After watching Mizzou’s comeback victory against Arkansas on Saturday, I was excited. Ecstatic, actually. I, like most Tiger fans, gave up on the game at halftime. But after a miraculous comeback led by Drew Lock and a shutout half by the defense, Missouri came back to win 28-24 in one of the largest deficits erased in program history.
Missouri’s victory over Arkansas was the first sign that this team is making positive strides back toward Southeastern Conference respectability. After going over a year without an SEC victory, Missouri beat Vanderbilt at home: an SEC victory, but not an impressive one. Beating Arkansas, however, is a victory over a solid SEC opponent. The game changed my outlook on the Tigers moving forward; I fully expect them to play in a bowl game next season for the first time since 2014.
Many of you might call that a crazy overreaction, my optimistic fandom latching onto one modicum of success and running with it. I mean, it's a sad day for Missouri football when making a bowl game is a bold prediction, but sadly, it is. The Tigers have been the doormat of the SEC the last two seasons, with embarrassing losses to teams like Middle Tennessee, but better times are ahead.
The primary reason? The new and improved Mizzou offense. First-year offensive coordinator Josh Heupel’s spread offense has been a revelation for the Tigers this season. While the fast tempo has undoubtedly had negative effects on the defense, you can’t deny Mizzou’s offense has been rejuvenated this season. Missouri finished the season ranked 15th in the nation in total offense, averaging just over 500 yards a game as a team. The Tigers are also one of only five teams in the country with a 3,000-yard passer (Lock), a 1,000-yard receiver (J’Mon Moore) and a 1,000-yard rusher (Damarea Crockett).
The success the offense has achieved this year figures to improve next season. Mizzou returns 10 of 11 starters on the offensive side of the ball, losing only tight end Sean Culkin. Coherence and another offseason together working under Heupel’s system will be huge for the offense, especially since it allows another year of development for Lock.
Returning so many key starters is uncommon and will be a huge advantage for Mizzou next season. Another year of practice for freshman sensation Damarea Crockett will be important, and the thought of returning Lock, Crockett and Moore all with another offseason under their belts is scary. These three players dominated for Mizzou this season and provide tons of weapons for Heupel to work with.
The trenches are often overlooked in football, but Mizzou’s offensive line impressed this season, especially for a group that was a big question mark heading into the year. Returning all five starters will help the young group grow together and continue to open the massive holes Crockett was running through at the end of the season.
It’s easy to project Mizzou’s offense to improve next year, and that prospect should be frightening for opposing defenses. While Mizzou put up great offensive numbers against lower-tier SEC defenses and its non-Power Five conference foes, they struggled mightily against top-tier SEC defenses such as Florida and Louisiana State.
With another year together, Missouri’s offense might have better luck next year against elite defenses. However, in order to be a bowl team, they don’t have to be. All Missouri’s offense needs to be able to do next year is compete with other middle-tier SEC teams in the shootouts they will likely play in, shootouts that will happen because of their defense.
And that’s the biggest thing holding the 2017 Missouri Tigers back from a bowl game. If you didn’t catch any of last season, that would come as quite a shock. Mizzou football has been built on defense for a long time, but this season bucked that trend. Missouri finished 117th out of 128 teams in total defense this season. Yes, you read that right.
Head coach Barry Odom was the defensive coordinator in 2015, so it's surprising to see such a drastic collapse on the defensive side of the ball this season. Things aren’t going to get any easier for Mizzou in 2017.
Many defensive starters are graduating or entering the draft, including Aarion Penton, Josh Augusta, Donavin Newsom, Michael Scherer and, most likely, star defensive end Charles Harris. Even if Harris stays, Mizzou is losing a lot on the defensive side of the ball, and for a defense that was already abhorrent this season, that’s not good.
But it's not all doom and gloom for the Tigers. The defense suffered an unusual amount of injuries this season, and getting some of those players back, including five-star recruit Terry Beckner Jr., will be good for the team. Heupel also showed in the Arkansas game a willingness to slow down the pace of the offense if necessary, which would be a big help to this defense if he continues doing so moving forward.
But most of all, Tigers fans should have faith in Odom. With an entire offseason to diagnose the problems on the defensive side of the ball, Odom should be able to stop the bleeding. Odom has always been renowned as a great defensive mind, which is why he got the head coaching gig. If I have trust in Odom to make more with less anywhere on the football field, it’s with the defense.
If the defense can even slightly improve on its 117th ranking this season, the improvement the Tigers will show on offense will easily carry this team to at least six wins. While that’s not a high goal for a team with two SEC East Championships in the last five years, it’s progress and finally something for Mizzou fans to look forward to.