Missouri heads into the 2016 season hoping to start anew after a tumultuous ride a year ago. Despite a defense that ranked among the top 15 in the country, the Tigers went just 5-7 because of an anemic offense and some off-field issues that would have plagued any team, regardless of its talent level.
New coach Barry Odom has entrusted the offense to coordinator Josh Heupel, while new defensive coordinator Demontie Cross will handle the play-calling duties on that side of the ball. This is as much change as we’ve seen for Mizzou since former coach Gary Pinkel got the job back in 2001. Odom and company are hoping a skilled defense and revamped offense can help build this program back to where it was from 2007-2014 under Pinkel.
BACKFIELD: This season rests on the shoulders of sophomore QB Drew Lock. Lock struggled mightily last season, but he has the talent to become one of the better starting quarterbacks in the SEC. As a true freshman he was constantly under pressure, which led to mistakes made worse by his lack of readiness. All of which is to be expected of a true freshman quarterback thrust into a starting role. Lock's improvement this season will rely on his ability to read defenses, and the offensive line's ability to keep him upright. Missouri's running backs might be the most intriguing unit on the roster. Oklahoma graduate transfer Alex Ross is the presumptive starter. He, JC transfer Nate Strong and true freshman Damarea Crockett provide the Tigers with more size at running back than we've seen at Missouri in more than a decade. The upside for the group is high, but none are proven.
RECEIVERS: The only sure thing about this group is that junior J'Mon Moore and Alabama graduate transfer Chris Black will start when the offense takes the field against West Virginia. Otherwise, there's a list of another eight to 10 who could be a part of the rotation. One player who will not be a part of that rotation is junior Nate Brown. Brown is out for six to eight weeks with a high ankle sprain. A guess as to who we'll see in week one: Moore, Black and sophomore Keyon Dilosa as the starters, with senior Eric Laurent, JC transfer Dominic Collins, sophomore Emanuel Hall and true freshman Dimetrios Mason as the primary backups. Don't be surprised if Heupel utilizes 6-foot-7 redshirt freshman Justin Smith as a red zone target.
LINE: Surprisingly enough, the line seems to be set. There has been little to no movement throughout fall camp within the starting unit. It's been JC transfer Tyler Howell at left tackle, sophomore Kevin Pendleton at left guard, sophomore Samson Bailey at center, junior Alec Abeln at right guard and sophomore Paul Adams at right tackle. The only player with any starting experience in the group is Abeln – and he really struggled in his time filling in for Evan Boehm last season. Many see it as an issue going into the season with so little experience along the line, but it's better to have inexperienced players with promise than experienced players you know can't play. The two stalwarts of the line will be Pendleton and Adams. Reports from the spring and again this fall indicate both have been solid. The bigger question is where the depth comes from. Don't be surprised if two true freshmen – C Trystan Castillo and T Tre'Vour Simms – are listed on the two-deep for West Virginia. Redshirt freshman A.J. Harris and Memphis graduate transfer Michael Stannard should provide depth at guard. We'll learn a lot about this unit in week one.
LINE: "D-Line Zou" is alive and well. Junior Charles Harris is one of the three or four best edge rushers in the country. The Tigers are legitimately four deep at tackle with seniors Rickey Hatley and senior Josh Augusta, junior A.J. Logan and sophomore Terry Beckner Jr. The biggest questions are 1.) Who backs up Harris? and B.) Who starts opposite Harris? The starting position will come down to junior Marcell Frazier or sophomore Spencer Williams; they could split the snaps 50-50 in week one. The odds-on favorite to be Harris' backup seems to be junior Jordan Harold, a walk-on, but don't be surprised if true freshman Tre Williams gets some action within a few weeks.. Observers have compared Williams' skill set and physique to a young Aldon Smith. Mizzou once again will have one of the best defensive lines in the country despite the dismissals of E Walter Brady and T Harold Brantley.
LINEBACKERS: It all starts with redshirt seniors Michael Scherer and Donavin Newsom. Scherer is among the surest tacklers in the conference, and he brings stability to the defense. Newsom is a bit of a wild card. After starting last year, he was dropped on the depth chart in the spring, only to earn the job back by the fall. He has all the physical talent to be among the better linebackers in the SEC; it's just a matter of putting it together. The lone position battle is at the WILL spot, where junior Joey Burkett and sophomore Terez Hall have battled. Burkett is more dependable, but Hall probably us the more talented of the two. In the end, it's a good bet that Burkett lines up with the starting defense in week one. A player to watch is true freshman Cale Garrett. A late addition to the 2016 recruiting class, Garrett showed up in the spring and was immediately working with the second-teamers. This coaching staff loves him.
SECONDARY: Mizzou's biggest questions outside of wide receiver resides in the secondary, where the Tigers will try to find a number two corner. We know senior Aarion Penton has the number one cornerback spot locked down, and it would be a major surprise if juniors Thomas Wilson and Anthony Sherrils don't start at safety. But the cornerback position opposite Penton is up for grabs. It looked as if freshman T.J. Warren won the position, but he's been dealing with a nagging hamstring injury. Senior John Gibson and junior Logan Cheadle have filled in while Warren is rehabbing.
Sophomore P Corey Fatony returns after a strong freshman season. The Tigers also will have a kicker, true freshman Tucker McCann, on scholarship. The biggest addition will be Ross. He was among the best kick returners in the country in his time at OU. That should help a Mizzou return unit that ranked among the worst in the nation in 2015. The kickoff coverage needs vast improvement: Mizzou allowed a league-worst 26.5 yards per kick return.
Any analysis of Missouri's schedule will be based on how you view this team. If you're looking for them to win six games, it certainly has enough opportunities for wins. If you want to see Mizzou finish with double-digit victories, well, that seems unlikely. There seem to be three obvious wins on the schedule (Eastern Michigan, Delaware State and Middle Tennessee State), three toss-up games (Kentucky, at South Carolina and Vanderbilt), and three games the Tigers could steal (Georgia, at West Virginia and at Florida). It seems unlikely that Mizzou will be able to pull off an upset at LSU, at Tennessee or against Arkansas. All in all, a 6-6 season seems to be the most likely outcome for this team, but anywhere from 5-7 to 8-4 is possible.
Facts and figures
Last season: 5-7 overall, 1-7 in SEC
Past five years, overall: 41-24
Past four years, SEC: 17-17 (includes 0-2 record in SEC championship games)
Past 10 years, overall: 89-43
Past 10 years, SEC: N/A
(You can follow Brandon Kiley on Twitter @BKSportsTalk)
© 2016, Brandon Kiley. All rights reserved.
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