Sunday, September 21, 2014

Missouri looks to back up 2013 success with another impressive season

In the Southeastern Conference, fans barking like dogs after kickoffs (Georgia) and yelling “Rammer Jammer Yellowhammer!” during games (Alabama) may be normal, but Missouri winning a division title is not.

The 2013 Missouri Tigers sent a shockwave through the Southern college football establishment. It began with barely a whisper in steamy late August, when the Tigers were an afterthought in the SEC, built to a rumble when Missouri upset Georgia in October deep in the heart of Dixie, and became a roar when Missouri punched its ticket to the SEC Championship Game on a chilly November night at Faurot Field.

How much did Missouri’s success confuse SEC fans? On a shuttle to the SEC Championship Game in Atlanta, I saw two fans of Alabama - Auburn’s loathed Iron Bowl nemesis - who said they were rooting for Auburn, because they didn’t want the newcomer Missouri winning the SEC title. Those two weren’t representative of the entire Alabama fanbase, but Missouri’s rapid ascent was clearly a shock to the rest of the SEC.

Of course, Missouri lost that SEC title game, and is still without a football conference title since 1969. With that special season now over, the question is, can the Tigers back it up with another impressive showing?

As always, quarterback play will be crucial, and Missouri has a new starter in Maty Mauk after James Franklin graduated. Missouri’s last three quarterbacks, Chase Daniel, Blaine Gabbert and Franklin, had 8-win seasons in their first year as starters before eventually leading the Tigers to 10-plus win seasons. Mauk did start four games last season when Franklin was injured, and he also finished out the win over Georgia, kicking off “Mauktober.”

Mauk will need to improve on his 51.1 percent completion percentage, but his ratio of 11 touchdowns to just two interceptions was impressive. But he will be working without Missouri’s top three receivers from last year. The Tigers need senior Bud Sasser to have a big season, and an experienced offensive line and decent running game should help.

On defense, Missouri must replace accomplished pass rushers Michael Sam and Kony Ealy. While it will be tough to match their production, defensive ends Shane Ray and Markus Golden should give the Tigers’ pass rush some teeth.

The line may have to do the heavy lifting for the defense, at least early on while the linebacker and defensive back units work to replace Andrew Wilson and E.J. Gaines, respectively.

So how will Gary Pinkel’s team fare? The schedule does Missouri some favors. Missouri’s 2014 SEC opponents went just 24-40 in SEC play last year, the worst mark for any SEC team’s conference opponents. Still, Missouri’s SEC road slate of South Carolina, Florida, Texas A&M and Tennessee will be no picnic.

I think Missouri is a contender in the SEC East, although I’d give South Carolina the nod as the favorite in the division. I’ll pick the Tigers to go 9-3 this season. That is optimistic given all the key contributors Missouri lost, but hey, August is the time for optimism.

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