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2016 SEC Football Season Preview: Missouri Tigers

2015 brought problems on and off the field. Can a new head coach and another year of experience turn things around?

Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Record Last Year

5-7 (1-7 SEC)

Key Returnees

QB Drew Lock, RB Ish Witter, WR Nate Brown*, WR J'Mon Moore, TE Sean Culkin, TE Jason Reese, OG Kevin Pendleton, RT Paul Adams, DE Charles Harris, DE Marcell Frazier, DT Terry Beckner Jr., LB Michael Scherer, LB Donavin Newsom, CB Aarion Penton, S Anthony Sherrils, P Corey Fatony
*Out 6-8 weeks after surgery to repair a severe high ankle sprain

Key Departures

HC Gary Pinkel & staff, QB Maty Mauk (dismissed), RB Russell Hansbrough, LT Connor McGovern, OG Nate Crawford (medical retirement), C Evan Boehm, DT Harold Brantley (academically ineligible), DE Walter Brady (dismissed), LB Kentrell Brothers, S Ian Simon, CB Kenya Dennis, K Andrew Baggett

Key Arrivals

HC Barry Odom & staff, RB Alex Ross (Oklahoma grad transfer), RB Damarea Crockett, RB Natereace Strong (JUCO), WR Chris Black (Alabama grad transfer), WR Dimetrios Mason, WR Dominic Collins (JUCO), TE Brendan Scales, LT Tyler Howell (JUCO), OG Tre'Vour Simms, OG Trystan Castillo, DE Tre Williams, LB Cale Garrett, S Greg Taylor (JUCO), K Tucker McCann

What Happened Last Year

Mizzou's defense was one of the best in the country last season, finishing 13th in the country (3rd in the SEC) in Defensive S&P+. Now Minnesota Viking Kentrell Brothers had a season for the ages, leading the country in tackles, and Charles Harris emerged as D-Line Zou's next great pass rusher. And that's about where the good news ends.
This was a season doomed from the very beginning.

On the first offensive series of the season, two of Missouri's three good offensive players -- center Evan Boehm and running back Russell Hansbrough -- suffered ankle injuries that would hinder their performance for the rest of the season. That took an offense that was already below average and crippled it even further. It would often be a surprise when the Tigers got a first down on a given series thereafter, let alone a score.

After beginning the season 3-0 -- never watch the field goal-less 9-6 win over UCONN, trust me -- the Tigers lost at Kentucky in what would be quarterback Maty Mauk's final game for Mizzou. True freshman Drew Lock stepped in for Mauk the following week against South Carolina, and it looked like the Tigers might get back on track with a 24-10 home victory.

That was a bundle of false hope. It would be a month and two days -- never watch the all field goals 9-6 loss against Georgia, trust me -- before Mizzou would again score in any way besides a field goal. The Tigers would go on to lose six of their last seven games and would miss a bowl for the first time since 2012, its inaugural season in the SEC.

All of that only covers what happened on the field, of course. And what happened on the field will always be secondary when thinking back on the 2015 Missouri Tiger football team. The headlines began with Mauk's off-field troubles in October, featuring a drunken incident at a downtown Columbia bar and a video surfacing of what looked to be Mauk doing cocaine.

Then November 7th came and a 4-5 football team became international news. Late that night, the team joined in on on-going campus protests against the University of Missouri administration's lack of response to repeated on-campus racial incidents. The team threatened to boycott its upcoming game against BYU if university system president Tim Wolfe did not resign.

No matter what you thought of the team's decision to boycott, it certainly showed the kind of power athletes -- specifically those on a school's cash cow football team -- can have over its university, as Wolfe tendered his resignation just two days later and the BYU game went on as planned.

But because this was just the type of season 2015 was, Mizzou got some more bad news before that game would even kick off. The day before, head coach Gary Pinkel -- the winningest coach in Mizzou history -- announced that he had cancer and would be retiring at season's end.

Though the win against the Cougars felt great after as tumultuous a week any team has ever had, the Tigers were unable to send Pinkel out on a high note, dropping their final two games. Then-defensive coordinator Barry Odom was announced as Pinkel's replacement on December 3rd, a week after the season mercifully concluded.

3 Key Players

Photo credit: Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

1. Drew Lock

As a 4* Mizzou legacy who shined in fall camp, expectations were sky-high for Lock when he stepped in as QB1 after Maty Mauk's personal life began to spiral out of control. Needless to say to anyone even remotely familiar with Mizzou football, Lock did not live up to the hype. The question now is whether he was overrated or whether the rest of the offense around him was so inept that he never really had much of a chance. I suspect it was more the latter, but this year will go a long way towards answering that question. He doesn't have to be Chase Daniel, but if he can get his completion percentage up to around 60 percent, the Tigers will be in great shape, both in 2016 and beyond.

Photo credit: Rob Ferguson-USA TODAY Sports

2. Alex Ross

Ross is one of the two big-time graduate transfers on this team, along with Chris Black from Alabama. When he was at Oklahoma, Ross really only had the opportunity to shine as a return man, as most of the carries went to Samaje Perine and Joe Mixon. Those two guys are really good, so there's no shame in finding yourself out of that rotation, but Mizzou needs Ross to be effective immediately to help rebuild a putrid rushing attack. We saw what happened last year when an injured Russell Hansbrough and awful offensive line couldn't take any pressure off the passing game, and the whole offense crumbled as a result. Mizzou can't have that happen again, and they'll need Ross to help avoid a repeat of 2015.

3. Tyler Howell

Speaking of that awful offensive line, it looks to be even more inexperienced in 2016. Rejoice, Mizzou fans! While the Tigers do lose two NFL draft picks in Evan Boehm and Connor McGovern, they were injured and playing out of position, respectively, last season, and the line around them was about as bad as it gets at this level. So while there are essentially four new faces (only guard Alec Abeln has played more than a handful of snaps), this line should be better this season. Howell, slated to play left tackle, looks the part at 6-8", 315 lbs. but after just getting onto campus in January after a circuitous journey through JUCO, has he had enough time to be entrusted with Lock's blindside? He'll get a great test Week 1 in Morgantown.

Best Case Scenario

9-3 (5-3 SEC). The offense goes from once-in-a-generation awful all the way up to average as Drew Lock bounces back from a rough freshman season, newcomers at running back and along the offensive line stabilize a much-improved running game, and a few of the Tigers' plethora of receivers emerge as playmakers. Charles Harris gives Mizzou its third SEC DPOY at defensive end since joining the conference as the defense is even better than last year, finishing as the best in the conference.

Worst Case Scenario

4-8 (1-7 SEC). The Tigers kick the season off with a blowout loss to a depleted West Virginia team in Morgantown, and it's all downhill from there. They beat Eastern Michigan, Delaware State and Middle Tennessee at home, but are only able scrounge up a single SEC victory in what is once again a down SEC East. Kansas wins a football game.


6-6 (3-5 SEC). The three week stretch between October 29 and November 12 is the most important of the season, as Mizzou travels to South Carolina between home dates against Kentucky and Vanderbilt. They'll need to win at least two of those three in order to go bowling again (and they might have to sweep), but that should be a manageable task. This defense is going to be nasty again, and this offense won't be as bad as it was last year, because how could it be? A top twenty defense, even with another below average offense, should be enough to get the Tigers to six wins and, God willing, another trip to Shreveport.