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SEC 2015: Missouri Doesn't Need Your Approval

The Tigers just keep doing their thing.

David Manning-USA TODAY Sports

Gary Pinkel's Missouri Tigers won the weaker half of the conference the past two seasons. The first of the teams was the better of the two, finishing No. 5 in the polls after being a win in the conference title game away from playing for the national championship. The second team wasn't quite as good, but it still ended up in the teens of the rankings.

The previous paragraph applies to 2015. It also applies to 2009, when Mizzou was coming off of back-to-back Big 12 North titles. Whether preseason prognosticators are remembering that specifically or not, I think that illustrates part of the reason why, after a pair of SEC East titles, the Tigers are mostly being picked third or fourth in the division this offseason.

Mizzou doesn't seem like a program that should be able to sustain high levels of success indefinitely. It doesn't border one of the three big talent producing states of California, Florida, or Texas. It gets most of its players from Missouri itself, a state where not many programs beat down the doors to get in. It has a highly rated recruiting class every few years, but most of its hauls are in the 20s and 30s. That's enough to make a good living off of, and it doesn't require the kind of magic that Bill Snyder uses to turn classes rated in the 70s or worse into top 25 teams. Still, the program feels like it should turn in a win count below ten with regularity.

And in fact, Missouri has so far. The Tigers went 8-5 in 2009, and after winning ten again in 2010, they went 8-5 in their last year in the Big 12. So if you're going to make the case that this time is different, that this time the team will win at least ten for three years in a row, how do you do it?

For one, 2015 is very different than 2009 was. The Tigers that won the Big 12 North twice in a row were known mostly for offense with stars like Chase Daniel and Jeremy Maclin. The Tigers that won the SEC East twice in a row were known mostly for defense with stars like Michael Sam and Shane Ray. They've been winning more with defense than offense since about 2010, really, even if it took some time for the team's reputation to reflect that reality. Absent those offensive stars, the Tigers dropped back a bit. The defense has proven to be less susceptible to going through peaks and valleys in recent seasons.

But with the defensive line star pipeline looking a bit drier than it was in the past two years, particularly with Harold Brantley out for the season, the offense will need to step it up. The defense shouldn't be bad by any stretch, but it had to be good every game last year. The only dominant win the Tigers had over a Power 5 team in the regular season was the bizarre 42-13 win over Florida that included four kinds of return touchdowns: fumble, interception, punt, and kickoff. Beyond that, they didn't beat anyone by more than ten, lost to a bad 4-8 Indiana team, and weren't competitive in a 34-0 shutout loss to Georgia.

Maty Mauk was more hurt last year than he let on, and that might explain why he didn't progress more from his time filling in for the injured James Franklin as a freshman. Accuracy is his bugaboo, and it's not hard to understand how trying to play with a separated shoulder might affect his ability to hit targets. Leaving the pocket too early was another of his struggles last year, and trying to avoid pain easily can explain that too. Still though, there are signs that the injury doesn't explain everything.

While he performed admirably under the circumstances in 2013, the only time he completed more than half his passes during those four games was against 2-10 (0-8) Kentucky. He got to at least 60% three times and 58% the other in the non-conference portion of 2014, all of which came before his shoulder got hurt late against Georgia. However, that UGA game came a week after somehow only completing 35% of his passes against South Carolina's dreadful defense. It wasn't until his 12/19 performance against Minnesota in the Citrus Bowl that he finally broke 60% against a Power 5 team that finished with a winning record.

The pieces are there for another SEC East run. Maybe the line might not be up to the past two years' standards, but the other levels of the defense should be more than fine. A healthy Mauk will have an opportunity to show growth as a junior, and he'll have a good run game to back him up. Russell Hansbrough is the best SEC running back that no one is talking about, and the offensive line anchored by Evan Boehm should be a great one. One of the bigger worries other than Brantley's injury is the graduation of Marcus Murphy, who was an outstanding return man. MU will no doubt miss his ability to flip the field and even score in special teams at times.

I'm not aware of anyone who picked Missouri to win both of the last two SEC East titles. I'm not sure how many people picked them to win either of them. That's not necessarily a bad thing, as high expectations sound better on paper than they actually are to experience.

Besides, if the team has thrived in this kind of environment the past two years, why change a thing?