As Mizzou gets ready to start their season three weeks from Saturday in Columbia, they enter one of the strangest preseason camps in recent college memory.
Let’s start by reiterating that Gary Pinkel has assembled a great football program. Some schools are satisfied to have a good team once in a while, but never do get to the point of consistent greatness. The Tigers have won 40 games in the last four years, tied for seventh most among BCS schools with Texas, LSU and USC. That’s elite company. Last year, despite playing the ninth toughest schedule in America (according to the NCAA), they went 10-3 and appeared in their sixth straight bowl game. The winning record was their sixth in a row, as well.
Along with the team accomplishments, five Tigers have been taken in the first round of the last three NFL drafts, with only Alabama (seven) having more over that period. In addition to the first rounders, Mizzou has produced Falcons safety William Moore, Rams receiver Danario Alexander, Bengals tight end Chase Coffman and Saints backup quarterback Chase Daniel, among others.
This year is going to be strange because after a run of future NFL quarterbacks Brad Smith, Daniel and Gabbert, Mizzou is turning to an unproven performer in James Franklin. Daniel and Gabbert both had a chance to work extensively as understudies to Smith and Daniel, respectively, but Franklin was supposed to get that chance this year. When Gabbert left for the NFL after his junior season, Franklin got the nod after spring practice. Then Franklin’s main competition for the job, Blaine Gabbert’s brother Tyler, left school, leaving Franklin as The Man.
Fortunately, Mizzou returns nine starters on offense and seven on defense. And those six starters that aren’t back are all in NFL training camps. Gabbert and cornerback Kevin Rutland are with Jacksonville, defensive end Aldon Smith was San Francisco’s first rounder, Carl Gettis is with Cleveland, linebacker Andrew Gachkar is in San Diego, and center Tim Barnes is with the Baltimore Ravens.
That means the offensive line has four returning starters, and they’re all good ones in tackles Elvis Fisher and Dan Hoch, and guards Jayson Palmgren and Austin Wuebbels. New starting center Travis Ruth has seen lots of playing time in his freshman and sophomore seasons, and is ready to take over for Barnes. At four of the five offensive line positions, the Tigers have a sophomore or redshirt freshman on the second unit, so Franklin will be familiar with that group as he enters his junior and senior seasons, too.
As always, the Tigers are loaded with receivers. Franklin can be a game manager and still succeed. There are so many playmakers among running backs Kendial Lawrence, De’Vion Moore, Henry Josey, wideouts T.J. Moe, Jerrell Jackson and Wes Kemp and tight end Michael Egnew that if they get their hands on the ball, Mizzou has a chance to score a bunch.
One of the best defenses in the country last year lost a couple of defensive backs, a linebacker and perhaps the best defensive end the program has ever had in Smith. But Smith’s replacement, Brad Madison, had 7.5 sacks and was a second team all-Big 12 performer last season. While Gettis and Rutland were seasoned veterans, Mizzou returns E.J. Gaines, who may be the most talented cornerback Pinkel has ever recruited, and Kip Edwards, who got a ton of playing time in 2010.
Kicker and leading scorer Grant Ressel returns, too. So the pressure is on Franklin. He tried just 14 passes last year, and completed 11 for 106 yards. He also ran 23 times for 122 yards. In high school, he passed for more than 5,000 yards and 40 touchdowns in three seasons, although he saw very little time in his sophomore season. Franklin also rushed for almost 2,800 yards in high school, so his skill set more closely resembles Smith than Daniel or Gabbert.
Pinkel has earned the benefit of the doubt with his program. In addition to his success as a head coach at Mizzou, he has now developed future NFL quarterbacks Mark Brunell, Billy Joe Hobert, Steve Pelluer, Chris Chandler and Hugh Millen at Washington, and Kirk Farmer, Smith, Daniel and Gabbert at Mizzou. He knows how to evaluate quarterbacks, and knows how to develop them.
There’s little doubt that Franklin will be put in the best position to succeed at Mizzou. The schedule will be tough. With the reduction of the conference to 10 teams, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Texas and Texas A&M will be played every year starting in 2011 and this season Arizona State is on the non-conference schedule, too. But with all of that recent success, with all of those returning starters, and with a coach that knows how to win, I have every reason to believe Mizzou will be great once again. There’s just too much evidence for me to believe otherwise.