football Edit

Voice of the Fantlebury: Key stretch coming up

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Missouri football is back on the come-up.

The Tigers have washed that Wyoming loss out of their mouth with three straight blowout wins over teams with varying degrees of pulses — but they did exactly what they were supposed to do. Good teams win, great teams cover and the best teams do both; Missouri just did that for three consecutive weeks.

We’ve got some good storylines, too. Missouri’s 17-7 over its last 24 games (that’s two full seasons, for those math wizards out there). That’s good for ninth in the Power 5 over that span, which is the result of some improving play by Barry Odom’s team and some pretty nice work with a scheduling scalpel by Missouri’s PR department.

After this bye week, Missouri enters the most key, if not the most difficult, four-game stretch of the season. In my opinion, this is the stretch that will determine if a corner has been turned by Odom. If this program is hitting its stride, these should be three very winnable games with one (Kentucky) a winnable-but-more-difficult matchup.

I think Odom knows how important this stretch is, too. Odom has proven that while he’s taken a lot from his time under Gary Pinkel, he’s not a Pinkel clone. In the antithesis of “We Do What We Do,” Odom told reporters on Wednesday that he’s changing up the bye-week routine, acknowledging his record with extra time to prepare: 2-7 in season-openers, off byes and in bowl games, with the only two wins coming against FCS opponents.

If this season is about getting over the humps, then Troy is the next one. End a losing streak to South Carolina? Check. Now, Missouri has to stop viewing games following bye weeks like me in the office after a four-day weekend, where I’ve completely forgotten what I do for a living until about noon.

Should Missouri wins these next four games, the Tigers are 21-7 over their last 28 games. Missouri went 22-6 over 2007-2008 seasons and 23-5 over 2013-2014. There’s a real chance that, by the beginning of November, this program will be back on completely solid ground again, capping off a stretch similar to some of the best in program history.

(Of course, I’m not comparing the results of those four seasons to this subset of games over the span of three seasons. But the results would show that there’s a consistent, competitive and talented product being created in Columbia.)

Let’s take a look back before Missouri gets into that key four-game stretch. Here are the biggest indicators of why Missouri’s play over the last three games is sustainable for its next four:

Level of competition: This is the biggest one. Missouri’s next four opponents have a high SP+ rating of 52 (Kentucky) and a low of 108 (Vanderbilt). Missouri — at 15 in the SP+ — should be pretty substantial favorites in these next four games.

Trending the right way on defense: Missouri has been burned twice this year for long touchdowns over 70 yards, one on the ground against Wyoming and one through the air against South Carolina. Other than that, Missouri has been the best team in the SEC at limiting explosive plays. Missouri has allowed the fewest plays over 10 yards (32, ahead of Georgia) and is tied for the fewest over 20 yards (8, with Texas A&M). The next three conference opponents rank 8th (Ole Miss), 9th (Kentucky) and 14th (Vanderbilt in explosive plays; Troy ranks 76th nationally. Missouri won’t face another truly explosive offense until Georgia. That’s also the ONLY explosive offense Missouri will face this year, should current trends continue.

Room to grow on offense: Missouri ranks fourth in the conference in scoring offense despite having scored 14 total offensive touchdowns (six rushing, eight passing). There’s been some consistency issues with the offense, but the rushing attack is finding its legs. Missouri will have two consecutive games that will test its run game, as Troy and Ole Miss rank top-25 nationally in run defense. The good news — they rank near the bottom of the FBS in pass defense. If Missouri gets both parts of its offense going these next two games, watch out.

One off week for the fans to revel in Missouri’s recent strong play or the schadenfreude of the Kansas allegations (or both!), and then it’s back to the grind for Missouri football. Missouri’s already had its best September under Odom; now there’s the chance to have its first undefeated October.