(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.)
Missouri’s four-year run in the Southeastern Conference has been bookended by great valleys and impressive peaks.
The Tigers endured a pair of bowl-less 5-7 campaigns sandwiched around two trips to the SEC Championship Game, but there might be some middle ground coming in 2016.
Gary Pinkel’s retirement against the backdrop of a player boycott that threatened to cancel a game with BYU last November at Arrowhead Stadium ushered in the Barry Odom era.
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Odom — a former Mizzou player and long-time assistant coach under Pinkel, who won the most games as a coach in program history — was the architect of a one of the nation’s top defenses last season.
Defense again will be the backbone as the Tigers hope new offensive coordinator Josh Heupel and sophomore quarterback Drew Lock can spur the offense back to respectability.
Returning to a bowl game seems like a reasonable and attainable goal for Mizzou.
It’s also the bare minimum for Odom, who hasn’t been shy about the fact he believes the program ought to regularly compete for championships — not only in the SEC East, but in the conference and country.
It’s a lofty ambition, but why aim low? Even if a division title might be tough with resurgent powers at Florida and Tennessee, don’t be stunned if Mizzou forces itself into the race.
The Tigers averaged only 13.6 points game last season, which ranked next to last in the Football Bowl Subdivision and was 1.6 points worse than any other offense from a Power Five conference. If Mizzou had managed 24 points per game last season, which still only would have ranked 99th among 128 FBS teams, it’s possible Pinkel would have fielded a 10-win team.
That fuels hope for a quick turnaround under Odom, whose defense lost a few key players — linebacker Kentrell Brothers, who led the nation in tackles; defensive end Walter Brady, a Freshman All-American who was dismissed before fall camp; and two multiyear starters in the secondary in cornerback Kenya Dennis and free safety Ian Simon — but still returns a boatload of talent.
Massive things are expected from junior defensive end Charles Harris, a Lincoln Prep graduate who finished second in the SEC with 18 1/2 tackles for a loss last season and projects as a possible first-round NFL Draft pick.
Repeating last season’s remarkable performance — a top-six national ranking in scoring defense, total defense and passing defense — might not be in the cards, but Missouri’s defense surely will remain a force.
Lock struggled mightily last season, but he’s been remade both physically and from a confidence standpoint under Heupel’s tutelage. He’ll need help from an offensive line that ranked 101st in FBS last season, according to FootballOutsiders.com’s adjusted calculations.
Missouri also must get better in the return game, both for kickoffs and punts, and improve its coverage units if it hopes to make a leap in Odom’s first season.
Sophomore punter Corey Fatony, a Freshman All-American, is back after a sensational debut season, but the Tigers have a new kicker — likely freshman Tucker McCann — who might need time to settle in as Andrew Baggett’s replacement.