June 04, 2009
The Chase Daniel years were fat ones for Missouri, and even moreso when put into historical perspective. The 2007-08 Tigers had back-to-back 10-win seasons for the first time ever, landed the highest AP poll finish in school history in '07, finished in the final polls two years in a row for the first time since 1968-69 and came tantalizingly close, with their first two Big 12 North titles, to their first conference championship since winning the old Big Eight in '69. With Daniel, All-Americans Jeremy Maclin and Chase Coffman, seven starters off the defense and both coordinators leaving the scene, some backsliding seems inevitable.
Still, you can imagine the minor existential crisis in Columbia as it slowly becomes obvious just how hard outsiders think that backslide is going to be. It's already clear that pretty much everyone venturing a guess -- not least of all Phil Steele, who picked the Tigers to finish fifth in the North, behind Kansas State and Colorado, teams they've routed by a combined 203-86 the last two years -- has counted Mizzou out of the division race in favor of Kansas and Nebraska, a question the Kansas City Star took to the coaches themselves:
In some quarters there remains doubt that Missouri — despite the success of the last few seasons — is a year-in, year-out force in the Big 12 North.
It is a question that seemingly still is being asked about some teams — like Missouri — while not so much about others, including a Nebraska team that may have lost every bit as much as Missouri from a team that was crushed 52-17 by the Tigers last year.
"There are people out there that still, apparently, they kind of view us as a program where consistency of winning at a high level is a question mark," Pinkel said. "Obviously, there’s a lack of respect."
Considering Missouri's "consistency of winning at a high level" at a high level across most observers' adult lifetime, coach, you can understand their doubts -- this is, after all, the same program that had put together back-to-back winning seasons exactly once, with 7-5 and 8-4 marks in 1997-98, in the 25 years before Daniel took over as the starting quarterback in 2006. Pre-Daniel, Pinkel's record through five seasons at MU was 28-30. All of this is quite different from the track record at Nebraska, which -- recent struggles under Bill Callahan notwithstanding -- has survived losing star players on a regular basis, to say the least; Nebraska remains one of the country's few legitimate factories. Why should Missouri, minus the core of by far its most successful run in 40 years, get the same benefit of the doubt?
Daniel's replacement, ex-blue chip Blaine Gabbert, is a good start; he's the only five-star recruit in Pinkel's tenure (a title he retains with this week's news that the headliner of the latest class, Sheldon Richardson, is destined for junior college) and maybe the most anticipated new quarterback -- if not player, period -- Missouri's ever had. There's not quite as much anticipation, though, for his colleagues:
I'm sure Pinkel and his staff care about as much about recruiting rankings as they do about preseason polls. But unless Gabbert replicates Daniel's self-assured automation immediately, under a new offensive coordinator, Missouri is in the same place it was three years ago: An unproven team with a little momentum but only middle-of-the-road talent and no sustained history of surprising or "reloading." Quite the opposite, in fact -- the Tigers have typically carried the label of "underachievers," which fit quite well again after last year's preseason giants went 0-3 (and a particularly ugly 0-3 at that) against teams that finished in the final polls.
Steele's pessimism is on the extreme side, but for those of us who see an 0-3 conference start against Nebraska, Oklahoma State and Texas as a return to business as usual, this has to be the year Mizzou casts off the coat of the third-place team that struck momentary gold.