I’ve seen a fair amount of buzz about Missouri being a darkhorse candidate in the SEC East, including a couple of pundits who have suggested the Tigers will have Georgia on upset alert when the two meet. Some of the buzz is over Drew Lock likely to be one of the conference’s top quarterbacks; some of it comes from Mizzou’s sizzling 2017 regular season finish. Me, I can’t quite bring myself to buy in, for reasons Matt Melton does a good job of explaining here.
Back around Columbus Day, you probably could have gotten decent odds that Barry Odom would not be coaching Missouri in 2018. After an uninspiring 4-8 debut, the Tigers were 1-4 in his second season with their lone win against an FCS opponent. Overall, the Tigers had three victories against FBS teams and just two conference wins under Odom’s guidance. The Tigers would lose their next game against Georgia, although they were somewhat competitive against the eventual national runners up, scoring 28 points against a stout Georgia defense. Following that defeat to the Dogs, Missouri would not lose again (in the regular season), pulverizing their last six foes by an average of 30 points per game! Their regular season finale against Arkansas was close, but the other five wins all came by at least four touchdowns. So Missouri is naturally an SEC East darkhorse heading into 2018 right? As the esteemed Lee Corso might say: Not so fast, my friend.
Missouri was quite dominant in their last six games of 2017, but let’s pause and consider the quality of opponent. The Tigers won non-conference games against Idaho and Connecticut, two teams that combined for seven wins in 2017. In addition, the four conference opponents the Tigers slaughtered did not sniff the postseason. Arkansas, Florida, Tennessee, and Vanderbilt combined for a 5-27 SEC record with three of the wins coming against each other (Florida and Vanderbilt over Tennessee and Florida over Vanderbilt). Outside of Arkansas, the Tigers did not struggle to put these teams away, but this is about as easy a closing slate as you could ask for in the rugged SEC. Contrast this with Missouri’s five-game losing streak. That quintet of teams all qualified for the postseason, with Auburn and Georgia winning their respective divisions. South Carolina won eight regular season games and both Kentucky and Purdue eked out bowl eligibility. If you change the sequencing by swapping say Tennessee with Georgia or Idaho with South Carolina, the narrative of a hot finish is not nearly as strong.
… In a more formidable SEC, Missouri will have the luxury of tempered expectations. The Tigers do bring back a talented quarterback, but lose their offensive coordinator as well as their leading rusher and receiver. Derek Dooley was brought in to be the new offensive coordinator and his hire does not inspire the utmost confidence. 2017 was the worst season for both Florida and Tennessee in a generation, so the window for a real breakthrough under Barry Odom could be slamming shut. Betdsi currently has Missouri’s over/under win total at 6.5. On the surface, this seems low considering how the Tigers finished the 2017 season, but upon further examination of the schedule and the dearth of quality teams the Tigers faced after mid-October plus the fact that Florida and Tennessee (and even Vanderbilt) are unlikely to be as bad as they were in 2016, this number seems right on the money.
Two things here. First, it’s struck me for a long time how well Missouri manages its schedule. If you’ll recall, the Tigers built up a ton of momentum in 2013 by running through their first five games against weak opposition, before rolling through Georgia and Florida en route to a division title. Last year, the easy stuff was back-loaded. (To be fair, nobody knew in advance Florida and Tennessee were going to be that bad.)
The 2018 schedule doesn’t appear from here to have a stream of layups at either end, though. The first two games are against cupcakes, but game three is a trip to Purdue and then comes a run of Georgia, at South Carolina and at Alabama, before facing a good mid-major team in Memphis. The schedule finishes with five straight conference games and Missouri must travel to both Florida and Tennessee during that stretch.
Add to that giving Derek Dooley, of all people, his first crack at an offensive coordinator position. Missouri has some excellent talent on that side of the ball, but expecting a smooth transition under a new coach who’s changing schemes seems like a bit of a stretch. Maybe I’m wrong, but I have a hard time seeing how all that adds up to much improvement over last season’s seven wins.