As intensely anticipated as Mizzou’s last football season was because it was MU’s inaugural one in the Southeastern Conference, what the Tigers do in 2013 is far more crucial and pivotal to the future of the program.
It’s always win or else in college football, coach Gary Pinkel will tell you.
But that’s intensified to red alert after the 5-7 (and 2-6 SEC record) thud in 2012.
Frustrating as it was for all concerned, Pinkel absolutely had earned a mulligan.
Even if the program arguably peaked several years ago, when the Tigers went 22-6 in 2007 and 2008, Pinkel had resuscitated it from a lost generation and had gone a respectable 26-13 from 2009 to 2011.
Besides, as if adjusting to the SEC wasn’t enough of a fresh challenge in itself, MU had one of the thorniest schedules in the nation (including Arizona State and Central Florida) and injuries ravaged the offensive line and straitjacketed quarterback James Franklin.
That left it difficult to assess where the program really was, and even where it is entering 2013.
The Tigers were thrashed three times (South Carolina, Alabama and Texas A&M), won three games they could well have lost (Arizona State, Central Florida and Tennessee) and lost three games they could well have won (Vanderbilt, Florida, Syracuse).
They led Georgia 20-17 late in the third quarter before Franklin turnovers led to a 41-20 defeat that misleadingly made it look like a physical mismatch.
So was MU closer to an unlucky 8-4 team or a fortunate 2-10 one?
Whatever the case was, this is clear now:
Pinkel has to produce this season, which is why you’re likely to hear athletics director Mike Alden use words like “urgency” and “accountability” and “investment” when he talks about the program.
The ultimate justification of the move to the SEC, after all, hinges on success in football, and heaps of Mizzou’s ongoing $200 million investment in renovations has been dedicated to that.
Hence, investment and urgency and accountability.
Just what the baseline for Pinkel may not be entirely clear, but the only gray area likely will be a sliver of space.
Win seven regular-season games or more, which would mean at least three SEC wins, and the program appears somewhere between stable and revived and the argument for continuity at least for the moment is settled.
But a repeat of last season’s 5-7 or worse probably doesn’t cut it.
As for 6-6, it probably depends on what six in each category and how a few of them came about.
So what awaits?
It would prime the pump nicely, of course, if MU can blast off to the 5-0 start its schedule is built for.
Still, beyond the fodder of FCS foe Murray State and Arkansas State of the Sun Belt Conference, there are potential potholes in that early stretch.
Toledo, Pinkel’s former employer, is from the Mid-American Conference, which has planted some upsets on MU.
And the Rockets can play: They’re 26-13 the last three years with a win at Purdue in 2010, a near-upset at Ohio State in 2011 (27-22) and an overtime loss at Arizona and a win over then-No. 18 Cincinnati last year.
There also is no assurance of a road win at Indiana, which was only 4-8 last season but looks to be on the rise under second-year coach Kevin Wilson, who guided his first team to four times as many wins as the one he inherited.
The Hoosiers also have bedeviled Mizzou in modern history, going 6-0-2 against MU between 1985 and 1992.
The Tigers also have no apparent layup in their SEC opener at Vanderbilt, which went 9-4 and 5-3 last season, including the 19-15 win at Mizzou.
For all that, though, Mizzou likely will be favored in each before playing Vandy, against which Franklin moved MU 123 yards on two series before getting hurt last season.
So 5-0 would be viable — and valuable.
Lose any of those, and MU will be hard-pressed to find its way to seven wins.
The rest of October features a trip to Georgia and home games against Florida and South Carolina. Along with Texas A&M and Johnny Manziel, who will visit MU for the regular-season finale, each is in the pre-season top 10.
And Pinkel is just 2-18 against top 10 teams at Mizzou.
Not all of those necessarily still will be in the top 10 when they meet MU, of course, with A&M seeming particularly vulnerable because of the NCAA’s scrutiny of Manziel.
But if history holds, that means the other November games, home against Tennessee and at Kentucky (MU’s only two SEC wins last season, and each with new coaches) and at Mississippi (7-6, 3-5 a year ago) will swing the season and the very direction of Mizzou football.
The gut feeling from here only goes so far:
Mizzou opens 4-1, losing either at Indiana or Vanderbilt, loses three straight to fall to 4-4, wins two out of three and plays A&M in a game with momentous stakes that could go either way depending on developments between now and then.