Chicken-Fried SEC Questions: Will Mizzou Keep Coach Barry Odom?

Here is this week’s platter of Chicken-Fried SEC Questions…

1. What should we make of Mizzou AD Jim Sterk’s latest comments about the job status of second-year football coach Barry Odom?

Not much. But in case anyone missed it, Sterk sounded supportive when discussing Odom with the Columbia Missourian.

“There’s things that could happen, but I expect (Odom) to be back,” Sterk said, before noting Mizzou’s recent improvement.  “I think we’ve played a heck of a lot better the last three games They’re really looking to flip the season, to go 5-1 (in the second half) instead of 1-5. … Overall, the mentality of the team is good and they’re up to the challenge of this second half of the season.”

Sterk also praised Odom’s leadership:  “Barry has made changes in that locker room to make it a more positive situation. I think that people don’t see that part of it and that culture of the team developing.”

The positive comments put some folks in a tizzy, leading to an assumption that Odom will be given a third season despite his current 2-10 record in the SEC and 2-12 mark against Power 5 teams. In the 14 games against Power 5 opponents, Mizzou has been outscored by an average of 17 points.

In Odom’s two seasons, 53.5 percent of the team’s points have been scored in five games against the blood-donor opponents such as Delaware State, Missouri State and Idaho. Mizzou averaged 65 points in those five contests. But in the 14 games against legitimate competition, Mizzou has averaged 23.6 points … including 22.5 points per game against SEC opponents.

Same with MU quarterback Drew Lock.

In the five blood-donor games: 25 touchdowns, 2 interceptions.

In the 14 Power 5 games:  21 touchdowns, 16 interceptions.

Counting every team’s conference games only, Mizzou’s defense has ranks 118th among 125 teams in points allowed per game (43.8), and is 117th in yards allowed per game (505.8)

But Sterk has no reason to be negative now. An athletic director should publicly support his coach … until it’s time not to support the coach and make a change.

The Tigers are losing commitments from good recruits; two more this week. They’re losing paying customers, and you can see that by surveying all of those empty seats at Faurot Field.

Maybe Odom will have a third season. And the more I look at the remaining schedule, the more I believe Odom has a chance to win some games, close relatively strong, and give Sterk a reason to stay the course for 2018.

Thing is, Mizzou has five winnable games the rest of the way: UConn, Tennessee, Florida, Vanderbilt and Arkansas.

UConn has the worst pass defense in the nation, getting strafed for 373 yards a game, and zinged for 20 touchdown passes on the season. (Another cupcake for Drew Lock to pick at.)

Low-scoring Florida has lost two in a row at home going into Saturday’s neutral-site game against No. 3 Georgia, and the program is in turmoil. (More on that later.)

Tennessee is a wreck, going 0-4 in conference games while being outscored 127-36. (Going back to last season the Volunteers have lost eight of 10 in the SEC.) Coach Butch Jones, who almost certainly will be fired soon, suspended his best player, running back Joe Kelly, after an arrest for marijuana possession.

Vanderbilt  is 0-4 in SEC games, and last season’s late momentum has completely faded. Coach Derek Mason, who had built a surprisingly stout defense, has watched his Commodores get busted up for an average of 49.7 points in the four SEC losses.

Arkansas has lost five of six, is 0-4 in the SEC, and coach Bret Bielema is 3-11 in his last 14 against Power 5 teams. Since the start of last season, the Razorbacks are 3-9 in SEC play and the defense has  rolled for an average of 41 points by SEC offenses.

Mizzou is ranked 70th in the current ESPN Football Power Index. But looking at that FPI, UConn is No. 113, Vanderbilt is 75 and Arkansas is 65.  Florida seems wildly overrated to me at No. 29, but Mizzou and the other four opponents  pretty much live in the same neighborhood. And the Florida and Tennessee games are at Mizzou.

So Odom clearly will have a chance to save his job.

But if Missouri can’t come up with a winning record (3-2) over the five-game closing stretch against beatable opponents, then what would that say?

Sterk doesn’t have to make a decision yet.

2. In fairness, isn’t it a bit unreasonable to expect Mizzou to be running smoothly, and winning a bunch of games, in Odom’s second season?

No. Not all. Again, Odom took over a program that was one year removed from having won two consecutive SEC East titles. Gary Pinkel’s team was ranked 5th and 14th nationally in the final AP Poll of the 2013 and 2014 seasons respectively. And despite dealing with a myriad of problems in 2015, the Tigers went 5-7 overall and fielded a defense ranked 5th in the nation by holding opponents to an average of 16.2 points per game. The MU program hadn’t collapsed. Not even close.

This wasn’t a Central Florida situation. The Golden Knights were 0-12 in 2015. They hired a new head coach, Oregon offensive coordinator Scott Frost, who went 6-7 in his first season. This season, in Frost’s second year on the job, UCF is 6-0 and ranked 18th and has a solid chance of earning a place in a New Year’s Six bowl game.

This week’s AP Top 25 includes plenty of teams being coached by guys in their first, second or third seasons:

3-Georgia coach Kirby Smart, 2nd year

5-Wisconsin’s Paul Chryst 3rd

8-Miami Fla. coach Mark Richt, 2nd

10-Oklahoma’s Lincoln Riley, 1st

13-Virginia Tech’s  Justin Fuente, 2nd

17-South Florida’s Charlie Strong, 1st

18- Central Florida’s Scott Frost, 2nd. (0-13)

21-USC’s Clay Helton, 2nd

23-LSU’s Ed Orgeron, 1st

24-Memphis coach Mike Norvell, 2nd

Any more questions on Mizzou’s progress under Odom?

Didn’t think so. Let’s move to another topic.

3. Is head coach Jim McElwain in trouble at Florida?

He could be, despite having won the SEC East in his first two seasons. But Year Three has been a mess. Florida is trending downward, having gone 4-5 since late last season. McElwain’s strength is supposed to be offense, and that’s the top reason why he got the gig. But the Gators rank 95th among the 130 FBS teams with a scoring average of 23.7 points per game. Florida doesn’t have a quarterback who can move the chains and put plenty of points on the board.

Florida has passed for only 5 touchdowns this season. West Virginia quarterback Will Grier, who McElwain ran off, has    thrown 5 touchdown passes in three different games   this year, and has thrown for 26 touchdowns overall (seven games.)

Fans have turned on because they’re tired of the dud offense.

It’s also getting weird down there. During a news conference, McElwain claimed he and his family and his players had received death threats.

Florida’s University Athletic Association responded to McElwain’s claim by issuing a cold statement that expressed no support.

“The University Athletic Association takes the safety of our student-athletes, coaches, staff and families very seriously. Our administration met with Coach McElwain this afternoon, and he offered no additional details.”

Wow.

The UAA was alarmed because students (players) were allegedly the target of threats, as was the coach and his family. Did specific Florida players need protection from law enforcement? Is the coach’s family safe?  McElwain wouldn’t divulge any information. If you were running the University, wouldn’t this anger you?

During the week, McElwain resisted multiple opportunities to explain the nature of the threats when asked followup questions by the media. He dodged instead.

Gee … you don’t think the coach may have spoken with forked tongue to garner sympathy? McElwain wouldn’t do that. *Cough … cough.

Wednesday, probably sensing that he’d ticked off his bosses, McElwain elaborated — but only slightly, saying that the threats happened in the past and were anonymous. But he still declined to confirm or deny if the threats were directed at him or his family or players.

McElwain didn’t seem  pleased with the statement made by the school’s Athletic Association:

“Yeah, you know, I don’t really quite understand what even the statement was,” McElwain said. “We visited with [athletic director Scott Stricklin and executive associate AD for internal affairs Laird Veatch] and, yeah, they were really good and supportive.”

Some in the media are speculating that McElwain is quietly looking for another job. Others have suggested McElwain violated his contract by alleging the death threats but refusing to offer details to his employers. If the contract was violated, Florida wouldn’t have to pay off McElwain’s huge buyout.

Here’s Matt Hayes   writing for   Saturday Down South:

“The university — because it legally must protect its coaches, students and employees from harm — asked for evidence. McElwain declined.

“I’m actually shocked Florida hasn’t already fired McElwain.

“If you can’t trust the man you’re paying nearly $5 million a year to run your football program, it’s time to move on to someone else. Here’s the irony in this bizarre ordeal: Whether or not McElwain wants to leave, he might have just given Florida the ammunition to make it happen – and not pay a $12 million buyout.”

4. Alabama and Georgia are obviously the top two powerhouses in the SEC. But eight weeks into the season, who’s the third-best SEC team?

Great question. Not easy to answer except for dismissing the rest of the teams in the mediocre SEC East, who aren’t in Georgia’s class.

So we have to look to the West … at Auburn, LSU, Mississippi State and Texas A&M.

Auburn is 6-2 overall, 4-1 in the SEC and was ranked 10th in the nation three weeks ago. A close loss at Clemson was an honorable defeat, but Auburn lost credibility by squandering a 20-point lead to go down at LSU. But that impressive win doesn’t automatically give the thumbs-up to LSU as the third-best SEC team. Not after the Bayou Bengals lost a home game to Troy of the Sun Belt conference on Oct. 1st.

That said, LSU (6-2, 3-1 in the SEC) has recovered nicely with a three-game winning streak that consumed Florida, Auburn and Ole Miss. And the LSU offense got a significant turbo boost with the return of game-breaking running back Derrius Guice from a knee injury.

I wouldn’t rule out Texas A&M (5-2 overall, 3-1 in SEC.) Yeah, that season-opening loss to UCLA was a horror show, with the Aggies somehow allowing a 34-point lead to melt away  … but A&M  has lost only once since then, and played Alabama tougher than anyone else, losing a competitive game by 8 points. I believe Mississippi State (5-2, and 2-2 in the SEC) is underrated, but we will know more after visiting Mississippi State and LSU tangle Saturday in College Station.

Despite the horrible collapse at LSU, I’d still have to go with Auburn as the third-best team right now. The defense is tough, the offense can run it, and when Guz Malzahn doesn’t coach scared (as he did at LSU) and permits quarterback Jarrett Stidham to open things up, War Eagle has a potent passing game.

For whatever it’s worth, ESPN’s FPI has Auburn ranked 9th in the nation … the only other SEC team in the Top 10 with Bama and Georgia. And with Auburn having upcoming games against Georgia and Alabama — both at home — the Tigers will have a chance to declare themselves.

5. If a vote was held today, would Kirby Smart win the national Coach of the Year Award?

Absolutely, yes.

In my opinion, anyway.

That could change. But up to now, no one has done a better job than Smart, who has guided his alma mater Georgia to a 6-0 record record and the No. 3 AP ranking. And the Dawgs have gotten there with a true freshman quarterback, Jake Fromm, who wasn’t the starter until Jacob Eason went down with a knee injury early in the opening game.

Smart was an excellent defensive coordinator for Nick Saban at Alabama, so it’s no surprise to see Georgia yielding only 12.6 points per game, fourth-best in the nation. The rushing attack keyed by Nick Chubb and Sony Michel is formidable, ranking second in the SEC at 283 ground yards per game. The young quarterback Fromm has been terrific. The Dawgs earned big-time credibility with a 20-19 road win at Notre Dame. And Georgia has won its four SEC games by an average of 31 points, and that’s even better than ‘Bama.

Should Georgia falter, there are plenty of worthy candidates to consider including  Frost at Central Florida, James Franklin at Penn State, Brian Kelly at Notre Dame, Gary Patterson at TCU, Mark Richt at Miami, Mike Leach at Washington State, and sleeper candidate Dave Doeren at NC State.

6. What’s the Alabama Domination Stat of the Week?

In rushing out to a 5-0 start n SEC action, Alabama (8-0 overall) has wiped out four of five opponents with Texas A&M being the exception. The Tide have outscored conference citizens by a preposterous 238-38 margin, and only A&M has scored 10 or more points.  According to the SEC, Alabama’s victory margin is the largest in SEC history through five conference games. The schedule won’t be as easy starting next week (after this week’s bye.) The Tide will face games against LSU, Mississippi State and Auburn still loom large. Oh, yeah … Alabama has won 20 consecutive SEC games and by an average score of 38 to 13.

7. What is the subtle buzz we’re hearing about Mississippi State head coach Dan Mullen?

Conference gossips whisper that head Dan Mullen could be eyeing a departure from Mississippi State, and could relocate in the conference. Tennessee will have an opening, sure. But should McElwain and Florida administrators decide to file for divorce, Mullen would be a very popular pick among the Gator faithful. Mullen was the offensive coordinator at Florida on Urban Meyer’s staff, and was credited for developing Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Tim Tebow. Mullen has an outstanding mind for offense and a magic touch with quarterbacks. Many Florida fans wanted Mullen to take over before the university hired Will Muschamp in 2011 and McElwain in 2015. And there’s this: Florida AD Scott Stricklin was formerly the AD at Mississippi State and has a great relationship with Mullen.

Thanks for reading …

–Bernie

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