(Editor’s note: This story is part of The Star’s annual football preview, which will appear in three special sections in the Sunday, Aug. 28 print edition and also on KansasCity.com and The Star’s Red Zone Extra app.)
2015 record: 5-7, 1-7 SEC (tied for sixth in Eastern Division)
Projected 2016 record: 7-5, 4-4 SEC
Key starters lost: LT Connor McGovern, C Evan Boehm, RB Russell Hansbrough, LB Kentrell Brothers, FS Ian Simon
Key starters returning: QB Drew Lock, RB Ish Witter, DE Charles Harris, LB Michael Scherer, CB Aarion Penton, SS Anthony Sherrils
Leading the charge
MU’s defense was among the nation’s best last season, ranking in the top six among Football Bowl Subdivision teams in scoring defense, total defense and passing defense. Junior defensive end Charles Harris, a Lincoln Prep graduate, finished second in the SEC with 18 1/2 tackles for a loss last season. Senior linebacker Michael Scherer is one of two returning SEC linebackers with 90-plus tackles each of the last two seasons. The Tigers also return all-conference caliber players in the secondary in senior cornerback Aarion Penton and junior strong safety Anthony Sherrils. Still, Mizzou’s strength remains its front four, with an impressive rotation of defensive tackles — seniors Rickey Hatley and Josh Augusta, junior A.J. Logan and sophomore Terry Beckner Jr. — and enough depth at defensive end to withstand sophomore Walter Brady’s dismissal.
It’s no secret that Missouri’s offense struggled last season. Thrust into a starting role after Maty Mauk’s repeated suspensions, quarterback Drew Lock — now a sophomore — was in over his head during SEC play. Compounding matters, the offensive line struggled, the run game was absent and the Tigers’ young receivers too often failed to get open. Under new offensive coordinator Josh Heupel, expectations are ramped up for an offense that finished 113th or worse in scoring, total offense, rushing and passing. Perhaps just as important, Mizzou needs massive improvement in special teams. First-year coach Barry Odom views upgrading the special teams to be so important, he’s overseeing them himself.
Missouri’s defense might not be as dominant as last season, but it should again be a decided strength for Odom’s crew. He’s passed the reins largely to new defensive coordinator DeMontie Cross (and co-defensive coordinator/safeties coach Ryan Walters), but the scheme and personnel aren’t changing much. The Tigers need better offensive line play, especially with a renewed emphasis on the power-running game. If the front five can create rushing lanes, Ish Witter and a mostly new stable of running backs ought to churn out yards. That should allow Lock to fulfill his potential in the passing game. Missouri isn’t generating much preseason buzz, but that was true when Gary Pinkel-led teams stormed Atlanta for consecutive SEC Championship Games. With a few breaks, the Tigers aim to be a surprise contender again.
Blair Kerkhoff’s projection
at West Virginia
at S. Carolina