By Frank Haynes, Senior College Football Editor
2009 SEASON IN REVIEW: Winning their first four games of the season, the Missouri Tigers were feeling pretty good about themselves as they turned their attention to what would surely be another tough run through the Big 12 Conference. Despite opening league play at home against Nebraska, the
Cornhuskers proved to be too much for the Tigers as the visitors prevailed in
a 27-12 final. Losses to both Texas and Oklahoma State followed and before
anyone could blink, Mizzou sat at 4-3 with the stretch run coming up.
The Tigers needed two more wins to qualify for the postseason, and they got
them and more as they won four of their final five regular-season games to
earn an invite to Texas Bowl where they came up short against Navy in a 35-13
Still, coach Gary Pinkel's squad made a good showing despite a lack of
identifiable star power, and its 8-5 finish marked the team's fifth straight
winning season. Pinkel likes the way his team has performed in the recent past
and looks forward to continuing the winning attitude that seems to exist in
Columbia right now.
"I think we've made a lot of progress. There's a consistency of winning that
we have. But there's a lot of things we have to accomplish, and I want to win
at a higher level on a more consistent basis."
OFFENSE: The return of eight starters on offense, including four offensive
linemen, the QB, RB, a WR and the TE, should make the Tigers one of the more
formidable offensive teams in the Big 12 this year. Missouri averaged nearly
30 ppg in 2009, so the continued production of junior Blaine Gabbert under
center and senior Derrick Washington out of the backfield will go a long way
in keeping that figure climbing rather than descending.
The 6-5, 240-pound Gabbert was one of the more effective QBs in a conference
littered with good QBs in '09, hitting almost 60 percent of his passes for
3,593 yards, 24 TDs and only nine INTs. Meanwhile, Washington wound up with
865 yards and 10 TDs, averaging 4.6 ypc, but he could see more time on the
sidelines if he's not careful as both Kendial Lawrence and De'Vion Moore are
chomping at the bit to show what they can do.
Gabbert has earned the respect of his teammates and coaches alike, with Pinkel
recently praising his quarterback's ability to handle the pressure that comes
along with the position.
"I think he did a tremendous job last year. We all know he had an injury, but
he said he could play and he battled through that. That said an awful lot
Pinkel continued, "I expect him to up his game with the experience factor. I
expect him to have a really good year. He has a chance to be a great player,
and we're excited about him getting going this year."
DEFENSE: The Missouri defense also has a wealth of experienced players
returning, as seven starters are back, including three in the secondary.
However, that could be viewed as a negative as the unit allowed 251.5 ypg
through the air last year, which ranked 11th in the Big 12 and 104th
nationally. Still, there are athletes back there, notably senior CB Kevin
Rutland (two INTs).
Coach Pinkel is optimistic about what he hopes is an improvement in his team's
ability to defend the pass.
"We got alot of players back in the secondary. I think we have to obviously
play better than we did a year ago, but I think we have a lot of good
athletes, and we have more experience than we've had. I think a combination of
both those things will give us a chance to play well."
The front seven should be solid despite the loss of star LB Sean Weatherspoon.
Some guys to keep an eye on include sophomore DE Aldon Smith (school-record
11.5 sacks), junior LB Will Ebner and speedy LB Zaviar Gooden.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Missouri boasts the most accurate kicker in NCAA history, as
Grant Ressel made good on 65-of-66 kicks overall (26-of-27 FGs) last season.
He is back for his junior campaign, and while expecting him to duplicate last
year's incredible run is a bit unrealistic, there is still high hopes for the
UM kicking game. That is, as long as a reliable punter can be found to replace
Jake Harry who helped the Tigers rank fourth in the country last year in net
OUTLOOK: Opening the season against Illinois in St. Louis is always a
challenge, but from there the Tigers will play four straight home games
against McNeese State, San Diego State, Miami-Ohio and the Big 12 opener
against Colorado. Win the majority of those and the Tigers could be only a few
wins away from earning yet another bowl invite. Win the bulk of them, which
does not include bouts against either Texas or Oklahoma State, and Mizzou
could be headed back to the conference championship game.
Will that happen? It certainly could, provided Gabbert stays healthy and
continues to develop, and the defense answers the bell more times than not.