The bye week was a natural time to step back and take a look at the season so far. It was not the exact halfway point, but it was close.
Through seven games, it is tough to argue that Missouri's season has been anything but disappointing. Many predicted some struggles and adjustments to the SEC, but few thought the Tigers would enter Homecoming without a league win. But that is exactly where they stand.
The pessimistic have already written off this season and are looking forward to basketball or to 2013. The optimistic point to last year's record at this time (identical) as proof that it can, and will, happen again. Who is right? Five games remain to answer the question. Though the answer may very well be neither one.
Missouri will be favored in just two games the rest of the way. Kentucky has shown some fight the last couple of weeks and Syracuse is capable of putting up some points. So there are no gimme wins in Mizzou's last five weeks.
At the same time, Tennessee has the worst defense in the SEC and will likely enter the game against Mizzou at 0-and-5 in the SEC with a coach that will have a very, very difficult time saving his job. Texas A&M has been better than most expected, but the Aggies' best win is either a shellacking of an Arkansas team that was a complete trainwreck at the time or a victory over Louisiana Tech in which A&M gave up 57 points. Their two best games have actually been losses (one-score defeats at home against Florida and LSU). Add in the fact that Mizzou has won two in a row in College Station and a win wouldn't be the most shocking thing we see in college football this season.
So who knows where this season will go? Not me. Instead of attempting to predict it, I've chosen to address five questions that must be answered in the second half.
Who is the quarterback?
I think it is vital Missouri has one guy who is clearly the starter and that he is able to start. Through what we've seen on the field, James Franklin is currently Missouri's best option at quarterback. If he's healthy. But he hasn't been healthy for more than about four quarters on the field all season and no one is sure if he will be going forward. So does a beat-up Franklin give Missouri a better chance to win than a healthy, but clearly struggling, Corbin Berkstresser? I don't know the answer to that question. But I think it's important Gary Pinkel pick a guy and go with him.
What is the offensive identity?
Over the last seven days, I have asked the question a few times, but haven't really seen an answer I like: What does this Missouri offense do well? They don't throw it very well. They don't catch it very well. They don't block very well. They run it well at times, but not all times.
I am not a big fan of laying blame on play-calling. When plays work, they are good calls. When they don't, they are bad. However, a coach's job (and a coordinator's job) is to figure out what his team does well and ride it. Kansas State is in national title contention because the Wildcat coaches have figured that out. Missouri is 3-and-4 because the Tiger coaches have not.
Does Marcus Murphy need to be involved on offense? Does Kendial Lawrence need more touches? Do the blocking schemes need to be changed? Does the entire offensive scheme need to be adjusted?
These are not questions I am qualified to answer. But they are the questions that Pinkel and David Yost are paid handsomely to answer. The simple fact is, if you can't score more than 17 points in a game, you have virtually no margin for error. One turnover, one blocked kick, one blown coverage, one big play beats you when you can't score. And right now, Missouri can't score. The answer cannot be that the defense has to hold opponents to ten points every game. In today's college football, that is unrealistic. So the answer has to be that Missouri gets better on offense. Again, I don't have a magic answer as to how that happens, but the Missouri coaches have to find one.
Who helps the QB?
Above, we discussed the quarterback position and it's a huge question mark. But just as big a question is which receivers are going to help those quarterbacks out? There have been drops all over the field. Some of those drops have turned into interceptions. Missouri's quarterback play has not been good. But sometimes, passes aren't perfect. Big plays often require broken tackles. Missouri isn't getting anything out of the passing game not only because the quarterback play hasn't been good, but also because the receivers' performance has been poor. Someone has to step forward as a consistent security blanket for the struggling signal callers.
Where did the discipline go?
Perhaps the most surprising thing about this season has not been the record, but how the Tigers have gotten there. Turnovers, penalties, special teams breakdowns. These things just didn't happen very often with most of Pinkel's teams in his first 11 years. They are happening weekly this season.
Turnovers killed the Tigers against Georgia. A penalty wiped out a first down and destroyed Missouri's opening drive against South Carolina. Special teams errors and a crucial penalty helped hand Vanderbilt a win. Alabama, well, that would have been a loss no matter how well the Tigers played, but they didn't play very well.
When Pinkel was hired at Mizzou, Sports Illustrated featured him in a story titled "Lord of Discipline." Missouri is injured and isn't just going to out-athlete anybody in the last four weeks of the season. But they have to avoid beating themselves. If the Tigers miss a bowl game, they at least have to force the rest of the teams on their schedule to earn a win. That has happened too little this year.
What if things don't get better?
This is the question many Tiger fans are focused on right now. And I understand why. But the simple fact is, those decisions are not made in October. They will be made after the season.
If the offensive struggles continue and the Tigers finish with a losing record, will changes occur? I don't know, but it is my personal opinion that they almost have to.
Missouri has a lot at stake in its first few seasons in the SEC. I don't think there's much danger of re-entering the dark ages of the 80's and 90's, but at the same time, Mizzou does need to show some progress to answer all of those who are pounding their chests and screaming "I told you so" as the Tigers continue to lose games in their new league. The stakes have been raised. As one person recently wrote, "In the SEC, you're always on the hot seat."
Let me be clear: Gary Pinkel isn't on the hot seat. He has earned the right to have a bad season. Bad seasons happen. Mizzou can lose out and the Tigers aren't firing Gary Pinkel. Period. But if Mizzou finishes with three to five wins, it simply cannot afford to enter next season with the exact same approach. It would be the equivalent of laying all the blame on injuries. It would be a monumental excuse from a coach who prides himself on saying he doesn't make excuses.
As I stated at the start, this last point may become moot. Maybe the Tigers light up Kentucky. Maybe the offense plays well enough to win in Knoxville and maybe the Tigers continue to claim Kyle Field as their second home. And if all that happens and Mizzou fights its way to 7-5 (sorry, I can't figure out how a win will come in Gainesville), then I don't think we need to spend much time wondering about this final question.
But if the current course of this season doesn't change, well, there will be some questions that have to be addressed in an off-season that could be pretty interesting around Columbia.
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