Barry Odom walked into a room a floor below his office in the Mizzou Athletic Training Complex on Oct. 15, a Sunday night after his team’s 53-28 loss at Georgia. It was the Tigers’ fifth straight defeat, and the second-year head coach was ready to set something ablaze.
As he addressed a team that hadn’t won a game since its season opener, he began to fill a cooler with scouting reports, game plans and printouts of social media criticism of the team’s recent play. Then he poured lighter fluid on it all and lit it up.
The message was clear. The first half of the season was a mess, but it was in the past. The team had to move on if it wanted to salvage the remainder of the season.
Treating the second half of a season as a season of its own is an often-used cliche in sports, but Odom’s delivery was especially dramatic … and also more effective. His team went on to win its next six games to clinch bowl eligibility and finish the regular season 7-5.
On Wednesday, Missouri will have a chance to become only the second college football team to start 1-5 and finish with eight wins when it plays Texas in the Texas Bowl.
Missouri’s players aren’t surprised by the program’s quick “turnaround” — a phrase Odom used in a postgame news conference after the team’s loss to Auburn, although at the time he seemed to use it in hopes of buying him more years worth of patience, not games.
But one burning cooler, a closed-door meeting and an improbable win streak later, the Tigers enter Wednesday’s game 60 minutes away from history.
To offensive lineman Kevin Pendleton, this three-play sequence is “the collapse” of the season.
After a season-opening 72-43 win over Missouri State, which raised questions about the team’s defense, Missouri had a chance to grab some early momentum against South Carolina, a tough team that the Tigers seemed capable of hanging with.
For a while, they did.
Early in the second quarter, junior quarterback Drew Lock found tight end Jason Reese for a 61-yard touchdown on a play-action pass. Missouri had a 10-0 lead and the defense was getting stops.
That didn’t last for long.
Gamecocks wide receiver Deebo Samuel took the ensuing kick return 97 yards for a touchdown. On Missouri’s next drive, Lock was picked off on the first play, and Samuel scored again for South Carolina on the play immediately following the interception.
In a 30-second span Missouri went from leading 10-0 to trailing 14-10. The Tigers’ offense only mustered a field goal the rest of the way, and Missouri lost 31-13.
“A mature team at that point comes in and says ‘Hey, wake the hell up and let’s go,’” Pendleton said. “But we weren’t there. All of us. Both sides of the ball, special teams, we weren’t there. We weren’t mature enough to do that. That was really a red flag there.”
Missouri would lose 35-3 to Purdue the following week in a game the Tigers never looked fully bought in to. The Tigers lost their next game to Auburn 51-14, which was when Odom delivered his “turnaround” speech to the media.
In it, Odom promised he was going to win at Missouri and that it doesn’t always happen overnight.
The Tigers went into the bye week with Odom’s job security dwindling. Would Missouri win another game this season?
“That’s when we were like, we have to turn this thing around,” wide receiver Emanuel Hall said.
Missouri started its off week with a players-only meeting. They talked about the team’s first four games and what went wrong. Everyone’s main takeaway: The team was playing as if it expected to win and didn’t handle adversity well.
“Our captains really took charge,” tight end Kendall Blanton said. “We had guys from juniors all the way through freshman stand up. The freshmen called out some stuff that they’ve seen since they’ve been here. That as a whole is what builds a good team. Leadership all the way down is what really started picking us up.”
At the team meeting, senior linebacker Eric Beisel, a captain, said the message was that the Tigers needed to take control of their destiny.
To the players, the meeting yielded immediate results on the practice field.
“We were practicing like we had something to play for even though we had no game,” Pendleton said.
“It felt like everyone was against us,” Hall added.
Missouri would lose its next two games against Kentucky and Georgia, which prompted Odom’s trash burning, but the team showed significant improvement in both games.
The Tigers nearly beat Kentucky but lost 40-34. Officials failed to stop the clock when a Kentucky player knocked the ball out of wideout J’Mon Moore’s hands following a completion during Missouri’s final drive.
While Missouri played its best in weeks in Lexington, the players said the game’s ending left a sour taste in their mouths. After getting blown out the past few games, the team left Kentucky confident that they would win again.
“It kind of showed that we can do it,” offensive tackle Paul Adams said.
Missouri’s offense scored 28 points against Georgia, the most a team had scored against the Bulldogs to that point.
After Odom’s speech the following night, players took a look at the remaining schedule. A bowl game was still possible.
“This is very doable,” Adams recalled thinking. “At that point not everyone was playing so well, but we just took advantage of what we saw.”
Missouri also got back an important player after the Georgia game. Fifth-year senior A.J. Logan, a senior nose tackle, was suspended the first six games of the season for a violation of team rules.
Logan helped a defensive line that had been playing below program standards the first half of the season. He ate up blocks, helping Missouri’s defense combine for 10 sacks in its next two games, six of which came from Terry Beckner Jr. and Marcell Frazier.
Missouri beat Idaho and Connecticut handedly.
“There’s a whole new season right now,” Beckner said.
Adams said the players felt as though the team’s two wins in October weren’t a fair measure of their progress because they were non-conference opponents.
Missouri hosted Florida on Nov. 4, a team that was going through its own struggles and recently fired its coach, Jim McElwain.
Again, Lock was picked off on the opening drive, but the defense was up to the challenge of stopping Gators quarterback Malik Zaire and held Florida scoreless through the first quarter.
In the second quarter, running backs Larry Rountree III and Ish Witter each scored a touchdown, and senior safety Anthony Sherrils picked off Zaire to set up another Rountree score.
As Missouri lead 28-3 going into halftime, some conversations began on the Missouri sideline.
“This is how we’re supposed to play,” Pendleton said. “That’s literally what it was.”
Missouri would go on to beat Florida and Tennessee, which led to the firing of Vols coach Butch Jones. The Tigers headed to Nashville for a game against Vanderbilt with a chance at clinching bowl eligibility.
Throughout the season, Odom had preached the idea of going 1-0 each week, to break the season into pieces when he felt the team wasn’t ready to handle big picture conversations.
On a young team that includes players from successful high school programs that compete for titles ever year, the concept was easier said than done earlier in the season.
“We matured,” said Pendleton, a Lee’s Summit West graduate. “In that three-to-four-week span right after the bye week we matured a lot. We had to trust our coaches. We had to trust what they were telling us. It was tough to do. Going into Vandy I was like, let’s get this win, let’s be bowl eligible but you have to dial it down and just focus on that one game.”
Missouri would beat the Commodores 45-17, clinching its first bowl berth in three years. On Black Friday, the Tigers would beat Arkansas, ending the regular season on a six-game winning streak.
The second half of the season turned Lock and Beckner, two heralded recruits who came to Columbia from opposites sides of the state, into potential NFL Draft picks after their strong season. Lock set the SEC record for passing touchdowns in a season on his way to all-conference honors. Beckner piled up seven sacks, which showed he’s moved on from two knee injuries.
Beckner has already announced he’s returning for his senior season at Missouri.
The Tigers enter the Texas Bowl on Wednesday hungry to finish off what has already been an improbable run, with Odom’s message still ringing long after the cooler’s contents stopped burning.