Much like South Carolina, Missouri went into 2016 with a new coach looking to make his mark on what had been a good program in recent years before falling on hard times - albeit under different circumstances. And in 2017, much like South Carolina, the Tigers will be stepping into their second year under said coach looking to make some positive strides from last year. And while South Carolina (barely) made a bowl and Mizzou didn’t, that doesn’t mean the Tigers will be caught spinning their wheels after a disappointing 4-8 (2-6) season.
If you’re a Tigers fan, you have to be excited about what a player like Drew Lock can bring to the table, especially after a phenomenal sophomore campaign (3399 yards passing? 23 touchdowns? Just 10 picks?). I don’t know if you can really blame him for the team’s losing record last year apart from back-to-back poor games against LSU and Florida. It helps that top targets J’Mon Moore and Dimetrios Mason will be back in the saddle: Moore made a gigantic impression late in the season last year, while Mason is a sophomore that hopes the momentum captured in his first year can equal a much more successful second year. It also helps that backfield duo Damarea Crockett (sophomore) and Ish Witter (senior) also return to give Mizzou a solid one-two punch in the running game. Carolina’s secondary and defensive front will face a stiff test.
The Tigers’ calling card has been defense under the Gary Pinkel/Barry Odom regime, and while they weren’t awful in that department last year, they weren’t terrific either (88th in defensive S&P+). That number was dragged down by a unit that ranked 109th in rushing S&P+ (South Carolina was actually 67th in that column last year); only two teams, Georgia and FCS Delaware State, gained 101 yards or less on the ground, while one other, Eastern Michigan, was held below 150. Everyone else basically had their way running the ball with teams like LSU (418), Tennessee (386), Kentucky (377) and Middle Tennessee State (316) picking up obscenely high rushing numbers. They did better against the pass (72nd in S&P+); outside of two 300+ yards games conceded to Arkansas and Georgia, teams weren’t able to get gobs of yards through the air against them (Jake Bentley did go a respectable 22 for 28 against them with 254 yards and two touchdowns versus zero interceptions). Marcell Frazier (8.5 sacks, 9.5 TFLs as a sophomore) looks like he’s set for yet another career year at end as the anchor of the defensive line, and while starting corner Aarion Penton is gone, Cam Hilton, Anthony Sherrils and the prospect of a healthy Logan Cheadle should hold their own in the secondary. But Mizzou must stop the run if they are to see improvement this season. (In their defense, part of that was due to a few injuries.)
The Gamecocks missed an opportunity to really exploit the Tigers’ run stopping deficiencies, and I think that we’ll see a much more prepared Mizzou team in that department in 2017. But it falls to a couple of things: can the offensive line hold up in support of Jake Bentley and the running backs, and can the defense neutralize Crockett and Witter while breaking through the Tigers’ front five to make life uncomfortable for Lock? If the answer’s yes, then a close win shouldn’t be out of the question.