After winning only two conference games and finishing 5-7 last season, the 2013 Missouri Tigers are three games away from playing in the SEC title game.
Given that it is in its second year in the most challenging conference in the nation, Mizzou's resurgence is hands down the biggest surprise in college football this season.
Though it will be intriguing to see how the Tigers finish this year, what’s even more compelling is their long-term prospects as SEC members: Is Missouri a program that needed last season to transition into a new conference home, or will the 2013 season be a blip on the radar?
In other words, should the rest of the SEC East fear the Tigers in the future, or are they a team that will manage to pull off a couple of quality upsets on their way to a string of eight-win seasons?
2012 vs. 2013
Comparing the five-win team from last season to the squad that streaked to a 7-0 start this year is key when considering the future.
Given that the personnel situation in college athletics is cyclical, sometimes a program isn’t bad as much as it is just young.
The following table breaks down the returning starters Missouri welcomed back in 2012 and 2013.
Based on this, it’s clear the Tigers didn’t gain a lot of depth from one year to the next. In other words, it would be difficult to argue that the turnaround was due to the transition from a young, inexperienced team to one with tons of battle-ready guys returning.
Another angle from which to compare the two seasons is that of the schedule. Who did Missouri play last year to hit five wins, and who has it played through 10 weeks in 2013 to achieve the 8-1 record?
The first thing worth noting in the schedule comparison is nonconference opponents. Last season the Tigers faced FCS Southeast Louisiana, Arizona State, UCF and Syracuse. Of the three FBS foes, all three finished with eight or more wins, and all three won their respective bowl games.
|SE Louisiana (FCS)||W||Murray St (FCS)||W|
|No. 7 Georgia||L||Toledo||W|
|Arizona State||W||at Indiana||W|
|at No. 7 S. Carolina||L||Arkansas State||W|
|at UCF||W||at Vanderbilt||W|
|Vanderbilt||L||at No. 7 Georgia||W|
|No. 1 Alabama||L||No. 22 Florida||W|
|Kentucky||W||No. 21 S. Carolina||L|
|at No. 8 Florida||L||Tennessee||W|
|at Tennessee||W||at Kentucky|
|Syracuse||L||at Ole Miss|
|at No. 9 Texas A&M||L||No. 11 Texas A&M|
In 2013 Missouri had nonconference clashes with FCS Murray State, Toledo, Indiana and Arkansas State.
As of now, of the three FBS foes, only Toledo has a winning record. Also of note, the Tigers played two BCS teams out of conference last season and only one (3-5 Indiana) this year.
As far as SEC opponents, Mizzou drew Alabama and Texas A&M from the West division in 2012 as compared to Ole Miss and the Aggies this year.
Finally, the Tigers faced five Top 25 teams in 2012, all of which finished in the Top 10 of the final AP poll.
In 2013, Missouri has played three Top 25 opponents, only one of which is still ranked (No. 13 South Carolina). The only ranked team remaining on the slate is No. 11 Texas A&M.
Overall, it’s clear that Missouri has benefited from a much softer schedule in 2013 versus 2012. This has had a substantial effect on the bottom line of wins and losses.
Missouri in the Pinkel Era
Another component to predicting sustained success is a history of consistent performance.
Gary Pinkel took over at Missouri in 2001 when the program had won just seven games total over the previous two seasons.
Other than leading the Tigers to an 8-5 mark in 2003, Pinkel struggled early until hitting eight wins in 2006 and going on to enjoy unprecedented success until the program left the Big 12 after the 2011 season.
Missouri went 56-24 from 2006 to 2011, a mark that included three double-digit-win seasons (the first since 1960) and three Big 12 North Division titles. The Tigers' No. 4 final AP ranking in 2007 marked the highest finish in program history.
Though Missouri has yet to win a conference crown under Pinkel, he had the Tigers winning consistently in the Big 12 when it was at full strength.
In the minus column for Pinkel is his 4-19 record against Top 10 opponents and his 12-33 mark versus Top 25 opponents.
What’s most likely to foretell continued success for Missouri in the SEC is the influx of top talent.
The following table tracks the Tigers' recruiting ranking by year since 2010, two years before they left the Big 12 for the SEC. To provide a benchmark, the same numbers are listed for Texas A&M (which moved at the same time), Georgia, Florida and South Carolina (the top dogs in the SEC East). Mississippi State is included to provide a comparison for a team that has played hard but has struggled to be relevant in the SEC.
These numbers make a few clear points. First, Missouri isn’t in the same league in recruiting with the other big teams in the SEC East, putting it at a huge disadvantage from a talent standpoint.
|Missouri||Texas A&M||Georgia||Florida||S. Carolina||Miss St.|
Next, the Tigers have yet to enjoy a surge in their recruiting numbers with the move to the SEC. The Aggies, on the other hand, continue to gain momentum.
The comparison makes what the Tigers have managed to do this season seem even more extraordinary.
The SEC East
If Missouri is to be a long-term player in the SEC East, it will have to consistently beat Florida, Georgia and South Carolina.
Given that each of these teams is perennially ranked in the Top 25, Pinkel’s record against ranked teams makes a strong case that the Tigers are more likely to fail than succeed.
The other divisional factor worth noting is that 2013’s version of the SEC East is one of the weakest in recent years.
To illustrate, prior to this season the last time two of the big three (Florida, Georgia and South Carolina) were unranked at the same time was in Week 7 of the 2011 season. This exception to the rule lasted only a single week.
One-Hit Wonder or Jukebox Hero?
What it all comes down to for the 2013 Tigers is an easier schedule than last year and a weakened SEC East race. This, combined with a coach who has historically struggled against ranked opponents and a recruiting effort that falls well short, leads to one conclusion.
While Missouri is playing at a high level this season, several other unrelated components are combining to spur the team on to its big-time success.
Based on this analysis, it’s difficult to argue that Missouri will enjoy consistent dominance in the SEC East.
While it will provide solid competition for its slate of opponents, Mizzou is likely to chug along, posting bowl-eligible seasons and lying in wait for its reappearing role as the spoiler.
Will the magic of 2013 ever repeat itself for the Tigers? Absolutely, but it’s not going to happen on a regular basis.