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Spring football 25: Missouri Tigers

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(USA Today Sports Images)

Dr. Saturday will be looking at the 25 most interesting teams headed into spring football through March, examining which programs have the biggest questions, the most expectations and the best storylines. This isn’t the 25 best going into the spring, just the 25 we’re keeping the closest eye on. Previously: West Virginia.

MISSOURI

What happened in 2012
The Tigers’ first year in the SEC was rough, to say the least.

With tougher competition, Missouri faded into obscurity. The Tigers finished 5-7 with two league wins, at home against Kentucky and a four-overtime game against a down Tennessee team. For the first time since 2004, Missouri didn’t go to a bowl.

What made its first season in the SEC even worse was that Texas A&M was also expected to have a tough time in its first SEC season, but the Aggies went 11-2 with a final ranking in the top five. Texas A&M beat Missouri by 30 in the regular-season finale.

Injuries and inconsistency, particularly to quarterback James Franklin, didn’t help. But there has to be legitimate concern going forward about Missouri’s ability to compete in college football’s toughest conference.

What makes them interesting in 2013

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WR Dorial Green-Beckham (USA Today Sports Images)

Missouri has enough talent returning that it should expect a better season. Franklin is back, although he’ll have to lock up the quarterback job. Running back Henry Josey, a 1,168-yard rusher in 2011 who missed 2012 with a knee injury, should be ready for 2013. Three of the top five leaders in receiving yards are back including the Dorial Green-Bekcham, the No. 1 recruit in the class of 2012. Six defensive starters including top tackler Andrew Wilson return.

But is that good enough? Missouri lost by at least 21 points to four SEC opponents. A close 14-7 loss at Florida was promising. A win at Tennessee, no matter the Volunteers' record, isn’t that bad. But this season for the Tigers will be about proving they won’t be an also-ran in the SEC. Finishing with a recruiting class Rivals had ranked last in the league, more than 20 spots behind every other SEC team, isn’t a positive step towards that.

This program has been good through the years, so there’s no reason to believe two-win SEC seasons will be the norm. But it would be easier to project future success if Missouri can be more competitive in 2013.

What needs to happen this spring
The Tigers need to improve across the board. As a team Missouri finished in the top 50 of FBS teams in only one major statistical category. The rushing defense finished 49th. There’s nothing Missouri doesn’t have to work on this spring.

One story to watch is at running back. Josey’s ability to be near full speed during spring is mostly unknown. If he hasn’t recovered from a bad knee injury, Missouri will have to find a running back. No back on the roster had more than 46 carries last year. Marcus Murphy averaged 5.5 yards in limited time, so he might be next in line.

Gamechanger
Green-Beckham probably should be in the “wild card” category (but the player in that spot is way tougher for Missouri to depend on at this point). The top recruit came in with huge expectations and had a mediocre season. Through five games he was a non-factor, with one touchdown against UCF counting for 80 of his 128 yards. He was arrested on marijuana possession and suspended. That might have woken him up.

He had 21 catches and 267 yards in Missouri’s last five games. He had four touchdowns in the last three games of the season. His fourth down touchdown in the final minute sent the Tennessee game to overtime. Many freshmen struggle, and Green-Beckham did early on. His late finish gives plenty of hope that year two will bring a huge breakout.

Wild card
Franklin’s 2012 season was a nightmare. He saw massive drops in just about every statistical category. Some were related to injuries. But mostly, he just didn’t play well.

Franklin comes into this year having to win the job. Coach Gary Pinkel has said there will be open competition. There’s not a ton behind Franklin, because backup Corbin Berkstresser didn’t impress when he had to play last year. But he was just a freshman and could make a move with a good spring.

Missouri’s best hope is that Franklin is healthy and has his confidence back. Missouri would be much better off if Franklin plays like he did as a sophomore in 2011. There’s a lot of skepticism if he can return to that form.

Key games
Oct. 12 at Georgia
Oct. 19 vs. Florida
Oct 26 vs. South Carolina
Nov. 30 vs. Texas A&M

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Check out Dr. Saturday's other spring previews: Notre Dame, Texas, Oklahoma, Stanford, South Carolina, Baylor, Ohio State, Texas A&M, Clemson.

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