Chase Daniel & Co. brought Missouri to relevancy from 2007-2008. Gary Pinkel has kept them there since. Now, with Nebraska out of the Big 12(ish) picture, many seem ready to anoint Missouri as the next big thing.
But, to borrow a phrase from Lee Corso, "not so fast my friend."
Removing Nebraska—and Colorado to a lesser degree—relieves Missouri of an annual road block. But, it also renders the Big 12 division-less, leaving the Tigers exposed to a full slate of former South division foes. In other words: If you're Gary Pinkel, would you rather play Nebraska and Colorado every year? Or Oklahoma and Texas every year?
James Franklin is the man in Columbia after The Brothers Gabbert both left town this offseason, making the quarterback position the only question mark for the Tigers on offense. The good news for Franklin and for Mizzou is that everyone but center Tim Barnes is back—including all 14 Tigers who caught a pass in 2010.
The backfield is stock-piled with adequate runners, as De'Vion Moore (517 yards), Henry Josey (437) and Kendial Lawrence (422) all return.
Up front, left tackle Elvis Fisher (40 consecutive starts) leads a group of four seniors that have combined for 108 starts over the last three seasons. Junior Travis Ruth is "the new guy" at center.
Senior tight end Michael Egnew is among the best in the country. In most circles, a tight end of his caliber is commonly referred to as a "security blanket." But Egnew is surrounded by one of the most experienced receiving corps in college football. TJ Moe, Jerrell Jackson and Wes Kemp are all returning starters. Jackson and Kemp are both seniors. Moe, a junior, is the team's leading receiver from a season ago (92 receptions, 1,045 yards) and on the way to becoming one of the best in school history.
That's a really large security blanket.
The difference between the 2010 Missouri Tigers and the groups that came before them was the defense. Missouri has won 10 or more games three times in the past four seasons. But, in each of those seasons, the offense was routinely put into shootouts by an inconsistent defense. That changed in 2010, as the defense allowed an average of only 16.1 PPG and even found itself carrying the offense on more than one occasion.
This year's group has the pieces to be an even better unit.
Gone is playmaking defensive end Aldon Smith. But, Jacquies Smith (10 TFL, 5.5 sacks in '10) and Brad Madison (11 TFL, 7.5 sacks in '10) won't skip a beat. Freshman Kony Ealy will help to prevent any attrition on the ends. In the middle, Dominique Hamilton is back from the ankle injury that sidelined him for a couple of months in 2010, and Sheldon Richardson—once one of the nation's top defensive line recruits—looks to be a difference maker on the heels of a junior college stint.
Linebacker Zavier Gooden led the Tigers in tackles in 2010. He has the ability to dominate for Mizzou on the weakside. Elsewhere among the linebacking core, senior Will Ebner is the incumbent starter in the middle but needs to stay healthy, and sophomore Andrew Wilson appears to be the guy on the strong side.
Despite returning only one starter—strong safety Kenji Jackson—big things are expected of the Missouri secondary. Kip Edwards and EJ Gaines should make plays in droves on the corners, and there are plenty of folks excited about sophomore Tavon Bolden at free safety. Lack of experience be damned, the secondary could emerge as a strength for this squad.
Simply put, Grant Ressel is among the most efficient kickers in college football. In 2010, the junior was 17-for-19 on field goal tries, and 45-of-47 on PATs. The four misses were three more than he had in all of 2009.
Kickoff specialist Trey Barrow is in line for punting duties.
Kip Edwards will handle punt returns, much to the chagrin of special teams coaches across the Big 12.
Sept. 24 at Oklahoma
A season ago, the No. 1-ranked Sooners came into Columbia riding high. Then, the Tiger defense held DeMarco Murray to 49 yards rushing, intercepted Landry Jones twice and sent the Sooners crashing back to earth.
Assuming that Oklahoma survives their trip to Tallahassee, the Sooners will be No. 1 again when the two meet on Sept. 24. This time, though, the game will have a crimson back drop and an opposing quarterback making his first Big 12 start.
If the Tigers can find a way to get by OU once again, they will gain a decisive leg up in the conference race.
Word of advice: Stay away from the Missouri offense if you can help it. The backfield looks to be a fantasy owner's nightmare, with a nearly dead even time share. The pass catchers, on the other hand, would be fantastic options... if Blaine Gabbert was still a Tiger.
But, James Franklin is the quarterback, not Gabbert, and even Gabbert was only a fringe starter in most formats last season. You might take a flier on Franklin with a late-round pick, but in anything short of a 20-round draft, you probably won't.
TJ Moe's stock is hindered by the question mark at quarterback, but only so much. The junior receiver is simply too talented to fall very far. With a proven signal-caller, he would go in the first four rounds. With Franklin, expect to draft him at some point in rounds 6-8.
Michael Egnew is the one "must have" Missouri Tiger for two reasons: 1) Inexperienced quarterbacks love the tight end. So James Franklin's youth actually plays in his favor; and 2) Tight ends with Egnew's ability level don't grow on trees. He's the top tight end on everyone's board, and it's not close. If you don't have Michael Egnew by the end of the third round, you probably don't have him.
Missouri is a Top 15 team on talent alone. But an unproven quarterback leaves the door open to a potential regression in 2011. Not only that, but the Tigers will play the toughest regular season schedule in school history now that they're facing the entire Big 12 "South."
Still, if James Franklin steps in and pulls a Chase Daniel, the sky is the limit for this veteran-laden group. Few schools in the country are as mentally and physically capable of competing for a championship. Get through September unbeaten, and who knows?
Projection: 8-4, (5-4)