Fri Apr 09 09:06pm EDT
An absurdly premature assessment of the 2010 Tigers.
In one sense, 2009 allowed Missouri fans to take a deep breath: The mass exodus of Hall-of-Fame firepower didn't send the Tigers tumbling headlong into the dark ages, or even back to the darkest years of the Gary Pinkel era. Without longtime coordinator Dave Christensen or his trio of record-breaking All-Americans (quarterback Chase Daniel, receiver/returner Jeremy Maclin and tight end Chase Coffman), the offense once again averaged more than 400 yards per game, and the team once again chalked up eight wins, becoming the first ever at Mizzou to win at least eight in four straight seasons. Pinkel, who oversaw three losing campaigns in his first four, seems to have the program on stable, long-term footing for the first time in 30 years.
At the same time, there will be an unmistakable sense of urgency in 2010 to avoid falling to another kind of rut -- amid the winning records and bowl games, the Tigers have lost eight of their last ten against Big 12 teams that finished above .500 and ceded their brief hold on the North Division crown back to the traditional tyrant, Nebraska. Second-class status isn't inevitable: With once-hyped quarterback recruit Blaine Gabbert coming of age as a junior, this team is still in position to overtake the Huskers, make a run at the conference championship and get the stock arrow pointing up again. But another season in the "also receiving votes" ghetto of the final polls will only confirm the sense that the momentum of 2007-08 has waned and the window to take advantage of Nebraska's own bout of mediocrity is closing fast.
What's Changed. Receiver Danario Alexander blew up along with the rest of the offense against the bottom half of the conference in November, hauling in a staggering 57 passes for 943 yards and eight touchdowns in the last five regular season games alone en route to widespread All-America notices. He and fellow senior Jared Perry combined for 329 career catches over the last four years and leave a substantial void that Jerrell Jackson (37 catches in '09, mostly after Perry broke his leg late in the season) and 6'4" deep threat Wes Kemp will be expected to fill -- a good bet, based on Mizzou's assembly line of productive receivers over the last four years.
Broadly speaking, the offense had the same big-picture identity as a fast-moving, high-scoring spread attack it had earned in the Daniel-Maclin years. Alexander's heroics notwithstanding, though, Tiger fans were right to feel there was something missing, especially in the biggest games:
Note that the three wins over winning teams last year came against Bowling Green, Nevada and Iowa State; in the crucial October stretch against Nebraska, Oklahoma State and Texas, Gabbert completed fewer than half of his passes with five interceptions to just two touchdowns. The Tigers were outscored 101-36 in those games and effectively bounced from the North Division title race by midseason, a script that lurks again this fall during a four-game stretch against Texas A&M, Oklahoma, Nebraska and Texas Tech -- three of them on the road -- if those numbers don't come up.
What's the Same. One excuse Gabbert shouldn't have: Lack of protection. a) The offense still calls for mostly short, quick throws and bubble screens that get the ball out of the quarterback's hands as quickly as possible; b) He can't be terrorized by Ndamukong Suh now that the most dominant interior pass rusher in recent memory is on his out of Nebraska; and c) Offensive linemen Elvis Fisher, Austin Wuebbels, Tim Barnes and Dan Hoch have combined for 80 starts over the last two years, over which time Gabbert and Daniel have only been sacked 35 times. Forget the new receivers: If the line remains healthy and Gabbert continues to develop into first-round pick he's destined to become in two years, the offense will hum again no matter who's on the receiving end of his lasers.
Shell shock. On paper, the most improved aspect of the team should be the secondary, a completely intact quartet forged by fire last year after throwing a pair of first-year junior college transfers (Jarrell Harrison and Jasper Simmons) into the kiln at safety and allowing more than 280 yards per game through the air to Big 12 offenses -- the worst number in a pass-happy conference, but still slightly better than the 2008 secondary, which gave up at least 300 yards and multiple touchdown passes in each of the last four games. As with most of the rest of the league, being bombarded in shootouts is the cross the Tigers have had to bear for their own prolific attack.
Improvement, though, is all relative: None of the four returning starters -- Harrison, Simmons and corners Carl Gettis and Kevin Rutland -- particularly stood out, and the team as a whole combined for all of eight interceptions, down from 14 (with five returned for touchdowns) in '08 and 17 in '07, a significant decline in big plays to counter the generous coverage. When you're accustomed to "torched," "slightly charred" is not a bad step forward.
Overly Optimistic Spring Chatter. Observers this spring say running back Derrick Washington has been "transformed" by a slight drop in weight and a full recovery from knee issues that have bothered him over the last two seasons. Washington played last year around 220 pounds, and saw his production dip by almost 300 total yards and nine touchdowns from 2008; taking a cue from draft-bound teammates who had trimmed down in preparation for the NFL, Washington is well on his way to playing below 210 pounds as a senior, and has reportedly "regained all his quickness" through the first couple weeks of drills, a good omen for sending his mediocre yards-per-carry average (4.5) in the opposite direction.
Best-Case. Gabbert's sky-high potential in a proven system should have everyone around the program seeing visions of 2007, the year that Daniel's jaw-dropping accuracy and consistency had Missouri storming the gates of the BCS title game until the dying hours of the regular season. Those heights may be beyond the reach of this defense, but every game on the schedule is winnable, and a win at Nebraska on Oct. 30 should effectively lock up the North Division. If they get out of Lincoln, the Tigers should be on their way to the Big 12 Championship game at no worse than 10-2, with an outside shot at an at-large BCS bid even if they can't upset the South champ (read: Oklahoma or Texas, which have combined to take 13 straight against Mizzou by more than three touchdowns per game) in Dallas.
Worst-Case. The defense remains extremely vulnerable, and the offense's tendency to become one-dimensional and ineffective against competent defenses last year was never resolved. An early flop against Illinois could throw the season off-track right out of the gate, and the critical four-game stretch in October could send it careening into the abyss. The non-conference schedule and dregs of the Big 12 slate all but guarantee another bowl game, at least, but the tougher-than-it-looks stretch run against Kansas State, Iowa State and Kansas isn't necessarily what you want to see when you come staggering out of the midseason gauntlet; another stumble at the end could leave the final mark as bad as 6-6.
Non-Binding Forecast. Gabbert wasn't exactly a revelation in his fist season, but he showed more than enough to remain on track to fulfill his outsized recruiting hype. If he does, barring a a truly epic collapse by the defense, the Tigers should be very good -- not Big 12 championship good, or BCS at-large good, but good enough to take all of the eight games (minimum) they'll be favored to win and another toss-up or two. Against this schedule, 9-3 is very much on the table, although anything short of the division title -- which Nebraska must still be favored to win, if for no other reason than it gets Mizzou at home -- probably means relegation to the Holiday or Alamo Bowl.
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