BenFred: Mizzou football’s talent, experience should help Tigers defy national expectations

July 14, 2018

Many believe SEC football media days to be the unofficial kickoff to the college football season.

I just happen to disagree.

The long wait for tailgates and homecoming and rivalries and everything — down to the heartbreak — that makes college football such a high truly starts when the latest edition of the Phil Steele’s College Football Preview hits your hands.

Whether you pull it off the rack at a bookstore, or rip it out of your mailbox, the wealth of information packed inside stirs the soul.

I made my annual magazine run recently. As always, I overdid it. Why grab one when you can have them all: Steele, Athlon, Street & Smith’s, Lindy’s.

When there is no college football, there is no such thing as too many college football magazines.

Here are some notes I jotted down while devouring another year’s worth of glossy pages, just in time for next week’s SEC football media days:

New Mizzou offensive coordinator Derek Dooley’s mission is rather clear: Prove this offense is not a paper tiger. During the last two seasons, former OC Josh Heupel’s uptempo offense averaged 56.8 points per game against teams outside of the Power 5 and Power 5 teams that did not make a bowl game. That average dropped to 20 points per game when facing a Power 5 team that played in a bowl game. This was a significant factor in Mizzou going 7-0 against non-bowl teams, and 0-6 against bowl teams last season. If your offense can’t score on solid conference opposition, what’s the point?

Phil Steele projects four first-team All-SEC selections for Mizzou, and none of them are named Drew Lock. The college football maven sees receiver Emmanuel Hall, tight end Albert Okwuegbunam, defensive lineman Terry Beckner Jr, punter Corey Fatoney and punt returner Richaud Floyd grabbing first-team honors. I love the love for Albert O, whom Lindy’s projects as a second-team All-American at tight end. He is entering what could be a rather monstrous redshirt sophomore season. Remember, no tight end in the nation caught more touchdowns than his 11 last season. Lindy’s scores Albert O as the nation’s second-best tight end, and considers Hall to be the 13th-best receiver. Steele’s first-team quarterback pick goes to Auburn’s Jarrett Stidham. Lock is second-team. Running back Damarea Crockett is third-team, along with receiver Johnathon Johnson, linebacker Terez Hall and offensive lineman Tre’Vour Wallace-Sims. Yes, a Mizzou offensive line that returns all starters and put up rather impressive numbers last season is once again lacking in individual love. For what it’s worth, Steele is high on the line, as a whole. He ranked it No. 10 nationally among its peer position groups. The group allowed an SEC-low 13 sacks last season. Lock might be asked to hold the ball longer this season. The line should get more love if passes the test.

Linebackers and defensive backs. Linebackers and defensive backs. Linebackers and defensive backs. Page after page, it became even more clear that these are believed to be the weakest spots on Mizzou’s team. Not pairing with the worst time-of-possession offense in college football should help, but some play-makers better step forward.

The stat Mizzou fans can break out if an opposing fan stirs it up: Over the last five years, Mizzou ranks sixth in the SEC in net conference wins. Sure, the Tigers rank second-to-last, only leading Vanderbilt by one, with conference wins over the past three years (7), but don’t mention that. Stick with the five-year argument, which has Mizzou at 21-19 in SEC play, with more league wins than every team other than Alabama, Georgia, LSU, Auburn and Florida.

Some thought I was too hard on Odom for his decision to hire Dooley as his offensive coordinator. Time will tell. But Dooley, dressed in his Tennessee-orange pants, does make an appearance in Athlon’s preview. He’s ranked third on a list of the conference’s 10 most puzzling head coaching hires. That’s how poorly things went for him with the Vols, before he moved on to coach Dallas Cowboys receivers. The good news? Dooley didn’t call plays at Tennessee. The bad news? He’s never called plays.

I think folks are underestimating the potential one-two punch of Damarea Crockett and Larry Rountree. Both backs are healthy and should offer more explosiveness than departed 1,000-yard rusher Ish Witter. Crockett ran for 1,062 yards on a 6.9 average as a true freshman. He was averaging 6 yards per carry before a shoulder injury knocked him out last season. The duo barely cracked Steele’s top-50 backfields, checking in at No. 43. If these two can stay healthy, I think they beat that projection. Lindy’s named Crocket the No. 17 running back in the country.

Despite Lock’s whopping, nation-leading touchdown total last season, he’s seemingly got some work to do before he turns from Heisman hopeful into Heisman contender. He’s considered one to watch in the magazines, but the bulk of the attention in the SEC is being heaped onto the shoulders of Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa, Auburn’s Jarrett Stidham and Georgia’s Jake Fromm. Lock can help his case with wins, more than anything. He can also improve his accuracy (57.8 percent). Lock leads the others when the talk turns to NFL draft projections, however. Lindy’s predicts he will be the first quarterback to hear his name called during the draft.

Mizzou’s schedule offers no favors. I have often pointed out the step up in scheduling difficulty the Tigers take this season. Last year, they had the 71st-hardest slate, per Phil Steele. This year: 27th-hardest. Steele assigns Mizzou an 85 percent chance of having the same record, or a worse record, than its 7-6 (4-4) mark in 2017. That’s a bad sign.

On paper, the best chances for wins come at the front and back end of the schedule. FCS member UT Martin has lost its last seven games against the SEC by a margin of 42 points per game. Wyoming arrives to CoMo next, and the Tigers are 16-4-1 all-time against Mountain West opponents, with their last lost coming to New Mexico in 2005. I won’t include Purdue in here, because, well, look what happened last year, and this one is on the road. (Did you know that five of Purdue’s six losses last season came by 10 points, or fewer? And Jeff Brohm did not get poached.) Memphis arrives in the middle of the season. Homecoming. The other Tigers are expected to win 10-plus games and compete to win the AAC West. If you are thinking of this as an easy one, stop now. In fact, you could make a case -- and I will -- that the schedule’s second soft spot comes at the back end, with the run of Florida, Vanderbilt, Tennessee and Arkansas. Not including Kentucky, because Mizzou has not beaten Kentucky since 2014. But the Gators, Volunteers and Razorbacks are all going to be playing under a new coach. And the other is Vanderbilt. Commodores coach Derek Mason is on the hottest seat in the conference. Yes, even hotter than Odom’s.

Inexperience can’t be an excuse for Mizzou. You can make the argument that the Tigers are the third most-experienced team in the SEC. Steele’s experience metric assigns point totals for senior starters and returning starters in the two-deep, along with taking into account the percentage of yards, tackles and offensive-line starts that return. The Tigers trail only Florida and Mississippi State on Steele’s list of most-experienced SEC rosters. They have 16 combined starters back on offense and defense, 51 returning letttermen and a third-year head coach.

Bowl Prediction: Talk about way-too-early, how about calling now where the Tigers will play their final game? Athlon gave it a go, projecting the Tigers for a Belk Bowl meeting with ACC opponent Virgina Tech. Street & Smith’s suggests the Liberty Bowl. Sigh.

The consensus among the magazines is that Mizzou isn’t a top-25 team, but belongs in the top-35 range. Pretty much everyone is predicting a fourth-place finish in the SEC East. This team has more talent than that, in my opinion. Whether it can turn that talent into wins is the biggest question of the season. One more thing ...

Rejoice, college football is nearly here.

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