win in the series with four of the final six games on the road. This is it – win this game, and there’s no real excuse not to be front-and-center in the East race.
2014 Fun Stats:
– Fourth Down Conversions: Missouri 13-of-16 (81%) – Opponents 12-of-23 (52%)
– Fumbles: Opponents 32 (lost 13) – Missouri 10 (lost 3)
– Penalties: Missouri 102 for 815 yards – Opponents 83 for 666 yards
Players You Need To Know
1. LB Kentrell Brothers, Sr.
As a sophomore he showed off his quickness and athleticism as a star in the linebacking corps making 70 tackles with sack and 6.5 tackles for loss along with three picks, and with a bigger role as a junior, he took over as a run stopper. At 6-1 and 235 pounds, he has excellent size and can move around just well enough to be a factor in pass coverage and in the backfield. However, he’s at his best against the run, coming up with a team-leading 122 tackles with a sack and five tackles for loss. A double-digit stop machine, he came up with 14 tackles against Alabama, 13 against Kentucky, and ten or more in six games. The key from his weakside spot will be to stay in one piece after missing time in his career with a leg injury and later with a torn labrum. All the tools are there, and while there might be more sensational Tiger defenders, Brothers should be the most vital.
2. RB Russell Hansbrough, Sr.
Fitting the Mizzou running back mold, he’s 5-9, 195 pounds and can flat-out fly. A huge part of the offense in 2013, last year he became the main man for the ground game coming up with a team-leading 1,084 yards and ten touchdowns averaging 5.29 yards per carry. With his speed and quickness, he has the talent to come up with more than the 11 catches he made last season. Not built to be a workhorse, he needs to pick his spots to get the ball 20 times or so. When he does, and when he’s on, look out, running for 199 yards and two scores against Texas A&M, and hitting Minnesota for 114 yards and a touchdown on 15 carries in the bowl win.
3. LB Michael Scherer, Jr.
The team’s second-leading tackler earned academic all-star honors, but this year he might be up for All-SEC awards for what he does on the field. A decent recruit, he didn’t do much when he started, but last year he got the job in the middle and he was fantastic, cranking out 114 tackles with 3.5 tackles for loss. While he has decent range, he’s at his best when things are funneled his way, making 23 tackles over a two game span against UCF and Indiana, while coming up with 13 stops against Kentucky. There might not be much flash to his game, but that’s not going to be his job.
4. QB Maty Mauk, Jr.
The 6-0, 195-pound dual-threat playmaker has the exact skill set Missouri quarterbacks need. He has a great arm, nice mobility, and a big-time attitude – mostly in a good way. The two-time Gatorade Ohio Player of the Year was a high school bomber, but he was also a track star with superior athleticism and speed. He’s not as tall as you’d like in a major-college leader of an offense, but height wasn’t a problem for Chase Daniel or James Franklin. Now he has to go from being the right guy with the right skill set to a steady, consistent performer. He only completed 54% of his passes for 2,648 yards, but when he was on, he was terrific, coming up with two touchdown passes in seven games. However, when he was off, he was really, really off, throwing four of his 13 picks on the year against Georgia, and coming up with fewer than 100 passing yards in three games. However, he’s mobile enough to run for 373 yards and two scores, and he has two years of experience. This has to be the season he makes the jump from okay to terrific.
5. CB Kenya Dennis, Sr.
A fantastic tackling corner, the 5-11, 200-pound veteran made 61 stops and was excellent in the open field. He only picked off one pass, but he performed well coming up with nine broken up passes. The former JUCO transfer from Hinds CC in Mississippi stepped in and did exactly what he needed to do showing off good speed and toughness. His real worth is as an open-field hitter who isn’t afraid to do the dirty work against the top SEC receivers. While he won’t be tested too often, a few interceptions would be nice. However, the coaching staff is happy with what he does to make things happen against the run.
6. DE Charles Harris, Soph.
The Kansas City native spent last season in an understudy role, and now it’ll be trial by fire as one of the team’s key new pass rushing talents. Tremendously athletic for his size, the 6-3, 255-pounder was a special high school basketball player, but he’s built to dominate in the backfield from a defensive end spot. He generated 19 tackles in the rotation and showed upside with two sacks and four tackles for loss, even getting a start against Indiana. He’ll get every opportunity to be the next superstar up on the Mizzou front four, and he appears to be ready. With fellow pass rushing prospect Marcus Loud dismissed from the program, the pressure is on.
7. C Evan Boehm, Sr.
The leader and top hitter on a strong, veteran line, the 6-3, 320-pound veteran is a blaster of a run blocker no matter where he plays. A guard early on, he’s been the main man up front starring at center – a glamour position under Gary Pinkel – for the last few seasons. There’s NFL potential with the right size, strength and leadership. He might not be the star of the offense, but he could be the best player.
8. WR J’Mon Moore, Jr.
The receiving corps needs someone, anyone, to rise up and be the No. 1 guy. Moore looks the part as yet another tall, fast Tiger deep threat. At 6-3 and 190 pounds he’s a slim receiver, but he can move with explosive downfield playmaking skills. While he won’t get too physical, and he’ll have to prove he can hold up after suffering a shoulder injury when he first arrived, he’ll stretch the field.
9. CB Aarion Penton, Jr.
Teams weren’t afraid to test him on a regular basis, and he won more than his share of battles with three interceptions and ten broken up passes. Thrown into the mix for a bit as a freshman, he did a decent job in a tough situation showing good pop against the run and picking off a pass. Last season he grew into the role making 36 tackles while holding down one side of the field. A very quick 5-10 and 190 pounds, he’s at his best when he gets to hang with the speed receivers. 10. PK Andrew Baggett, Sr.
The walk-on might have missed his share of kicks over the year, but he has also turned into a key part of the puzzle. After making 14-of-20 field goals as a freshman, he was fantastic as a sophomore nailing 18-of-25 field goals. He made 18-of-25 again last season, but he showed off more range, hitting a 42-yarder against Arkansas followed up by a 50-yard bomb. While he struggled early, and he got a kick blocked, he made six of his last seven attempts and proved he can be tested out from deep. Now he needs to nail all the extra points, missing nine in three years.