Missouri isn’t getting ready for a conference championship game and is not involved in any major-bowl conversations. Don’t look for the Tigers in any poll this week.
But as the regular season draws to a close for most teams, few feel better about their season than a Mizzou squad that improved to 7-5 with Friday’s 48-45 triumph at Arkansas.
What Missouri accomplished — winning its final six after starting 1-5 — is stunning enough. According to the school, the Tigers are the 10th FBS program to make such improvement.
To remember what Mizzou was in September and think a bowl team could rise from that wreckage would require a type of optimism and faith that had no basis. Barry Odom was a second year coach with no previous experience leading a program. There were nice pieces on the team, but Mizzou early on was living down to its seventh-place division pick in the preseason SEC poll.
There was trouble from the start. Surrendering 43 points — 35 in the first half! — in the opener against Missouri State sounded the first alarm, and after no-show performances at home against Purdue and Auburn it was time to explore the hiring history of athletic director Jim Sterk because surely Odom wasn’t going to make it to a third season.
Odom defiantly argued otherwise.
“I want to get one thing real straight,” Odom opened the postgame rant after Auburn. “I’m going to win here.”
Sure he was. Odom went on to identify the successful years of former Tigers coach Larry Smith and Gary Pinkel and tossed out some caution: “It’s a turnaround. I don’t like it. I want to win right now. But that’s not the hand I’m given.”
Who knew, but the change in fortune could be traced to that moment because it was the first impression made after the lousy impression left by the Auburn performance. Wonderfully passionate and perhaps a bit over the top, but Odom poured out his heart.
That’s also when Missouri found a pulse. Outcomes didn’t change, but effort did, and Mizzou stopped embarrassing itself. The Tigers gave themselves a chance at Kentucky and traded punches with fourth-ranked Georgia for longer than expected.
At this point, the schedule downshifted with contests against Idaho and Connecticut. For the sake of a team’s rhythm and fan interest, midseason isn’t the ideal spot for any non-conference foes, much less far-flung ones, but they proved to be precisely what Missouri needed, confidence-building blowouts.
It seemed like about every other Drew Lock completion went for a touchdown. Among running backs, Ish Witter remained a threat and Larry Rountree stepped in when Damarea Crockett went down with an injury.
With Lock, now the SEC and school record holder with 43 touchdown passes this season, the offense always had the ability to unleash. Defense seemed too dysfunctional to ever be impactful and complete Missouri.
The first major statement came after the second game, when Odom fired coordinator DeMontie Cross after stripping him of play-calling duties last season. Some close to the program said this move needed to occur, although the early results weren’t encouraging.
But the firing, along with some depth-chart shuffling — especially in the secondary — the return of nose guard A.J. Logan from NCAA suspension and the solid all-around play of tackle Terry Beckner Jr., strengthened the Tigers up front.
The stage was set for what must be among the most satisfying stretches since Mizzou joined the SEC. Wrecking two-time division champion Florida, Tennessee and Vanderbilt, then outscoring the Razorbacks gave the Tigers their first four-game league winning streak since the second division title team of 2014. Only Vandy coach Derek Mason still has his job.
So does the coach whose seat was hot after the season’s first month. No burns now as the Tigers will have a few weeks to prepare for a bowl game and revel in this most remarkable season.
Here’s something else for Odom to consider. As he said after the Auburn game, it was was a turnaround job, and it came with some unusual circumstances. The campus protests of two years ago cost Missouri enrollment and in reputation. The school changed athletic directors before Odom ever coached a game. Plus he became the first Missouri coach to take over an SEC football program, with all the pressure and expectations that come with coaching in a conference where, “It just means more.”
If he could approach the early results of more seasoned coaches like Smith and Pinkel perhaps Odom would find his place, but that didn’t seem possible as October began.
Two months later, Odom has guided his program into a bowl game. It took Smith four years for that accomplishment and Pinkel three. Odom was more than passionate and heartfelt after the Auburn game. He was right. He won at Missouri.