The 2009 college football season will kick off in a little over a month. To make the time go a little faster, I have been counting down my top 50 teams one team at a time.
No. 35 MISSOURI TIGERS
The Tigers have come a long way.
A 10-4 season, Big 12 North Championship, and an Alamo Bowl win would have been considered a fantastic season in Columbia 10 years ago, but fans are now expecting more from Gary Pinkel's squad.
As they should.
This is a team that has won the Big 12 North the last two seasons and came within one game of playing for the National Championship two seasons ago.
Last season's team was expected to take the next step—instead, the Tigers self-destructed under the pressure. Too many turnovers on offense and too many problems on defense led to a season of disappointment.
This season, Pinkel and his staff must try to reload a team that returns only 10 starters.
Chase Daniel is gone. Jeremy Maclin is gone. Chase Coffman, Jeff Wolfert, Ziggy Hood...gone, gone, gone.
A stressing situation, but Pinkel has recruited his tail off—putting a fence around Missouri and picking up some great talent from Texas, and elsewhere, to upgrade the overall speed and athleticism of the team.
The hard work will have been with it. The team might be better...eventually.
For that to happen, the defense must improve after a rough year in which they allowed 412 yards per game. Only four starters return, but the cupboard is hardly bare.
Sean Weatherspoon, one of the nation's best linebackers, is the unquestioned leader and star of a talented but young defense. There are 12 freshmen or sophomores on the two-deep depth chart.
New defensive coordinator Dave Steckel, who served in the Marines during the 1970s and coaches with a fiery personality, has instilled a more disciplined approach on defense that promises demotions if starters don't fly to the ball on every snap.
"As far as I'm concerned, they've been here 100 years, and this is their time," Steckel said. "If you treat them like they're young, they'll act like they're young."
The line, offering a feeble pass rush at best last season, must improve for the defense to be successful. Senior Jaron Baston will lead a talented group on the line, including dangerous prospect Aldon Smith, as well as sophomores Terrell Resonno and Jacquies Smith.
The secondary did a whole bunch of nothing last season, so replacing three starters isn't that big a deal. There is an upgrade at corner with Kevin Rutland appearing to be ready to become fantastic, while Kenji Jackson could turn out to be a better free safety than the much-heralded William Moore did.
Joining Weatherspoon in the middle is Luke Lambert, a good, sound defender, and Andrew Gachkar, a top reserve last season who looks ready to take the next step.
Replacing Mizzou legend Daniel won't be easy, but new starting quarterback Blaine Gabbert could be better.
"He's making tremendous strides," offensive coordinator David Yost said. "He's got a lot of ability, and you're starting to see it on a consistent basis. We expect great things out him because of what he's able to do."
Gabbert has the arm to throw the ball deep (something Daniel couldn't do), and there is no shortage of speed, size, and talent in the receiving corps to make a difference.
Stepping into the hole left by all-everything speedster Maclin is Jerrell Jackson, a polished target who could shine with the extra responsibility. Replacing Coffman is former top recruit sophomore Andrew Jones, who saw plenty of playing time late last year.
Three starters return up front, but it is one of the new ones, tackle Dan Hoch, who could turn out to be the best of the lot. Derrick Washington and De'Vion Moore will split time at tailback, and both are special players who should be fantastic behind one of the Big 12's best lines.
Few are predicting a third straight North Division crown, but the Missouri program is as talented as it has ever been.
With Nebraska coming to Columbia, and with enough speed and athleticism across the board to run with anyone in the conference, there's no reason to shoot for anything lower than a third straight trip to the title game.
The fans in Columbia expect nothing less.
NEXT UP: The Big East checks in at No. 34. Can this "old school" program finally get to the BCS?