THREE THINGS WE KNOW
The schedule this year is much easier. A lot of attention from the Phil Steels of the world is focused on the fact that the Tigers are swapping out Alabama for Ole Miss in the interdivision draw -- which will be easier, no doubt, but might only be marginally more likely to produce a win. Where things got a lot easier for Missouri, though, is in the non-conference department. Last year's games outside of the SEC included Southeastern Louisiana, Arizona State, at UCF and Syracuse. The Tigers managed to go 3-1 in those games, with narrow wins against Arizona State and at UCF and a narrow defeat against Syracuse. This year, the first month is a non-conference slate of Murray State, Toledo, at Indiana and Arkansas State. Only one of those games should present much of a challenge, and if the Tigers finish September 4-0, they'll be in good position for a bowl.
James Franklin and Henry Josey are healthy. Injuries sustained during the year kept Franklin out of three games altogether and kept him from starting four. An injury from 2011 lingered with Josey and sidelined him for the entire season. For an offense that got outgained by 411 yards on the season -- basically, an entire game -- the loss of two of its most explosive players for significant chunks of time might have been the difference between going to the postseason and staying home with a 5-7 record. And Franklin wasn't always at 100 percent when he did take the field. With Franklin and Josey both coming back at full speed, the Tigers' offense could soon start clicking again and close the gap between Mizzou and its opponents.
The Tigers have one big advantage over the other rebounding teams. Missouri was the only team to miss the postseason in 2012 and not fire its head coach. While offensive coordinator David Yost left the program in the offseason -- perhaps not of his own free will -- there's a relative stability in Columbia that you don't see in Knoxville, Fayetteville, Lexington and Auburn. That could end up being a huge negative if it turns out that stagnation and a refusal to consider new ideas dynamites the 2013 season as well. But for now, you have to consider it an advantage that most of the folks on the sidelines know the program, the players and what they're trying to achieve.
THREE THINGS WE DON'T KNOW
Whether James Franklin can stay healthy. The one thing you hear about what differentiates the SEC from other conferences -- the specific idea behind the generic label of ESS EEE SEE SPEED -- is the quality of the defensive line. And you have to wonder just a little bit if that was one of the differences in Franklin's health in 2012, particularly given Franklin's running ability. In any case, that tendency toward running is going to make Franklin a target at times, and he has to be able to avoid getting injured again and potentially throwing the game plan into disarray.
If more luck on the injury front is really that significant. How big a deal the injuries were in 2012 kind of depends on your perspective. According to Phil Steele's numbers, Missouri missed 11 starts due to injury. Only three SEC teams missed fewer starts (Mississippi State with three, Alabama with eight and Texas A&M with 10) and only five missed a smaller percentage of starts (throw in Ole Miss and Vanderbilt). So the Tigers were actually a bit better than middle of the pick when it came to lost starts. But Franklin and some others played hurt on occasion, and that's where any improvement would likely come. The question is how big a deal it really was.
Where Gary Pinkel stands. As I reflect on it, I think that part of the controversy over whether Mark Richt was on the hot seat in the 2009-11 period can be traced back to the fact that Georgia hadn't made a coaching change in so long that it was hard to know what the standard was. The same is true of Pinkel with Missouri. He's been at the school since 2001 and, before 2012, hadn't had a losing season since 2004. So how long does that much winning buy him? Pinkel still has a .596 winning percentage and three double-digit winning seasons to his name. Will another sub-.500 season prompt the Missouri administration to make a move, or will the bottom have to fall out in order for Pinkel to be dismissed?