Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Big 12 college football countdown: Missouri

The program

Prior to Mizzou's historic, 12-win 2007 season, MU alum and ESPN columnist Pat Forde wrote that Missouri was one of the most underachieving programs in college football. Now that's a successful motivational ploy. I highly doubt that was Forde's line of thinking, but he made a pretty compelling case at the time. Mizzou was often cited as a "sleeping giant" with nice facilities, ties to two metro areas, some wealthy boosters (Wal-Mart. Ka-ching.) But greatness largely avoided the Tigers. The drought of conference titles since 1969, the year man first walked on the moon and the Royals starting playing baseball, lives on.

Even still, the program is not without achievements. Mizzou is more than 100 games over .500 all-time: 622-515-52 (.545). The Tigers have won 15 football conference titles (12 post-1900), including at least one in every decade except the 1950s between the 1890s and 1960s.

The Tigers began to make some noise as a program in the late 1930s and 1940s under legendary coach Don Faurot and with a gunslinger of a quarterback, Pitchin' Paul Christman. The Tigers also found success in the 1960s with coach Dan Devine. They stayed competitive in the 1970s and early 1980s, scoring the occasional upset of a powerhouse program, enough that it become something of Mizzou's calling card. They won at Ohio State, beat Notre Dame, and scored the occasional big wins of powerful conference rivals Nebraska and Oklahoma.

But then came the mid-1980s, and Mizzou reeled off 13 straight losing seasons from 1984 to 1996. They finally ended that drought in 1997, and then of course Gary Pinkel has now led the team to three 10-win seasons in the last four years. Twice (2007 and 2008) Missouri played Oklahoma with a chance to end the conference title drought, but the Sooners turned them away, once in competitive fashion, once in thoroughly not competitive fashion.

Missouri has been ranked No. 1 for two weeks in program history, once in 1960 and once in 2007. The 1960 team lost as No. 1 to Kansas (a game later forfeited back to MU), which derailed the team's national title aspirations. In 2007 the team beat No. 2 Kansas 36-28 at Arrowhead Stadium in the cataclysmic "Armageddon at Arrowhead" showdown to earn the top ranking. But then came the aforementioned loss to Oklahoma, making Mizzou 0-2 as a top-ranked team.

So it is a program of some success, some failure and enough near-misses and brushes with glory that many Mizzou fans see themselves as somewhat cursed... That 1960 home loss to Kansas as the No. 1-ranked team... the Fifth Down game loss to Colorado in 1990... the kicked ball loss to No. 1 Nebraska in 1997 with a massive upset brewing and Tiger coach Larry Smith tearing up... the meltdowns defining the lost 2004 season... the vexing blown lead in the 2006 Sun Bowl... the loss to Kansas in the snow/slush/rain at Arrowhead in 2008... the last two bowl game embarrassments.

But the successes are to be savored, like each and every win over Kansas. Heisman finalists. The 31 All-Americans. All those epic upset wins. Brad Smith's 2,000 passing-1,000 rushing seasons. Chase Coffman's Mackey Award (or his jumps over defenders). Last fall's resounding win over Oklahoma with College Gameday and so much energy in town.

And even more, Missouri football is an experience that so many Missourians, myself included, have fallen in love with. Missouri football is Homecoming pep rallies in Greek town and then the parade the next morning. It is the lovely college town of Columbia buzzing the night before a game and "Eye of the Tiger" playing in the bookstore the day before a game. It's the natural bowl of Faurot Field, that familiar white rock M, and the old fire truck rounding the field. It's the cannon after scores and the Helmet Car turning laps. It's John Kadlec telling a story and Mike Kelly saying, "To the house! Touchdown Missouri!" Sometimes it is torrential downpours and persistent chill, or the bright lights that make everything look so sharp. But also it is, so beautiful in my mind, a comfortably crisp day, maybe October, when the sky is so impossibly blue and the brilliant color of the trees peeks over the south stands. Like a painting of autumn, columnist Tom Shatel wrote in his Big Eight tribute. A masterpiece, indeed.

Best player ever

Paul Christman, QB
There's plenty of room for debate here. For my money, it doesn't seem that Missouri has one clear choice for this type of thing, but rather a highest tier of players: Paul Christman, Kellen Winslow, Roger Wherli, Brad Smith, Chase Daniel. My sentimentality (his great four years at Mizzou were my great four years at Mizzou) and his tremendous stats (12,515 passing yards, a school record) tempt me to go with Daniel. But after review, I'd give the nod to the legendary Pitchin' Paul Christman.

Here's why: Christman is the only Missouri quarterback to ever be an All-American, an he did it twice. He was also a three-time all-conference player at quarterback. (Players only played varsity three seasons back then.) Statistical comparisons are tricky in such a vastly different era, but this simple fact transcends the decades: Christman led the nation in passing yards and touchdowns in 1940. He also led Missouri to the 1939 Big Six title, which helps him in comparisons to post-1969 players. After that season, Missouri played in its first true bowl game, the 1940 Orange Bowl. (The Tigers had previously played in a bowl-style exhibition dubbed the "Christmas Festival.")

Christman also came closer to winning Heisman Trophy and was a finalist for the award more times than any other Tiger, finishing third in 1939 and fifth in 1940. He posted a 20-8 record as a starter. He is in the College Football Hall of Fame.

Christman is clearly from a different era, a quarterback wearing No. 44 and slinging a fat football. But his 2,989 passing yards still rank fourth in MU history, according to MU's athletic website, and he is third in all-purpose yards (3,882). For a player to still rank so high on those lists over 70 years after playing is staggering. This is despite teams playing more games, freshmen being eligible to play now and dramatic changes and improvements in the passing game. Christman is indeed an icon. After serving in World War II, he played in the NFL, blazing the trail for the Smith-Daniel-Gabbert trio so many years later.

2011 outlook

After an oppressively hot summer, the state of Missouri is surely ready for some football. Another annoying, greed-fueled round of conference realignment rumors in August only made fans pine for actual games more. With the Tigers looking to replace two top-10 NFL picks and now competing in the new 10-team Big 12 (nonsensical, I know), this season has plenty of mystery and intrigue.


Brad Smith, Chase Daniel and Blaine Gabbert have held the quarterback position honorably over the past nine seasons. Now it’s James Franklin’s turn, and how he performs at quarterback, especially early, is the biggest question about the 2011 Missouri Tigers.

Fortunately, Franklin steps into a good situation. Four of the five starting offensive linemen are seniors, so he should have good protection. Franklin throws to a deep receiving corps led by T.J. Moe and Michael Egnew, who each caught at least 90 passes last year. Three running backs return who averaged over 5 yards per carry and ran for at least 400 yards.

Expect Missouri to run more as Franklin develops, even putting the linemen in three-point stances at times to help the ground game. Also, Gabbert’s stats from last year are actually fairly replaceable (9th in Big 12 in quarterback efficiency rating). Franklin will likely have some growing pains, but he won the starting job for a reason.


Last year was maybe the Tigers’ best defense in coach Gary Pinkel’s 10 years in Columbia. Missouri led the Big 12 in points allowed (15.8 per game) in conference play.

One area of concern is that the Tigers led the nation last year in yards allowed per point, meaning they gave up a lot of ground, but were able to dig in or get a turnover to prevent scoring. The numbers show that usually teams can only play “bend but don’t break” defense so long before the points allowed begins to catch up to yards allowed.

Fortunately, Missouri has a stout defensive line and could allow fewer yards. Brad Madison (7.5 sacks last year) and Jacquies Smith (5.5) bring a ferocious pass rush, and junior college transfer Sheldon Richardson should strengthen the Tigers’ run defense.

The defense’s big question could be how well the secondary’s new starters can curtail opponents’ passing games. Senior safety Kenji Jackson will need to anchor this young unit if it’s to stand up to the Big 12’s outstanding receivers. Missouri’s strong pass rush might make the defensive backs look a lot better.

The schedule

The big question: How many do they win? Missouri will now play nine conference games (instead of eight), plus a tough early test at Arizona State (Sept. 9). The schedule is especially tough early, with the first two conference games on the road. I see several swing games (at Arizona State, at Kansas State, home vs. Oklahoma State and Texas, to name some), which should make for a thrilling season. I’ll predict an 8-4 record, although if Franklin comes out of the box fully assembled, the ceiling is high for this team. A finish in the top four in the conference is a reasonable goal.

No comments:

Post a Comment