If you believed all of the season previews around the web and on magazine racks, Missouri was the SEC newcomer with the better chance of competing in 2012.
The Tigers had been better and more consistent than Texas A&M over the past few seasons, and the East was the weaker division. They had more coaching staff continuity and a quarterback with some actual experience. The team even sported the nation's consensus top recruit. The signs pointed to Mizzou having an outside chance at competing for a division title with A&M languishing through its transition out in the tougher West division.
So much for that.
What turned out to be somewhat of a transitional year with the roster got worse when that quarterback, James Franklin, dealt with injuries through the year. It turned out that the East was actually going to have three teams that would win at least 11 games in it. MU ended up winning just two SEC games, with them coming over teams that were a combined 1-15 in SEC play. One of those wins even had to come in overtime. The Tigers missed out on the postseason for the first time since 2004.
There are some reasons for optimism for this fall. Franklin should be back healthy and looked the best of the three quarterbacks in spring, and the alternatives in Corbin Berkstresser and Maty Mauk are a year older. Henry Josey was the Big 12's leading rusher in 2011 before suffering a knee injury that caused him to miss all of last season; he's back as well. Dorial Green-Beckham wasn't a revelation as a freshman, but receiver is one of the toughest positions to contribute at as a freshman. He still led the team in receiving touchdowns last year despite finishing fourth in yardage, and he should be a prime target this fall. The offense figures to get better versus its rough debut season in the league.
The main question is whether the defense will improve much. The team allowed 30 or more points six times last year, and the best ranking it had in SEC play among the major statistical categories was ninth in passing efficiency defense. The Tigers were a respectable sixth in tackles for loss in SEC play, but if you look at who was making those tackles for loss, four of the five top guys are gone. Michael Sam and Kony Ealy make for a nice pair of defensive ends, and the pass coverage looked good in the spring game, but we won't know about it for sure until we see it against live fire starting next month.
The season hinges on a make-or-break series in the month of October, where there's a stretch of at Vandy, at Georgia, Florida, and South Carolina. A 1-3 record there is probably the best anyone will expect of Mizzou, though they did go 0-4 against those teams last year. The team will probably be 4-0 heading into that series, and it would be a big disappointment for it to leave it 4-4. Trading Alabama for Ole Miss from the West helps, but the trip to Oxford is beside the point as it comes well after that big October run.
Last year's SEC face plant was enough for some to start wondering how much longer Gary Pinkel will be the head man at Missouri. Given what he's done versus the history of the program, I don't think another rough season this fall will put him in pink slip territory. That said, not improving much will do nothing but fuel the doubters who said that Mizzou was getting in over its head by jumping to the SEC.
With Arkansas State the toughest non-conference test, just going 2-6 in the league should be enough to go bowling again. That's a reasonable baseline for this team. It's not easy regrouping after a system shock like last season, but that's what this team faces going into this fall.