There's no real easy way to say this, so let's get it out of the way early: Missouri is the most underrated team in the SEC. Laugh now if you will, grow a few gray hairs later.
The Tigers will be much more competitive than they were in their first season in the SEC.
Well, that's not saying much considering they only won five games.
Three of those seven losses were decided by seven points or less. Those include games against a respectable Vanderbilt squad, a championship contender in Florida and an eight-win team in Syracuse. While many were laughing that the Tigers were 0-5 against ranked opponents and 2-6 in conference play, they were still a bounce or two away from qualifying for a bowl.
Now they will be even better.
James Franklin is back to lead this team at quarterback. He is one of the best dual-threat players in the country when healthy. In case you forgot, he threw for 2,865 yards, rushed for 981 yards and scored 36 total touchdowns in 2011. Sure, that was against mostly lousy Big 12 defenses, but he has the playmaking ability needed to survive in this conference.
The SEC is quickly becoming a quarterback's conference, and Franklin is one of the best when he isn't nursing a shoulder injury. This alone gives the Tigers a fighting chance.
He also has wide receiver Dorial Green-Beckham on his side. He was one of the top recruits of the 2012 class and has unbelievable upside at 6'6", 220 pounds. His 28 receptions didn't live up to expectations, but eight of those receptions and four of his five touchdowns came in the final three games. He is poised to have a breakout year and show why he had so many stars next to his name coming out of high school.
Sticking to offense, running back Henry Josey should also be back from an injury that kept him out of last season. He rushed for 1,168 yards, averaged eight yards a carry and scored nine touchdowns before the injury. He has star potential and will instantly improve a backfield that ranked 90th in the country.
Missouri finished 11th in the SEC in offensive production, but a lot of that had to do with inexperience and injuries. Having the big three offensively will give this unit the firepower needed to be taken seriously.
But what about the defense?
What's funny about that side of the ball is that it is needed to accomplish anything in the SEC. However, Texas A&M allowed 390.2 yards last year, while Missouri allowed 390.7. Similar, huh? The difference is that the Aggies are put on a pedestal and treated as national contenders. The Tigers are the butt of the jokes and are treated as if they are a bottom feeder.
How many games does Missouri win?
Missouri returns six starters defensively, including four from the front seven. This is a unit that recovered 16 fumbles, which was only second behind Georgia in the SEC. Their opponent third down percentage was also a solid 35.12 percent, lower than teams such as Georgia, South Carolina and Tennessee.
The defense is also loaded with experienced players. Leading tackler Andrew Wilson returns for his fifth season. E.J. Gaines is a senior who returns after having his most productive season. Sack leader Michael Sam is also a senior, as well as Donovan Bonner, Randy Ponder and Matt White. This veteran leadership will go a long way and should amend last year's numbers.
There is no way Missouri is competing for an SEC title, but the talent is clearly there for this to be a more competitive team capable of knocking off a few powerhouses. There are six schools in the SEC that are constantly mentioned as national championship contenders. Even Ole Miss and Vanderbilt are stealing a few headlines.
Missouri isn't mentioned at all.
That will soon change.
Note: All stats come from cfbstats.com unless otherwise noted.