On this day Monday, August the 26th, 2019 the rain and thunder fell like 1,000 hammers atop Greater Saint Louis. By midday though, the storm had quieted, the clouds departed, and for the slightest of moments the crisp smell of fall filled the air for the first time this year. It’s only fitting that today would also be the day that Starbucks unleashed their Pumpkin Cream Cold Brew (get ready all you basic b’s) – as if I needed any more proof to say this: Football is back.
Now, sure, technically speaking Week 0 of the college football season is already behind us. But this weekend will mark the first full slate of college football matchups, and I couldn’t be any more excited. There will be plenty of fun and games to follow in the months ahead in the world on major college football, but this season promises to be the most interesting in at least a handful of years for my Missouri Tigers. The 2019 season has the potential to be the most successful in Barry Odom’s short career as Head Coach. It could be a season held up as a shining star to bolster recruiting across the state and the region. Or, at least for fans, it could be the season that was for not. One stashed away and forgotten like some rotted tennis shoes in the back of your closet. It could be the year that could have been for Missouri fans, depending on what a handful of people in Indianapolis have to say.
It’s the elephant in the room. The NCAA Committee on Infractions levied Missouri with sanctions – including a postseason ban – after it had found that Mizzou committed academic misconduct once a tutor revealed that she had completed coursework for 12 student athletes, including former members of the football team. Missouri has appealed the NCAA’s decision and submitted its case before the Committee on Infractions, but as it stands at this very moment, they will not be eligible for the postseason. That means no bowl game. No SEC Championship game. And, even if this were that special year where it may happen, no College Football Playoff for the Tigers. There is basically no precedence for a scenario like this, so the NCAA could take weeks or even months before it makes its final decision on Missouri’s sanctions. (At the time of writing, it had been approximately four weeks since Missouri attended its official Appeals Committee hearing in Indianapolis.)
That’s all to say that it’s….kind of a bummer that Mizzou got placed in this situation this year. That may sound obvious, but when you look at the schedule for the Tigers in 2019, it shakes out in Mizzou’s favor to compete in Atlanta for the SEC title for the first time since 2014. Barry Odom has increased his win total every year since taking reigns from Gary Pinkel following the 2015 season. This is a feat that Missouri fans tend to easily forget. (I certainly do.) But in 2019, Barry and the Boys have a chance to really do some damage.
Mizzou kicks off 2019 in Laramie against a Wyoming team that returns a defense which was in the top third of NCAA Division-I teams in 2018, but are no world beaters by any means. Mizzou is a consensus 17-point favorite, and should be able to take care of business in the mountains. In the weeks following, Mizzou will face a West Virginia team that has lost the bulk of its starters from 2018 and rolls out a first year head coach, FCS opponent SEMO, and a South Carolina team that isn’t a push-around by any means, but isn’t as talented as previous editions. (Also – in 2019 South Carolina will play Alabama, Mizzou, Georgia, Florida, Texas A&M and Clemson…..can you say ‘yikes’?) A bye week will proceed another FCS opponent in Troy, followed by an Ole Miss team that has been rather disappointing under Head Coach Matt Luke, and then road dates with Vanderbilt and Kentucky before a second bye week.
If Missouri stays focussed, finishes drives, takes care of the ball and can create just a little bit of havoc on defense, it isn’t crazy to think that they may be 7-1 or even 8-0 heading into November 9th, when they will head down on the plains to face SEC East favorite Georgia for what may be the defining matchup of the season. No doubt it will be a compelling couple of months for Mizzou fans, but the optimism is clouded by the possibility of having nothing to play for if the postseason ban and other sanctions stand.
While the NCAA ponders its decision, in just a few short days we will be playing some football games that count. Regardless of what the latest word on Missouri’s sanctions are, it won’t matter at approximately 6:30 on Saturday night. It might sound cliche, but it does appear that Coach Odom and his staff have encouraged their players to block out the noise in the mass media and focus on the task in front of them. Last spring, numerous Missouri upperclassmen, including Clemson graduate transfer quarterback Kelly Bryant, had the opportunity to transfer out of the program and to a school which would have something to play for in 2019. Zero of them did so.
Much to Coach Odom’s credit, it would seem that this group has bought in to his message and are determined to make the most of the 12 games which they are guaranteed to compete in. Barring a complete disaster this year, Odom’s job security seems more certain than ever. Like his players, it will be up to him to execute against Wyoming and each opponent in the following weeks.
Predictions for 2019
While I don’t have a crystal ball to tell you what the NCAA will rule and when, I do feel strongly that this team will have success moving the ball. For all of the nerds like me, Mizzou is projected to have a top-15 offense in terms of overall efficiency. They return 3 starters on the offensive line including 1st Team All SEC member Tre’Vour Wallace-Simms. At running back, Larry Roundtree III has proven that he can carry the ball 25 times a game and still be effective, while Tyler Badie slides in as a nice change of pace back. The receiving corp looks to be strong on paper with Arkansas graduate transfer Jonathan Nance, who once led the Razorbacks in receiving; Jonathan Johnston who is reliable in the slot; a trio of sophomores all looking to receive decent playing time in Kam Scott, Jalen Knox and Dominic Gicinto; and a monster tight end Albert Okwuegbunam who, when healthy, looks like he has all the talent to be playing on Sundays in the near future. Then of course Kelly Bryant will serve as the engine that drives the car for the Mizzou offense. Bryant was 16-2 as a starter at Clemson, completing 66% of his passes before ultimately losing the starting job to sophomore phenom Trevor Lawrence. At Missouri, he hopes to find his targets much of the same way as a passer first, however, Bryant can also get outside of the pocket and run for yards when he needs to.
Things are a bit more uncertain on defense, where last year the Tigers ranked 25th in overall efficiency yet struggled to establish a consistent pass rush almost throughout the entire campaign. Odom’s staff has made some adjustments to combat this, however. Missouri will roll out a 4-2-5 base defense this year to try to better stop opponents’ passing attack. Missouri’s cornerbacks looked helpless in coverage at times last year, however when there is no pressure on the opponent’s quarterback the DBs simply can’t cover long enough. If this is meant to be one of those special seasons, these groups will have to hold strong either by committee or for one or two players to emerge as game changers.
Final thoughts for Saturday: I hope to see Kelly Bryant and the offense get their feet wet with a couple of successful drives, with minimal negative yards and no turnovers to prevent Wyoming from really getting into the game. I also expect to see at least six different wide receivers/tight ends in rotation at Wyoming so that Coach Odom, Coach Dooley and the rest of the staff can see what they got on offense. And finally, as stated earlier, I hope to see somebody on defense create some pressure and record a sack or two to get this group’s confidence up early to begin the season.
Buckle up, college football fans. It should be another fun ride in 2019.