Qualifying for a bowl game is the primary achievable goal remaining for Missouri in Barry Odom’s inaugural season.
It’s also one Odom doesn’t shy away from.
“I absolutely talk about (bowl eligibility),” he said Monday during his weekly news conference. “I think it’s good to have goals. It’s important for us to know what is still out there.”
Hopes for an SEC East division title evaporated during the first half of the season, but the Tigers, 2-4 overall and 0-3 in the conference, still can make the postseason.
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“That’s the goal every season,” junior defensive end Marcell Frazier said, “so it’s been on my mind since we didn’t go to a bowl game last year. That’s been my goal the whole offseason, going to a bowl game.”
Mizzou — which went 5-7 last fall but hasn’t had back-to-back losing seasons since 2001-02, Gary Pinkel’s first two years in Columbia — doesn’t even want to think about the alternative.
Asked Monday how crushing it would be to miss out on bowl eligibility for a second straight season, senior linebacker Michael Scherer paused for a moment, cocked his head to the side with a Cheshire Cat grin, then turned his back on the reporter asking the question without saying a word.
Fortunately, other MU players were more loquacious on the subject, explaining that bowl games are akin to a birthright in the program.
“It’s the expectation,” junior right guard Alec Abeln said. “We’re here at Mizzou — you go to bowl games, you play in bowl games, you win bowl games.”
After back-to-back appearances in the SEC Championship Game in 2013 and 2014, the Tigers slipped below .500 a year ago and are entering the defining stretch of the 2016 season to avoid a similar fate.
“Just looking at the schedule, we knew this would kind of be the easier chunk of the schedule,” said Frazier, who made five tackles with a fumble recovery and a pass breakup in his first start of the season Saturday at Florida. “It’s a very winnable four games, so it’s very important.”
The next four games — home games against Middle Tennessee (Saturday), Kentucky (Oct. 29) and Vanderbilt (Nov. 12) with a trip to South Carolina (Nov. 5) mixed in — almost certainly will determine Mizzou’s bowl fate.
“We’ve been told these are the four games — if we really want to make it to a bowl, which we do — these are the four games we have to shine in,” sophomore right tackle Paul Adams said. “We can’t have any hiccups. If we do have a hiccup, we have to make up for it in our last two (at No. 18 Tennessee and versus No. 17 Arkansas). Personally, I want to go 6-0 in the next six games, and I’m sure everyone on the team does as well.”
MU wraps up the season Nov. 19 at Tennessee and Nov. 25 versus Arkansas.
“We have six games left, so obviously we would like to go 6-0, but yeah, sure, the next four games are ones we should probably win,” Abeln said.
Missouri’s four losses — at West Virginia, LSU and Florida and against Georgia — are against teams with a combined 18-6 record. All four teams currently are ranked or were ranked when Mizzou played them, including three road losses.
Of course, that’s ancient history now and will become a footnote if the Tigers can rally during the second half of the season and salvage some respect.
“It would mean a lot,” Scherer said in response to an earlier question. “It’s another game that myself and the rest of the seniors get to play in a Missouri uniform. Those are dwindling down, so to have an extra one would be awesome.”
Senior wide receiver Chris Black was used to chasing national championships at Alabama before opting to use the graduate-student transfer rule and finish his eligibility at Mizzou.
“It is (a different feeling),” Black said before turning his attention to Mizzou’s upcoming schedule. “It’s very critical, but we’ve just got to finish strong. Coach talked about continuing to hold onto the rope and not letting go. That’s what we’ve got to do as a team.”