For the first time in fifteen years, Mizzou’s football team will spend back-to-back years not making a trip to a bowl game.
Barry Odom’s first edition finished strong, picking up wins against Vanderbilt and Arkansas in their final three games, but there are a lot of items to be cleaned up if the Tigers are going to return to bowl form next year. Obviously, recruiting and personnel top the list, but here’s a six-pack of seemingly easy fixes that will make Mizzou football competitive again…
1) Slow down on offense: I LOVE high tempo. I’m a big fan of wearing down a defense by running plays quickly. Mizzou ran a ton of plays, and racked up 292 first downs, sixth in the country, but in running an average of 80.2 plays per game, they were actually TOO fast.
With all those plays, they were second to last in time of possession at just 24 minutes per game. Moving too fast put a vulnerable defense behind the eight ball. The defense couldn’t get off the field on a regular basis, allowing opposing offenses to convert on third down 44.3% of the time. Only 21 of 128 defenses in FBS allowed a higher percentage.
Teams in the top ten in defensive third down efficiency include Michigan, Wisconsin, Louisville, Clemson, Ohio State and Alabama…all of whom went into their final weeks with a chance to be in the four team playoff.
2) Develop consistency: Certainly, undisclosed injuries played a role in the offense’s problems. Quarterback Drew Lock probably wasn’t 100% during the middle part of the season, still finishing eighth nationally in yards (3,399).
The offense was up and down against SEC competition, scoring 27 against Georgia, seven at LSU, fourteen at Florida, 21 against Kentucky and at South Carolina, and then nineteen against Vanderbilt (the defense got one), 37 at Tennessee and 28 against Arkansas. Those performances in early road games need to be eradicated.
Fortunately, the only senior starter on Mizzou’s offense was tight end Sean Culkin. Everyone else should be back. The experience gained in 2016 should benefit the group next season. After head coach Barry Odom took over the defense following the Middle Tennessee State loss…the third in a row allowing 40 or more…the Tigers improved somewhat. They lost key components Terry Beckner Jr. and Michael Sherer but still played better.
Dave Matter of the Post-Dispatch told us last week that Odom plans to keep running the defense, and hopefully his influence will continue to be felt there.
3) Adhere to the key fundamentals: Mizzou needs to cut down on penalties and improve turnover margin. Mizzou committed 6.67 penalties per game, which was 40th most of 128 FBS teams. Too often, and a lack of discipline cost the Tigers.
Another aspect of running so many plays is having so many turnovers. The Tigers lost thirteen fumbles and had ten intercepted. Only five teams in the whole country lost more fumbles. Mizzou was a minus-3 in turnover margin, tied for 83rd in the country. Their 23 turnovers were eclipsed by just nine FBS teams.
Fewer plays will lead to fewer mistakes, fewer turnovers. The defense was 25th in takeaways. Mizzou needs to do a better job of making those takeaways pay off.
4) Improve the kicking game: Cory Fatony and the punt team were good, with a net of 40.35 yards per kick that ranked seventeenth in the country. Freshman Tucker McCann, the top placekicker in the USA as a high school senior, struggled mightily, missing half of his twelve field goal attempts…many turning momentum…and also missing four extra points. McCann and the placekicking game need to be better if the Tigers are going to be better in the SEC.
5) Get close to the defensive prowess that they enjoyed in 2015: After spending most of the season around 100th in total defense and scoring, they finished 117th in yards allowed and 91st in scoring defense, allowing 31.5 points per game. The year before, they were sixth in yards allowed and sixth in scoring defense at 16.2 per game.
Allowing almost twice as many points was devastating, because the offense improved from 13.6 points per game to 31.4. If they can get that points allowed down to 21 and keep the offense perking, they have a chance. Again, this comes back to giving the defense the opportunity to stay off the field for a reasonable amount of time.
6) Get the coaching staff squared away: In Gary Pinkel’s fifteen years at Mizzou, only five coaches (Matt Eberflus, Dave Christiansen, David Yost, Dave Steckel and Bruce Walker, who retired) left his staff. Eberflus took a job in the NFL, Christiansen and Steckel got head coaching jobs, and Yost departed so that Pinkel could freshen up the offense. Four of his coaches stayed with him for his entire fifteen year stay. Odom lost his initial defensive line coach, Chris Wilson, to the NFL before one practice with the Tigers. Odom de-fanged defensive coordinator DeMontie Cross and fired his second D-Line coach, Jackie Shipp during the season.
The head coach needs to find some guys that will stick around and can bring along two-and-three star recruits and turn them into premium players, like Pinkel’s staff did. Mizzou isn’t going to regularly get four-and-five-star high school players, so they need to refine the athletes they bring in. Offensive line coach Glen Ellarbee did a tremendous job. The rest of the staff needs to follow suit.
These fixes should not be that difficult. With as much turmoil as the SEC East is in, Missouri could be right back in the mix next season with some quick and easy fixes. It’s up to Odom and his staff to make it happen. It’ll be interesting to see if they do.