2013 SEASON IN REVIEW: Not many expected the Missouri Tigers to compete for an SEC title in 2013, especially after a disappointing showing in their inaugural season in the league in 2012 (5-7, 2-6 SEC), but the team defied the odds and went on to be one of the biggest surprises in the nation.
Missouri made its splash on the national scene early in the year, turning heads by opening up with seven straight victories, including triumphs in the SEC over Vanderbilt (51-28), Georgia (41-26) and Florida (36-17) as it rose all the way to No. 5 in the AP Poll.
The Tigers were cut down in a heartbreaker at home against South Carolina on Oct. 26 (27-24 in double OT), but that would be their final loss of the regular season, closing out with four straight wins, with their 28-21 triumph over Texas A&M on Nov. 30 clinching their spot in the SEC Championship Game at 7-1 in the league.
Unfortunately, Mizzou's magic ran out in the title match with Auburn, as it was steam rolled on the ground on its way to a 59-42 shootout setback. Its efforts weren't quite good enough for a BCS at-large bid, but in the Cotton Bowl, it downed Oklahoma State, 41-31, to finish up 12-2, matching its best record during head coach Gary Pinkel's 13 seasons at the helm.
Despite the outstanding campaign, the Tigers were left off the Preseason Coaches Poll after losing several key pieces in the offseason. They are effectively the 26th-ranked team in the country, just missing out by receiving 126 votes.
OFFENSE: Missouri boasted one of the nation's premiere offenses a season ago, ranking 13th in the country in scoring (39.1 ppg) and 16th in yardage (490.7 ppg) with a strong balance between its passing (252.9 ypg) and rushing (237.9 ypg) outputs. Unfortunately the team has seen a large talent turnover on that side of the ball, losing quarterback James Franklin (2,429 passing yards, 510 rushing yards, 23 TDs), running back Henry Josey (1,166 yards, 16 TDs), and wide receivers Dorial Green-Beckham (59 receptions, 883 yards, 12 TDs), L'Damien Washington (50 receptions, 893 yards, 10 TDs) and Marcus Lucas (58 receptions, 692 yards, three TDs).
Maty Mauk gained valuable experience as a freshman filling in for an injured Franklin, winning three of his four starts while accounting for 12 touchdowns to just two interceptions. He benefitted greatly from the talent around him and will need to step up his play as the full-time starter, especially with his completion percentage (.511).
Even without Josey, the Tigers boast plenty of talent at running back with Russell Hansbrough (685 yards, four TDs) and Marcus Murphy (601 yards, nine TDs) both returning after each averaged more than 6.0 yards per carry in 2013. Morgan Steward, who had just 21 carries last season while buried on the depth chart, is expected to factor in the committee as well.
"We have three high-level running backs in our program right now, guys that I think are high-level SEC running backs" Pinkel said. "They also catch the bell well. (We also have) good young tight ends. We don't have to replace a receiver to a receiver necessarily. There are other ways we can go."
The three departing receivers accounted for more than 62 percent of the team's catches last season, so there will be plenty of opportunity for Bud Sasser (26 receptions, 361 yards, TD) and Darius White (seven receptions, 76 yards, TD) to step up as the new starters.
While the skill positions were depleted in the offseason, the offensive line has some continuity with three returnees.
DEFENSE: The Tigers employed a bend-but-don't-break style of defense a year ago, as they ranked fourth in the league in scoring defense (23.1 ppg) despite placing in the bottom half of the league in total defense (417.9 ypg). Having the eighth most takeaways in the nation (32) went a long way in helping the team win, but the unit will also have to rely on a slew of new contributors in the wake of losing defensive ends Michael Sam (19.0 TFL, 11.5 sacks) and Kony Ealy (14.5 TFL, 9.5 sacks), linebacker Andrew Wilson (113 tackles) and defensive back E.J. Gaines (75 tackles, five INTs).
Of the four returning starters, two come at safety. Braylon Webb was second on the team in tackles a season ago with 89 and was also disruptive in the turnover battle with three interceptions, and Ian Simon was solid as well with 42 tackles and a pick.
Kentrell Brothers brings versatility to the linebacking corps after racking up 70 tackles, 6.5 TFL and three interceptions in 2013, but the other two scheduled starters at linebacker, Michael Scherer and Donavin Newsom, combined for just 11 tackles.
Markus Golden (13.0 TFL, 6.5 sacks, INT) was a strong rotational player last season and is expected to take a big step forward in filling the roles left by Sam and Ealy.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Andrew Baggett returns as the place kicker. He was 18-of-25 on field goal attempts last season, with five of those misses coming from inside of 40 yards. Punter Christian Brinser averaged 41.0 yards per boot, with 26 landing inside the 20-yard line.
Marcus Murphy was responsible for nearly every return in 2013 with 27 kickoff returns for 599 yards and 21 punt returns for 146 yards. However, he might lose a few special teams opportunities as his role on offense expands.
OUTLOOK: After shocking college football with its performance last season, Missouri barely had any time to revel in its success after losing so many key contributors in a single offseason. In the highly-competitive SEC, there's no time for a total rebuild once you've established yourself as a contender, and Pinkel is out to prove that last season's success was no fluke.
"You keep (momentum) going by winning. That's real simple," Pinkel said. "When I became the head football coach at Missouri, I wanted to be respected in the Big 12, and now it's the SEC, nationally. Not only do you have responsibility to the league and to your school, but to this league we have a responsibility. I just want to be respected."
Fortunately for the Tigers, most of their fellow SEC Eastern Division contenders are in a state of flux as well. South Carolina and Georgia need to overcome the loss of their respective senior quarterbacks, Florida is coming off its worst season in 30 years, and Vanderbilt has to adjust to life with a new head coach.
It's conceivable that Missouri can put together another improbable run to the SEC Championship Game, especially if Mauk can take the next step into elite territory, but it'll more than likely be looking up at both South Carolina and Georgia at season's end. Figure for a slight decrease in production in 2014, although the squad is still capable of flirting with double-digit wins.