It’s no secret that Missouri football hasn’t lived up to the program’s lofty expectations during the last two seasons.
Bowl games are regarded as a birthright for each incoming recruiting class (along with the occasional conference championship game appearance), so back-to-back bowl-free, losing seasons for the first time since 2002 doesn’t cut it.
Reversing the Tigers’ downward trend — 5-7 in 2015 followed by a coaching change and a 4-8 campaign last year — has become central to the legacy of this year’s senior class.
“We’re really just selling out,” said senior left tackle Tyler Howell, a Bonner Springs graduate. “ … You can do that every year, but, when it’s your last year guaranteed, you just start to think about it different. This is all you’ve got, so you’ve got to make the most of it.”
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The seniors and redshirt seniors who arrived as freshmen and are now set to exhaust their eligibility arrived on campus during a golden age for Mizzou football.
Those Tigers won back-to-back SEC East championships, but a 3-13 conference record followed during the next two seasons as the 2013 and 2014 recruiting classes began coming of age.
“We’ve talked about it very openly,” second-year coach Barry Odom said Tuesday after walking off the Kadlec Athletic Fields on the first day of training camp for the 2017 season. “We’ve all been disappointed in the way we performed and … they also understand that their clock is ticking pretty good.”
The good news is that this year’s seniors have seen firsthand what it takes to compete at that level and are determined to get Mizzou back to such great heights.
“Being one of those guys that was here when we did win (the SEC East), I’ve seen it before and I think our senior class can do a lot to get us back together and get us back to our winning ways,” said senior cornerback Logan Cheadle, a two-time state champion with Lee’s Summit West.
If the offseason is any indication, the Tigers will improve and return to respectability at the very least.
“The chemistry and the leadership (is better),” Tigers defensive coordinator DeMontie Cross said. “That’s no shot at what we had last year. It’s just a different dynamic, a different team and different leaders. This set of leaders are really tied into what we’re looking for as a staff, and what they’ve done to this point is really unmatched to anything we came close to last year. I think that bodes well for us heading into the season.”
Missouri isn’t shy about putting those renewed and lofty expectations out there either.
“We want that SEC championship,” senior running back Ish Witter said.
Six wins and a bowl berth won’t be completely satisfying, not after the last two years’ worth of disappointment.
“The sky is the limit and everyone is board, but just going to a bowl won’t cut it,” senior linebacker Eric Beisel said. “We plan on reaching that level of the 2013 team and then exceeding it.”
Missouri set a program record for wins that season, finishing 12-2 after rolling to a division title, losing a hard-fought SEC title game against Auburn and outlasting Oklahoma State in the Cotton Bowl.
There’s not much space to exceed such a historic season, but Beisel, who has emerged as the Tigers’ unquestioned leader, is a big believer that it’s important to make the team’s ambitions loud and clear.
“We made five years’ worth of changes in five months,” Beisel said. “A big part of that was getting expectations out there, making them loud and clear and then getting everyone on board. But if you don’t put those expectations out there, how do you get everyone working towards a common goal? Now, everyone knows what they have to do to make this a successful season.”
After all, it’s the last chance for the seniors to do something special in black and gold.
“Traditionally, we are winners,” Cheadle said. “These last two seasons have been out of whack for me. Throughout Pop Warner, throughout high school, I’ve never had a losing season until a couple of years ago. There’s definitely a lot of urgency to get back to winning, and I think that will happen this year.”