2016 record: 4-8, 2-6 SEC (seventh in Eastern Division)
Projected 2017 record: 7-5, 3-5 SEC
Key starters lost: TE Sean Culkin, DE Charles Harris, LB Michael Scherer, CB Aarion Penton, CB John Gibson, DT Rickey Hatley, LB Donavin Newsom
Key starters returning: QB Drew Lock, WR J’Mon Moore, RT Paul Adams, LT Tyler Howell, LG Kevin Pendleton, RB Damarea Crockett, RB Ish Witter, WR Johnathon Johnson, WR Dimetrios Mason, DE Marcell Frazier, DT A.J. Logan, S Anthony Sherrils, LB Eric Beisel, S Thomas Wilson
Leading the charge
Missouri returns 10 starters from an offense that set a school record for total yards at 500.5 per game, which ranked 13th in the Football Bowl Subdivision. That’s not to say it was the best offense in Tigers history, because consistency was an issue, especially against elite SEC defenses. Mizzou ranked 44th nationally, averaging 446.3 yards per game in conference play. The Tigers also were minus-7 in turnover margin during conference play, which ranked 113th among 128 teams. As much as the defense struggled last season, MU is pinning much of its hopes for a turnaround, including a bowl berth after two seasons without one, on junior quarterback Drew Lock’s right shoulder. He’s continued to grow into offensive coordinator Josh Heupel’s system and is expected to take another huge leap forward in 2017. If he does, look for the Tigers to post some video-game numbers.
Missouri’s defense was among the worst in the country last season and lost its most productive players. Under former defensive coordinator Barry Odom, the Tigers ranked 118th nationally, allowing 479.7 yards per game. Those numbers spiked to a dismal 512.4 yards per game in SEC play. Fixing the defense, which was among the nation’s best under Odom’s tutelage in 2015, his last season as an assistant coach, was among MU’s central offseason challenges. It’s a defense that has to replace defensive end Charles Harris, who led Missouri with nine sacks and 12 tackles for a loss last season and finished second with 61 tackles, and both starting cornerbacks, Aarion Penton and John Gibson. Also gone are linebackers Donavin Newsom, who had a team-high 73 tackles, and Michael Scherer, who had a team-high 53 tackles during the first seven games before a torn ACL ended his career early. The Tigers brought in nine defensive linemen during the offseason, hoping to rebuild depth up front in and believing that’s the quickest way to restore the defense’s roar.
Everybody in the SEC, except Alabama, won at least two games and lost at least two games in conference play last season. The Crimson Tide remain the best team in the conference and the country, but there doesn’t seem to be a great deal of separation among the rest of the SEC. Every team is flawed, which should make for a wide-open race in the Eastern Division. On paper, Georgia is the favorite. Florida is the division’s two-time reigning champ. Tennessee remains formidable after several years of recruiting success. Kentucky and Vanderbilt are trying to build off bowl breakthroughs last season. Still, Missouri has taken the SEC East by surprise before and could again with some luck on the injury front and a favorable schedule, including Auburn, Florida and Tennessee at home.
2017 schedule and predictions
Date, Opponent, Time (TV), W/L
Sept. 2, Missouri State, 11 a.m. (SEC), W
Sept. 9, South Carolina, 6 p.m. (ESPN2), W
Sept. 16, Purdue, 3 p.m. (SEC), W
Sept. 23, Auburn, TBA, L
Oct. 7, at Kentucky, TBA, L
Oct. 14, at Georgia, TBA, L
Oct. 21, Idaho, TBA, W
Oct. 28, at Connecticut, TBA, W
Nov. 4, Florida, TBA, L
Nov. 11, Tennessee, TBA, W
Nov. 18, at Vanderbilt, TBA, W
Nov. 24, at Arkansas, 1:30 p.m. (CBS), L