Did we all go to sleep on the Tigers too soon?
Mizzou football was obviously not a contender for the Southeastern Conference title this year, but the team has taken big steps forward. Don’t look now, but the Tigers have won five in a row and are bowl eligible for the first time since 2014.
In the second season under Barry Odom, it looked early on like the Tigers had still not recovered from the collapse and controversy of the 2015 season, the team’s last season under Gary Pinkel. In that 2015 season, the Tigers went from 11-3 the year before with a second-straight berth in the SEC title game and a victory over a top 25 team, Minnesota, in the Citrus Bowl to a dreary 5-7 record (including 1-7 in conference play), and of course the team threatened to boycott one of its games during campus protests.
The Tigers followed up with a dismal 4-8 showing in 2016 that included a loss to Middle Tennessee (a powerhouse they are not) and missed out on a bowl game for the second year in a row. That same Blue Raiders team that beat Mizzou, suffered double-digit losses that season to such programs as UT San Antonio and Marshall, both of which finished 2016 with losing records (Marshall was 3-9).
Fast forward to Week 1 of this season and the Tigers have a proverbial “cupcake game” against Missouri State. The Tigers had no trouble getting the offense going behind quarterback Drew Lock, who rewrote the school’s record book in that contest. Lock threw for 521 yards and seven touchdowns against the Bears.
However, it was clear early on that defense was going to be a problem for this team. The Tigers allowed six touchdowns to a team that should have been a pushover, ultimately winning 72-43.
That same Bears team was shut out 34-0 by North Dakota the following week. North Dakota has allowed an average score of 38.1 points by its opponents in its other eight games this season. The Bears only managed 12 points per game in Weeks 2-5, also facing Murray State, Illinois State and North Dakota State.
Thus, despite getting the win in Week 1, it wasn’t really something Mizzou fans could really be that happy about.
Mizzou then went on to get obliterated in Weeks 2-4 against South Carolina, Purdue and Auburn.
Granted, those are all quality programs. Auburn has only lost two games and is ranked No. 6 in the nation currently. South Carolina has only lost three and Purdue is wavering around .500 while playing in the always tough Big Ten Conference.
Week 4 was a heartbreaker. Kentucky had taken advantage of the downfallen Tigers in 2015 and 2016 after Mizzou had won the previous three meetings. The Tigers were down six points and driving toward a potential game-winning touchdown with no timeouts left when J’Mon Moore hauled in a pass and was brought down in bounds. During his attempt to return the ball to the official, it was illegally slapped away by a Kentucky player, which the officials missed. That play should have drawn an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty or at the very least resulted in a clock stoppage to allow the officials to reset the ball. Instead, the officials dawdled through the motions and the Tigers were left with only three seconds to rush up a play that fell incomplete.
Had that play been ruled on correctly, according to a statement issued by the SEC after the game, the Tigers should have had 16 seconds left on the clock. That would have been more than enough time to spike the ball and maybe take two shots at the end zone instead of having to rush to get off one hurried play under duress.
You can’t hold that loss against the Tigers by any stretch, but still they found themselves 1-4, mired in a four-game losing streak with the prospects of earning a bowl game looking pretty dismal with five conference games remaining against Georgia, Florida, Tennessee, Vanderbilt and Arkansas. The Tigers had gone a combined 2-7 against those teams in the previous two seasons.
As expected, Mizzou was no match for Georgia, which was ranked No. 4 and undefeated at the time of play. The Bulldogs are now 10-1 and ranked No. 7 in the nation. Mizzou hung tight for the first 1 1/2 quarters before the better team steadily pulled away with 26 unanswered points.
That left the Tigers at 1-5. Any two losses could disqualify them from bowl eligibility.
Weeks 7 and 8 brought convincing victories against nonconference opponents Idaho and on the road at Connecticut.
Not exactly schools known for their gridiron prowess, but not pushovers either. Idaho is only 3-7 this year, but was 9-4 in 2016. UConn had played Mizzou, then ranked No. 22 in the nation, to a 9-6 game in Week 3 of 2015.
The Tigers then took advantage of a Florida team that had fired Head Coach Jim McElwain less than a week earlier, breezing to a 45-16 win.
That meant Mizzou just needed to win two of the next three, a very manageable goal against Tennessee, Vanderbilt and Arkansas, all of which like Mizzou were 4-5 at the time.
The Tigers got back to .500 against the Volunteers in Week 10, winning 50-17 and resulting in the firing of Tennessee Head Coach Butch Jones the next day.
Then, this past weekend, the Tigers rode back into a winning record with a 45-17 victory against Vanderbilt. Commodores Head Coach Derek Mason’s job appears to be safe, despite the apparent curse Mizzou had laid on its previous two opponents.
That just leaves a home game for the Tigers against Arkansas to close out the season with the hard part already done. During the Tigers’ five-game winning streak, they’ve outscored their opponents 250-83. Mizzou has allowed just 16.67 points per game to opposing teams during that stretch.
That’s a major improvement from the horrid start to the season. On top of that, the Tigers are averaging nearly 47 points per game against conference opponents in the past three weeks.
That’s the highest scoring average of any team in the conference in November.
All that said, even with a win against Arkansas, the Tigers would boast a 7-5 record and cannot climb above a third-place tie with Kentucky in the SEC East, which is widely considered to be the lesser of the SEC’s two halves.
That’s not likely to garner consideration for a berth in a very prestigious bowl game. However, after the last two seasons I’m ready to take whatever we can get. Anything at all is a great step in the right direction for this program.