Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Missouri hopes for improvement in SEC Year 2

“Welcome to the SEC!”

Missouri fans heard this phrase over and over after the move to the Southeastern Conference, from SEC commissioner Mike Slive, from Alabama’s and Georgia’s hordes that descended on Columbia for games last fall, from Kentucky fans counting down the days until basketball season.

It was a gesture of welcome and hospitality, but it also felt like something of a taunt at times as Missouri stumbled to a 5-7 record, its first losing season since 2004.

A tough schedule, an inability to overcome injuries and faltering late in some close games all contributed to the tempest of a season, one that began with soaring fan enthusiasm. It’s one thing to lose to Georgia and hear its fans chant, “SEC! SEC!” at Faurot Field; it’s quite another to suffer that fate at the hands of Vanderbilt.

Since about nine minutes into last season’s final indignity, a blowout loss at Texas A&M, Missouri fans have been thinking about next year. Here are three keys to making Year 2 better:

Replacing Richardson

Defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson created a stir and a niche joke market by saying Georgia played “Old Man Football.” But more noteworthy, he was Missouri’s best player last year. Richardson was an anchor on the defensive line, but he’s gone to the NFL now, and Missouri must find a way to replace him.

That burden will primarily fall on junior tackles Matt Hoch and Lucas Vincent.

In SEC games, Missouri was 11th among the conference’s 14 teams in both points and yards allowed per game, so the Tigers can’t afford a drop-off defensively.

Wide receiver potential

Offensively, Missouri was also 11th in points scored and yards per game in SEC play. One of the quickest ways to jump start the offense this year will be improvement among the receivers.

Seniors Marcus Lucas and L’Damian Washington return. Dorial Green-Beckham, for all his freshman struggles, led the team in receiving touchdowns last season, with five. He could take a big step forward this year. Also, keep an eye on Darius White, a once highly touted recruit who transferred to Missouri from Texas.

Quarterback play

Of course, the receivers’ impact is contingent on Missouri getting much better quarterback play. After a solid sophomore season, James Franklin had his share of struggles and injuries in 2012.

If healthy, he can outperform his numbers last season. By extension, a healthier, more experienced offensive line should provide at least somewhat better protection.

It’s August, and there are a lot of questions about this team. It looks to me like a team that will go 6-6, but anything from 4-8 to 8-4 wouldn’t shock me.

This is a big year for the program, and for coach Gary Pinkel. The athletic department is pumping money into football, evidenced by the ongoing construction at Faurot Field. At minimum, this team needs to get back to a bowl game.

Missouri does have four manageable nonconference games to hopefully generate some momentum before embarking on the second season of SEC play, one Missouri hopes will have more wins and fewer “Welcome to the SEC!” moments.

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