The Missouri Tigers enter this season following an 8-5 campaign, ending in a 35-13 loss to Navy in the Texas Bowl. The 35 points given up to the Midshipmen were a microcosm of their porous defense, which gave up 39, 40, and 41 points in other 2009 contests.
This season, however, head coach Gary Pinkel hopes that his eight returning defensive starters can use their experience to improve on their squad, who ranked 64th overall last year.
The Tigers would like to see the most improvement in their secondary, which clocked in at 104th nationally, giving up 251.5 yards passing per game.
Those numbers should be much improved, as the secondary will consist of three seniors with a chip on their shoulder, as they've been amongst the worst secondaries in the nation in each of the past two seasons. A new, more aggressive coverage scheme has been implemented by defensive coordinator Dave Steckel, which could result in more turnovers, but could also backfire and expose the Tigers to the deep ball.
Inside the box, the Tigers boast sophomore Aldon Smith at defensive end, whose surrounding hype has some experts projecting him to find his way onto an All-American team or two at season's end. Smith won the conference's Defensive Newcomer of the Year award after recording 11.5 sacks in his freshman season.
Linebacker Zaviar Gooden is the only other underclassman, as the rest of the line and its backers are juniors and seniors. Will Ebner and Luke Lambert have been tabbed as co-starters at the middle linebacker position, while senior Andrew Gachkar rounds out a deep linebacking corps that should provide the experienced D-Line with some staunch support.
On the other side of the ball, the Tigers also return eight starters from an offense that rated 32nd in the country last season. Junior quarterback Blaine Gabbert (pictured) has one of the most accurate arms in the conference, and Pinkel believes he is mentally prepared enough to remain calm under pressure. One of Gabbert's strengths on display last year was that he posted the conference's second-best passer efficiency rating (104.5).
Losing All-American slot receiver Danario Alexander to graduation leaves a question mark at the wide-receiver position as to who will be Gabbert's go-to targets. Junior Wes Kamp is the only returning starting receiver, and his 6'4'' frame should make him a legit option in the red-zone.
Whether or not Gabbert has been able to make the necessary adjustments to his inexperienced receiving corps will be one of the most important factors regarding the Tigers' success this season, but his arm and his poise should benefit him in that area.
Since spring practice and into the preseason, senior running back Derrick Washington has re-established himself as a study, reliable runner. Also a returning starter, Washington's knowledge of the game and of pressure situations should make things easier for Gabbert, should a problem arise in finding playmakers out wide.
The Tigers division within the conference and their schedule this season played a large role in being selected as the Darkest of Darkhorses to win the Big 12. Out of conference match-ups against Illinois, MCNEESE ST., SAN DIEGO ST., and MIAMI (OH) should all be winnable to start out the season.
Missouri then has its bye-week before opening its conference schedule at home against Colorado, which should result in a Tiger victory. The next four weeks, however, will determine the legitimacy of Missouri in the Big 12 this season.
Traveling to Texas A&M, hosting Oklahoma, then traveling to Nebraska and Texas Tech is, without a doubt, the most grueling part of their schedule. Missouri should be ecstatic if they are able to win two of these four games, as they do not have to face Texas during the regular season.
They will then close out the season hosting Kansas St., going to Iowa St., and wrapping up with "The Border War" match-up against Kansas at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City. If Missouri has any sort of momentum heading into the final three games of the season, they should feel confident in winning each of them.
Though Nebraska is the hands-down favorite to represent the Big 12 North in the conference championship, an upset in Lincoln could prove monumental if Missouri were to be the darkhorse champions that I have hazily envisioned them as. If the Tigers find themselves at 6-2 or even 5-3 in conference play, they could just sneak past Nebraska and take the Big 12 North.
Entering the Big 12 Title Game assuredly as underdogs against, likely, Texas or Oklahoma, the Tigers could have just enough energy and momentum to take the conference title in a season where the annual favorites are all in a bit of a rebuilding stage.
Though not as explosive of a team as we've seen in years past with Chase Daniel, Jeremy Maclin, et al, the 2010 Missouri Tigers have experience and depth on both sides of the ball. This should give them confidence in themselves and their quarterback heading into every game this season.
We'll just have to wait and see, won't we?