SEC preview: Missouri

COLUMBIA, Mo. -- Missouri's first go-round in the SEC ended with a thud, a 5-7 dud of a season that led to the departure of the Tigers' offensive coordinator and questions about the head coach's long-term job security.

But a new season brings new hope, and the Tigers are looking to prove that 2012 was an aberration in a recent half-decade of success, instead of an omen for future results.

Josh Henson, Missouri's new offensive coordinator, was promoted from his former position as co-offensive line coach. With his move, Henson has brought a desire for tweaks to the Tigers' spread offense. Among those tweaks are a quicker tempo, a varied role for tight ends and an end to Missouri's usual penchant for empty-backfield sets.

The biggest change, however, is an open competition at quarterback. That passing game got off to a slow start in August, and coaches haven't held back criticism.

"The best throwing offenses I've been around play catch really well," coach Gary Pinkel said. "You don't miss throws -- I wouldn't say you don't miss them -- but rarely will you get a guy open that you miss. And your receivers catch it consistently and also catch the tough ball.

"We're better right now talent-wise than we are execution-wise. The good news is we can fix it. But there's a real sense of urgency there."

Injuries and inconsistent play at the position in 2012 led Pinkel to open the quarterback competition in the spring. Senior James Franklin performed best during March and April, remaining atop the depth chart entering August. He traveled to Birmingham for SEC Media Days, and was also voted a team captain, yet Pinkel has still not announced him as a starter.

"What we do, it's about who wins the job, and that's how we do it," Pinkel said on the team's first day of preseason camp, explaining that Franklin's captaincy will have no effect on the quarterback competition.

After the first scrimmage of camp on Aug. 10, Franklin performed the best, completing 11-of-19 passes for 174 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. Following the performance, Franklin and current No. 2-QB Maty Mauk said they expect a decision on the starter to come down this week. At this point, all signs point to Franklin.

With the starting competition comes a large dose of pressure following Missouri's first bowl-less season since 2004. The outside expectations are low, as the media picked the Tigers to finish fifth in the SEC East after finishing fourth a year ago. But inside the program, the players are shooting for a return to their recent success that saw them compile three seasons with at least ten wins between 2007 and 2010.

Another stumble could mean the next offseason is shaped by a very different narrative.

SPOTLIGHT ON SEPTEMBER: Unlike 2012 where Missouri jumped into conference play during the season's second week, the Tigers ramp up with four non-conference games built around a bye during the first five weekends of the season. The biggest game, however, is a road game at Indiana on Sep. 21. The Hoosiers showed promise under head coach Kevin Wilson in 2012, and their game against Missouri will have a night-time kick. Wilson is familiar with Missouri from his years spent at Oklahoma as offensive coordinator. If Missouri wants to build momentum entering conference play in October, winning in Bloomington -- the only non-conference road game -- is a must.

KEYS TO SUCCESS: Staying healthy, especially at offensive line. Missouri had four of its five preseason offensive line starters go down with injuries at some point during the season, including season-ending injuries to guard Travis Ruth and left tackle Justin Britt. Because of that, Missouri's final offensive line comprised of a true freshman, a redshirt freshman and a walk-on. Those injuries gave Missouri's 2013 offensive line a big dose of experience, but another rash of OL injuries could be devastating to the Tigers' attempt of a rebound 2013 season.

AREAS OF CONCERN: Missouri lost defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson to the NFL draft and that's left a big hole in the middle of the Tigers' defensive line. With so much importance put on line play in the SEC, Missouri has to now replace 75 tackles, 10.5 for loss and four sacks. It also has to replace a player that demanded multiple blockers on every snap. There is talent on the defensive line, but so much of that is unproven. The Tigers don't need a first-round pick to emerge at defensive tackle, but they need a group of players ready to offset that loss.