This is pretty much the story of Mizzou’s tenure in the SEC. Despite winning the past two SEC East titles, pretty much no one is picking them to three-peat. That’s not new territory either considering nobody picked them to win last year…or the year before that. One thing’s for sure though, Missouri has performed in this role before and they will be a dangerous team again in 2015.
Maty Mauk is a pretty difficult guy to figure out, and it’s a big reason why Missouri is such a tough team to figure out. He oscillates back and forth between looking awesome and looking, well, less than awesome. One place that Mauk was consistently very good though was in the fourth quarter. He threw no interceptions in the fourth quarter last season, and saw a six percentage point boost to his completion percentage. That is a big reason why the Tigers had a 4-1 record in one-score games last season.
Mauk will benefit from some consistency up front with four offensive line starters returning, and hopefully a little bit of that will transfuse into his quarterback play osmotically. Evan Boehm leads the line at center with forty career starts and is joined by Connor McGovern and Taylor Chappell at tackles who have a combined 38 career starts. Brad McNulty is the fourth returning starter at left guard with fifteen starts. Although, according to the preseason depth chart McNulty will actually be the backup left guard, while Taylor Chappell moves from right tackle to start at left guard.
The Tigers lose one member of their two-headed rushing attack, but 1,000-yard, ten-touchdown rusher, Russell Hansbrough, does return. Marcus Murphy nearly reached 1,000 yards himself last season, so he does still leave a lot of production to be replaced, especially considering that despite Missouri’s spread look they ran the ball nearly one hundred times more than they passed it last season. Sophomore Ish Witter is the guy to step into Murphy’s role after rushing for 101 yards and a touchdown as a freshman.
Unfortunately, the experience that the Tigers enjoy up front does not extend to the receiving corps. Bud Sasser, Jimmie Hunt and Darius White are all gone. Those three guys accounted for over 60% of the targets for this receiving corps last season. Tight end Sean Culkin is the leading returner in terms of targets, receptions and yards. He caught 20 passes for 174 yards last season.
An elite pass rush (Note: first time I’ve used that word all preview series I’m fairly confident) has been the foundation of this defense the past two seasons. However, with a huge efflux of talent including names like Kony Ealy, Markus Golden, Shane Ray, and Michael Sam; the Tigers may have to find a new way to stop SEC offenses in 2015.
This season the defense will turn to an experienced pair of linebackers for the primary source of leadership and productions. Kentrell Brothers and Michael Scherer combined for 176.5 tackles last season and forced four fumbles. It’s a good thing those guys were so good too, because no other returning linebacker topped 20 tackles last season. Donavin Newsom should join Brothers and Scherer in the starting lineup after recording 18.5 tackles and forced two fumbles last season.
Terry Beckner may be the next great lineman to go to the NFL from “D-Line U”, but considering he is still going to be a true freshman it’s going to be hard to rely on him too heavily this season. However they may have to after losing Harold Brantley prior to the season starting because of injuries sustained in a car wreck. Brantley had five sacks and 39 tackles last season, 23 more than any other current member of the defensive line.
Kenya Dennis and Aarion Penton come back at corner for Missouri and were a stingy pair last season recording four interceptions and nineteen pass break-ups. Ian Simon also returns at safety after having 44 tackles with an interception and a forced fumble last season. Sophomore Anthony Sherrils will join those three in the starting secondary, and is the least experienced member of the group. Sherrils had 10.5 tackles, but did appear in all fourteen games as a freshman last season.
Count me among the disrespectful, but there are enough holes and enough question marks that I don’t believe this team will repeat again as East division champions. If Maty Mauk’s fourth quarter play isn’t a fluke and the pass rush steps up for a third straight season then they have a chance, but even that’s a lot to expect. Also, at some point in time, regression to the mean is inevitable. Missouri does have a reasonably favorable schedule, at least as far as SEC schedules go. Trips to Georgia and Arkansas will be tough, but the rest of the road games are certainly winnable, and the Tigers get Tennessee, Florida and South Carolina at home.