Previews 2018: Missouri, South Carolina, Tennessee and Vanderbilt

Jul 18, 2018; Atlanta, GA, USA; Missouri Tigers head coach Barry Odom speaks to the media from the main stage during SEC football media day at the College Football Hall of Fame. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Jul 18, 2018; Atlanta, GA, USA; Tigers head coach Barry Odom speaks to the media from the main stage during football media day at the College Football Hall of Fame. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Missouri Tigers

Projected record: 7-5 (UGA, USC, UA, UF, UT); 3-5 and 4th SEC East
Returning offensive starters: 9 (SE, WR, LT, LG, C, RG, RT, TE, QB)
Returning defensive starters: 6 (RDT, RLB, LLB, NB, RCB, LCB)
Returning specialists: 2 (PK, P)

Unit ratings

QB: Ex DL: Fr
RB: Av LB: Av
WR: Vg DB: Av
OL: Ex ST: Vg

Overview: Drew Lock’s breakout season at quarterback has triggered some hardcore dreaming among Missouri fans, who see Georgia’s reloading as an opportunity to test the Bulldogs for SEC East supremacy in 2018. The Tigers return almost everyone of importance on offense and in the special teams, but the defensive front isn’t ready for prime time, meaning Missouri is in the uncomfortable position of having to rely on offense to out-gun opponents.

Offensive breakdown: The ascension of Barry Odom to head coach was supposed to bring a defensive mentality to the Tigers, but in his second season at the helm, the opposite has happened. Missouri is still a guns-blazing, spread-addicted offensive system that isn’t happy unless it is throwing for the win. Fortunately for Odom, he has Drew Lock doing the throwing, and Lock finally came into his own with a 44-TD, 3,944-yard performance in 2017 that has many placing him atop the Heisman Trophy watchlist headed into 2018. It will be interesting to see how Missouri’s offense changes under new offensive coordinator Derek Dooley, who seems determined to throw less and run more, but that might be counterproductive given Missouri’s talent at receiver and QB versus its talent at running back.

Missouri managed to make Ish Witter into a serviceable running back in 2017, but that was probably a system byproduct, and Witter is gone anyway. Larry Rountree III and Damarea Crockett will vie for the starting job this year, and at least Dooley will get some size in the backfield with which to work. The two combined for 8 touchdowns and just short of 6 yards per carry in 2017, but if they’re asked to be more of the feature and less a sideshow, Missouri doesn’t quite know what it has yet. Receiver, though, is a much different deal; although 1,000-yard receiver J’Mon Moore isn’t back, the entire supporting cast is, including Emanuel Hall, Johnathon Johnson and tight end Albert Okwuegbunam, whose freshman season qualified as a breakout year. Nate Brown also lends veteran experience. This issue here is depth due to absence, as JUCO transfer Harry Ballard has left the team temporarily and Richaud Floyd has a broken leg. That’s going to leave Missouri playing mostly true freshmen in key reserve roles for at least the first month, until Floyd is ready to go again.

The Tigers may have the best offensive line in the conference, and certainly does in the SEC East. Paul Adams and Yasir Durant are solid tackles, while Kevin Pendleton and Tre’vour Wallace-Simms anchor the guard slots. Trystan Colon-Castillo is back at center. There’s some decent veteran help off the bench if needed, but it’s mostly contained to the interior. Injuries to tackles will draw freshmen into the mix.

Defensive/ST breakdown: No way around it other than to say the defense was bad in 2017. Scoring and pass defense were particularly troubling, as Missouri struggled with defensive efficiency. It won’t get better unless the defensive line starts to play up to potential. Terry Beckner Jr. could start for any SEC team at defensive tackle, including Alabama. He’s easily the second-best prospect on this team behind Drew Lock. Ends Tre Williams and Jordan Elliott, along with flex lineman Kobie Whiteside, look – on paper – like a solid unit. But they didn’t solidify in 2017. Nate Anderson and Rashad Brandon give Missouri a pair of experienced seniors off the bench. Chris Turner has potential, but isn’t proven. Overall depth is below average.

With just two linebackers in Mizzou’s 4-2-5 base set, the Tigers hope numbers – which were thin at the three-LB level, but just fine for two LBs – will help guard against injuries or the occasional struggle. Missouri has a built-in edge in that nickelback Brandon Lee is more of a hybrid linebacker, and can shift down when needed. Together with Terez Hall and Cale Garrett, Missouri achieved decent success out of this unit last year, but more is absolutely needed.

The secondary looks OK from 30,000 feet, but only if cornerback DeMarkus Acy builds on his second-half performance. Acy, at 6’2” and close to 200 pounds, represents the prototypical big cornerback many teams now covet. He’ll need better help from Adam Sparks and Christian Holmes, but the CB position is in fine shape compared to safety, where journeymen Cam Hilton and Ronnell Perkins won the jobs in the spring, the latter’s job coming at the expense of Kaleb Prewett, a returning starter who was eventually dismissed from the team for disciplinary reasons.

The special teams should be in good shape with Tucker McCann at placekicker and Cory Fatony punting. Richaud Floyd’s absence will hit the return units hard, as he has housed kicks in the past and was feared across the conference. A quick return from injury is necessary.

Overall Trend: Up. It might all be a function of Drew Lock, and we’ll know quickly, as a decent Purdue team and SEC East rival Georgia both hit the schedule in the first month. If this is more than just Lock’s influence, though, it bodes well for Odom’s future. With the influx of talent across the SEC head coaching spectrum this offseason, Odom is already behind the 8-ball in making a name for himself. Missouri is picked to go 7-5, but has the talent to bump that number even higher.

READ MORE:
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