Monday, January 3, 2011

After bowl loss, Tigers eye NFL draft decisions

In the wake of Missouri’s stinging 27-24 Insight Bowl loss to Iowa, Tiger fans can’t be blamed for their frustration. Missouri (10-3) pretty much outplayed Iowa (8-5), but two critical turnovers determined the game.

Missouri outgained Iowa by 87 yards, had 13 more first downs, but still lost to a five-loss Iowa team that was playing without some of its key players. In the Hawkeyes’ previous game, they lost to lowly Minnesota, a team so objectionable that it got its coach fired before the season ended.

So yes, Missouri feels like it should have win. The Tigers rallied from a 17-3 deficit, but a Blaine Gabbert interception on a tipped pass in the end zone to close the first half hurt the Tigers. A second Gabbert pick doomed the Tigers, this one a brain-lock play in which the big quarterback needed to throw the ball away but instead lightly tossed it right to an Iowa player, who somehow returned it 72 yards for a touchdown. When a late replay overturned a fine T.J. Moe catch for a first down, it was over. An inability to stop someone named Marcus Coker, a reserve running back who ran for 219 yards against Missouri, also hurt.

But enough reapplying salt to the wound. The Missouri offense played pretty well apart from those two terrible plays. Gabbert completed 41 of 57 passes for 434 yards in the game. He looked sharp and mature, the one egregious mistake aside.

Perhaps he looked too good. Several NFL scouts were on hand to study Gabbert and others. The junior has one year of eligibility left, but he is one of four Missouri players who submitted their names to the NFL draft advisory committee to project where they might go if they left school early to enter the draft.

Like many teams, the key issue for Missouri is whether or not these four players, Gabbert, defensive ends Aldon and Jacquies Smith, and tight end Michael Egnew, return or go pro. I certainly won’t begrudge any kid who can make millions playing football from doing so, and coach Gary Pinkel has said if players get first-round draft projections, he would advise them to go pro, assuming he thinks they’re ready.

The early stuff I’ve read would indicate Gabbert and Aldon Smith would be first-rounders. This would make it tough for them to stay, even if another year might help both of them. Watch Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck. If he stays in school for his senior year, then Gabbert becomes one of the more highly-rated quarterbacks available for the draft. If Luck enters the draft, it might encourage Gabbert to stay.

I would also hazard a guess that Egnew and Jacquies Smith are just dipping a toe in the water and will be back for another year. How all this pans out is anybody’s guess, but it bears watching with the 2011 season in mind.

In the ten-team Big 12 in 2011, Oklahoma figures to be very strong. Texas will be a huge question mark, but expect the Longhorns to jockey with Missouri, Oklahoma State and Texas A&M in the seemingly endless chase to challenge the Sooners for the conference title.

That conference title eluded Missouri in 2010, as the enthusiasm built by the 7-0 start faded with losses at Nebraska and Texas Tech that kept Missouri out of the big 12 title game. Still, it was a 10-win season, Missouri's third in four years, and it gives Tiger fans optimism heading into a new year, even as these NFL draft questions get sorted out.

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