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Let me say first, there is a hill in front of the Missouri football team this fall. It's a fairly steep one. But is it an impossible climb?
Some would have you believe it is. One year in the SEC--and it was a bad one, without doubt--has many painting a picture of doom and gloom for years and years to come.
Let me also say, maybe those people are right. I don't know. It's possible the Tigers will struggle for a long time to come. To say it's not possible would be foolish.
But those who refuse to admit that maybe--just maybe--the Tigers can scale that hill are no less stubborn.
For the most part, college football at the top doesn't change much. The vast majority of conference and national titles are won by the same handful of teams every year. LSU and Alabama and Oklahoma and Ohio State are all very good right now. They've all been good for a long, long time. At its highest levels, college football probably has fewer surprises than just about any major sport.
Teams like Oregon and Florida State and Miami and Virginia Tech made the leap into the discussion of the elite programs in the sport over the last 20 or 30 years. Three of the four have mostly stayed in that discussion. But it's tough to do.
But I'm not going to make the argument Missouri is going to join that club next year. Instead, I'm making the argument that the Tigers might be able to make a leap from pretty bad to pretty good.
In making this argument, I went back through ten years of Southeastern Conference football. I wanted to find teams that have made similar improvements to what Missouri fans are hopeful the Tigers can make.
As a starting point, I'm setting that improvement at a 9-3 season (assuming four non-conference wins). It is at the upper reaches of what I believe is possible for this team...and beyond the reaches that most believe. Please understand this is not a prediction that Missouri will go 9-3. But in looking at the schedule, I think the game at Georgia is a pretty certain loss. I think the same of a home game against Texas A&M. Allowing that the Tigers are likely to lose at least one of the other four games in which they'll probably be underdogs, we get to 9-3. And I think that's a season virtually every Tiger fan would deem a raging success.
The SEC is the best conference in college football. Outside of Bob Stoops, you're not likely to find anyone that would argue that statement. It is not an easy league in which to move up. But it has been done before.
As I said, I went back through ten years of SEC standings (partly because I think that's a good window of time, mostly because that was the window I was afforded by an easy one-click search). I found six examples of teams making at least a three-game improvement in SEC play.
The first to do it was Ole Miss. The Rebels went 3-5 in the league in 2002. In 2003, Ole Miss was 7-1 and tied LSU for the West Division title. In 2005, Arkansas finished 2-6. In 2006, the Razorbacks won the SEC West with a 7-1 league mark. Between 2007 and 2008, Alabama improved from 4-4 to 8-0 in SEC play. Arkansas made its second appearance on this list two years later, going from 3-5 in 2009 to 6-2 in 2010. Georgia was 3-5 in 2010 and 7-1 and East champs a year later. Finishing out the list, Vanderbilt went 2-6 in 2011 and 5-3 last season.
Missouri was 2-6 in league play a year ago. The Tigers were utterly blown out by Alabama, South Carolina and Texas A&M. They lost by three touchdowns to Georgia in a game they were leading late in the third quarter. The Tigers also lost to Florida by seven and Vanderbilt by four.
To be fair, I wanted to analyze the other six teams on this list.
In 2002, Ole Miss lost three SEC games by at least two touchdowns. The Rebels lost two more games by a combined eight points. That is similar to Mizzou's 2012 campaign. The next season, the Rebels won their first six SEC games (including wins over Florida, Arkansas, Alabama, Auburn and South Carolina) before a three-point loss to LSU, which was their only setback.
The Arkansas team that went 2-6 in 2005 lost four games by four points or less. Those Razorbacks were probably closer to being a good team than last year's Tigers. In 2006, Arkansas beat Vandy by two, Bama by one and South Carolina by six in starting SEC play 7-0. That is a three-and-a-half game turnaround based on just 25 points over seven games. In other words, the difference is pretty small.
The Crimson Tide lost their four SEC games in 2007 by a total of 22 points. In 2008, the Tide didn't lose to anybody on their way to a 12-0 regular season. But three of those wins came by six points or less.
Arkansas in 2009 lost two games by a field goal and three more by at least 11 points. The next season, the Hogs won six SEC games, all by at least a touchdown. The only losses came by four points to Alabama and by 22 to national champion Auburn.
The 2010 Georgia Bulldogs finished 3-5 in the league with wins over only Kentucky, Tennessee and Vandy. Only one of those losses came by single digits. The next season, after a 45-42 loss to South Carolina in the second week of the season, Georgia ran the table until a loss to LSU in the SEC title game.
Finally, Vanderbilt went 2-6 in SEC play two years ago. Four of those losses came by a combined 16 points. Last season, the Commodores beat Missouri and Auburn by four and Ole Miss by one. Again, 25 points over seven games was the difference between 2-6 and 5-3.
Does it mean anything? I have no idea. I didn't analyze incoming recruits or transfers, returning talent that got better or coaching changes with those six teams. And, as I said at the start, maybe 2012 was the start of a backward slide. But it is possible to bounce back in the SEC. It's been done before. And it is what Missouri has to do this season.
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