Welcome to the Deadspin 25, a college football poll that strives to be more democratic and less useless than every other preseason poll. Leading up to the college football season kickoff, we will give you previews of the 25 teams that you, the readers, voted to be most worthy of writing about. Now, No. 24 Missouri.
It was fun, Missouri. Really, it was. For the past two years, the Tigers have won the SEC East on the backs of a crushing defense and average offense, edging out Georgia both times despite being thrashed 34-0 by the Bulldogs in 2014. But this is probably the year that the Tigers’ run ends.
Mizzou benefitted, and will probably continue to benefit, from being in one of the weaker divisions in college football, but that’s not to say it stumbled into back-to-back division titles. Under Gary Pinkel, the Tigers built up one of the nation’s most respected defenses, spearheaded both years by players who would go on to win SEC Defensive Player of the Year—Michael Sam and Shane Ray. The Tigers bring back another front-seven player capable of nabbing some postseason hardware, but unlike the past two years, there are a myriad of questions on both sides of the ball, and too few answers.
With a hungry and terrifying-looking Georgia team ready to finally come up and get theirs, Mizzou might have to be okay with second place this year. Then again, counting out the Tigers like the notoriously foolish SEC media has the past couple of years hasn’t exactly panned out—the media picked Mizzou to finish sixth in 2013 and fourth in 2014.
The Tigers return six starters on both sides of the ball, most notably quarterback Maty Mauk. I say most notably not because Mauk is all that great, but because it makes Missouri one of the few SEC teams to actually bring back its signal-caller. Mauk, like Joe Flacco, comes with plenty questions regarding his eliteness, but he has still managed to keep his head above water. Last season, he led the Tigers to an 11-3 record while chucking 25 touchdowns and 13 interceptions.
It seems unlikely that Mauk’s numbers will get much better this year, as he lost three starters at receiver, which, along with the defensive line, will be the team’s biggest concern heading into the season. Sophomore Nate Brown, who caught just five passes for 45 yards last season, is the new No. 1, and he will have to come into his own if the Tigers want Mauk’s numbers to improve or even sustain.
Returning at running back is senior Russell Hansbrough, who will be the Tigers’ first returning 1,000-yard rusher since Derrick Washington came back in 2009. Last season, despite battling an on-and-off shoulder injury, Hansbrough ran for 1,084 yards and 10 touchdowns.
With the passing game’s effectiveness an unknown, Hansbrough will likely have to carry the load while Mauk and his young wideouts develop early on, and he’ll probably notch more than the 205 carries he tallied up last year. Luckily for Mauk and Hansbrough, protection shouldn’t be a big issue for the Tigers, as four of the offense’s six returning starters are offensive linemen.
On defense, the Tigers lost reigning SEC Defensive Player of the Year Shane Ray to the NFL, but they were all set up to fill hole he left with a combo of defensive tackle Harold Brantley and defensive end Marcus Loud. Then Loud was dismissed from the team in the spring, and Brantley was lost for the season following a car crash. The Tigers’ defense led the conference with 44 sacks last year, but that mark will be hard to replicate unless they can find another star on the front line.
Senior linebacker Kentrell Brothers was second in the SEC in total tackles last season, and he has the potential to be a first-round draft pick this upcoming spring.
This is the only shareable video I could find online of an entire Brothers game, so while it does not encapsulate or display what Brothers is really capable—see his 14-tackle performance in the SEC title game against Alabama for that—it does show what makes him a fun linebacker to watch.
In the clip above, you can’t miss the qualities that make Brothers one of the conference’s top linebackers. He’s got the open-field speed to cover running backs and handle the flat when he drops into zone coverage. Against the run, his speed and vision leads him to crack through pulling guards, though he will have to become more of a playmaking force in the backfield this year with Ray gone.
Watch him go to work at the 2:50-mark, when he dashes inside a Gator running back expecting him to come out wide, finishing the play with a sack and a forced fumble.
Brothers averaged 9.7 tackles per game in SEC play last season, and another season like that could scoot him into the mid-first round of the upcoming draft.
Making the playoff is something that requires a massive amount of luck, talent, and placement. The Tigers fall short in all three categories. Although Mizzou has the pieces to create another top-25 defense, not having Ray up front to wreak havoc will be an issue for, there will be less double teams thrown at the defensive line, and thus less space for the linebacking corps to work in. Opposing offenses will have more opportunities to get their offensive linemen to the second level, and though a linebacker like Brothers regularly meets them at the line of scrimmage, he is but only one man.
Offensively, the Tigers don’t look like they are set to improve on last year’s average performance. They scored 27.8 points per game last season, good enough for 73rd in the nation, but that mark is likely to drop now that the receiving corps has been depleted.
One of the few things working in the Tigers’ favor is their early season schedule. Mizzou’s first real test won’t come until it has to host South Carolina at home in week five, so by then the offense should at least have a better grasp on how it should operate. Honestly, the Tigers only have three games that jump out as ones I would favor their opponent in: Oct. 17 at Georgia, Nov. 5 against Mississippi State, and Nov. 28 at Arkansas. Aside from those contests, the Tigers very well could win the remainder of their schedule, with games against Tennessee and Florida jumping out as the closest thing to coin-flip games.
Yeah, Gary Pinkel is a dick. Back in 2008, he sat on his hands after learning that running back Derrick Washington—who was later convicted on sexual assault charges in 2011—had been accused of rape.
Pinkel claims he did nothing at the time—such as reporting the incident to the school’s Title IX coordinator, as is required by federal law—because police didn’t file charges, but this is the same guy who suspended Dorial Green-Beckham despite the fact that he was never charged with a crime.
Also, he does things like drink two “jumbo” glasses of red wine before going for a drive.
A reforming offense and questionable defensive front will be too much to overcome in the Tigers’ clashes against the SEC brass, and Mizzou will have to settle for being No. 2 in its division this year.
Sept. 5: SE Missouri State
Sept. 12: @ Arkansas State
Sept. 19: UCONN
Sept. 26: @ Kentucky
Oct. 3: South Carolina
Oct. 10: Florida
Oct. 17: @ Georgia
Oct. 24: @ Vanderbilt
Nov. 4: Mississippi State
Nov. 14: BYU
Nov. 21: Tennessee
Nov. 27: @ Arkansas
Top Photo: AP