Missouri’s season opener at West Virginia has arrived and with it the first career start for several players on Barry Odom’s inaugural team.
“I’ve probably never played in front of a crowd bigger than 5,000 people,” junior left tackle Tyler Howell said.
Howell sat out last season when he was academically ineligible to enroll at Mizzou for the fall of 2015 and had exhausted his eligibility at Butler (Kan.) Community College, where he played two seasons after graduating from Bonner Springs.
He’s hardly alone on the Tigers’ offensive line in prepping for his first start before an expected crowd of close to 60,000 at Milan Puskar Stadium in Morgantown, W.Va.
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“I’ve been looking at pictures of the place, trying to see what it’s going to look like so I won’t be too startled when I first walk into the stadium,” said sophomore right tackle Paul Adams, who played 40 snaps down the stretch last season. “It’s going to be a fun experience for all of us.”
The Mountaineers have played in a bowl game 13 of the last 14 seasons and represent a tough test, but Howell insists he’s ready for the challenge.
“I definitely don’t have any doubt,” Howell said when asked if he was ready to assume a starting role. “Our strength staff and our coaches have put us on the best position to be successful. They wouldn’t put us out there if they knew we weren’t ready.”
Still, Morgantown can be a hectic place for even savvy veterans, like senior running back Alex Ross. He played at West Virginia during his time at Oklahoma before graduating and transferring to Missouri last spring.
“Morgantown is pretty crazy,” Ross said. “I’m not gonna lie. Just run after the game. The fans are kind of crazy.”
Adams has been warned.
“I’ve heard that you should keep your helmet on at all times,” he said. “I’ve heard they throw batteries. I don’t even know that it’s true.”
Sophomore Kevin Pendleton also will be making his first career start. His mother, Aquilla Pendleton, will drive up from Alabama for the game.
“All I can do is go back to my high school days, because that’s the last time I started an actual football game,” he said. “It will be exciting. I can’t wait.”
Now, onto your questions:
I’m more optimistic than most as I’ve learned in recent weeks, discussing the upcoming season with my media chums. For more insight about the reasons for optimism (apparently!), listen to my podcasts about Missouri’s offense and another centered on the Tigers’ defense.
Bottom line: I think people are undervaluing how fractured the team was last season, undervaluing the talent on Mizzou’s roster and underestimating first-year coach Barry Odom’s savvy, so I think 7-5 is a reasonable expectation. I’m not telling you to be disappointed if the team goes 6-6 and returns to a bowl game, but I think the 2016 Tigers are capable of more than that.
Let’s assume, for argument’s sake that, that the five toughest games on Missouri’s schedule are Georgia (Sept. 17), at LSU (Oct. 1), at Florida (Oct. 15), at Tennessee (Nov. 19) and Arkansas (Nov. 25) since those are the five teams on the schedule currently ranked or receiving votes in the preseason The Associated Press poll.
Finishing 6-6 probably means the Tigers, lose all of those games plus the opener at West Virginia, one of three non-conference games against non-Power Five teams or a game against Vanderbilt, Kentucky or South Carolina. That, in my estimation, would be disappointing — and I don’t think it will happen. If anything, I think Missouri is more likely to surprise folks. The beautiful thing is that my opinion, the polls and all these expectations — lofty and low — mean nothing once kickoff arrives at 11 a.m. Saturday in Morgantown.
It’s worth noting, I’m not the only one who’s optimistic …
There were lots of Marvin Zanders/QB reps question …
New offensive coordinator Josh Heupel didn’t call me Friday morning to break down the game plan, so this is mostly (somewhat informed and hopefully not reckless) speculation. Last week, I would have said toughly a 70/30 split with sophomore Drew Lock getting the majority of the reps. After media availability Monday and Tuesday, I think Lock will take even more reps, perhaps closer to an 85/15 split, but I could have totally misread things and it winds up being 50/50 — though I’d be absolutely stunned by that.
Based on Odom’s comment about Lock’s growth during fall camp coupled with Lock’s experience last season, something Odom values greatly, I think he’s the clear No. 1. As such, in what’s expected to be a close game, Mizzou probably sticks with its top guy more often than not. If it were an FCS opponent, obviously it would be different. If Lock comes out and turns the ball over on the first two drives, obviously things could change. But I think it’s going to be Lock’s show this week.
I think it would be tough for the defense to be as good as last season, when it finished top six in the nation in total defense, passing defense and scoring defense. But it should remain among the upper echelon of the FBS, especially if the offense can provide more rest during the game by sustaining drives.
As for the offense, quite frankly, it can’t get worse than last season, so it probably evens out a bit. Lost in the discussion is that fact that the Tigers’ special teams — Andrew Baggett and Corey Fatony aside — were terrible last season, especially on kickoff return and kickoff coverage. Gains in those areas, which Odom is personally overseeing, also could yield benefit both sides of the ball.
For my own safety, I have to say Odom, because, if I don’t and he catches wind of it, there’s no doubt who wins Barry Odom v. Tod Palmer. Did you see highlights from his playing days of the guy all bandaged up and making leaping tackles? He’s a legitimately gritty guy. Now, I’m from Raytown and might fight dirty too, but I’m going to stick with Odom. After all … wait for it … toughness wins.
Try the veal. Tip you bartenders and waitresses. Thank you, and good night.