Welcome to Yahoo Sports’ 2019 preseason Top 25. We’ll be featuring a new team in our Top 25 every day until Miami and Florida start the 2019 season on Aug. 24. In each preview we’ll have an NFL draft prospect analysis by Yahoo Sports’ Eric Edholm and additional insight from Rivals writers who know the teams the best.
No. 21 Missouri
2018 record: 8-5 (4-4 SEC)
Returning starters: 7 offense, 6 defense
The bowl ban
As of now, Missouri isn’t eligible for the postseason. The Tigers were slapped with a postseason ban in January following an NCAA investigation into a former tutor’s 2016 claims that she did school work for athletes in multiple sports.
The Tigers have appealed the decision. A decision on the appeal could come before the season.
If the Tigers are granted bowl eligibility, well, it could be a really good bowl game. Missouri may have the weakest conference schedule of anyone in the SEC. The Tigers are the only team from the East that gets to play Arkansas and Ole Miss, the two teams picked at the bottom of the West. And while a trip to Wyoming is no slouch, Missouri is also fortunate that its marquee non-conference opponent, West Virginia, is starting a rebuild with a new coach.
The Tigers could and should be favored in each of its first eight games of the season before a trip to Athens to take on Georgia on Nov. 9. Yes, really, Missouri could be undefeated heading into November and it really wouldn’t be much of a surprise.
(Missouri was ineligible for the preseason coaches poll released Thursday because of the postseason ban. Those eligibility guidelines don’t apply here.)
Year 2 of Derek Dooley
Missouri’s hire of Derek Dooley as its offensive coordinator before the 2018 season after Josh Heupel left to take the head coaching job at UCF raised a lot of eyebrows. Dooley had never called plays before and he was taking over an offense that featured an early-round NFL draft pick in QB Drew Lock.
It turned out alright. Dooley, who was most recently an assistant with the Dallas Cowboys, adjusted the offense to ease Lock’s transition to the pros. While Missouri averaged 6.2 yards per play in 2018, down from 7.1 in 2017, it still scored 36.6 points per game, down just slightly from 37.5 in 2017.
Dooley faces an even bigger test in 2019, however. Clemson transfer Kelly Bryant eases the post-Lock adjustment, but Missouri’s offense will undoubtedly go deep down the field less often with Bryant at QB. And you can expect more QB runs from Bryant, who rushed for 665 yards and 11 scores in 2017.
Bryant will have plenty of weapons to work with too. RB Larry Rountree is back and four of the five leading receivers from 2018 are back along with Arkansas graduate transfer Jonathan Nance. This offense could and should look a lot different. But it still has the potential to be one of the better ones in the SEC.
Avoid the Missouri mistake
Missouri football lore is littered with games that got away in gut-wrenching fashion like the fifth-down fiasco against Colorado in 1990 and the kicked ball that resulted in a Nebraska touchdown as Missouri tried to upset the No. 1 Cornhuskers in 1997.
While no game in head coach Barry Odom’s three seasons with the Tigers has risen to that level of infamy, Missouri has found a way to spectacularly lose games it shouldn’t have in each of those three years.
In Odom’s first season, the Tigers lost 51-45 to Middle Tennessee State at home in the middle of a five-game losing streak. In 2017, the Tigers opened the season 1-5 in a stretch that included an inexplicable 35-3 defeat at home to Purdue where the Boilermakers just bossed the Tigers in every facet of the game.
And last season? Well, there were two really bad losses. The Tigers lost 37-35 to South Carolina in a rain-delayed fiasco. And a 15-14 loss to Kentucky at home a few weeks later was even worse.
The Tigers didn’t get a first down in the second half against the Wildcats and were up 14-3 entering the fourth quarter. And then Kentucky’s winning touchdown came with no time left on an untimed down after Missouri CB DeMarkus Acy was called for pass interference in the end zone on what would have been an incomplete pass to end the game.
Bowl ban or not, the 2019 season could be the first time Missouri gets to double-digit wins since the 2014 season. But to do that, Odom’s team has to avoid what’s becoming an annual tradition.
Biggest Game: Florida (Nov. 16)
As mentioned earlier, Missouri has the schedule to go 8-0 to start the season. Even if Missouri isn’t undefeated through its first eight games of the season and somehow committed a Missouri mistake, the Tigers should be in good shape heading into the Nov. 9 matchup in Athens against SEC East favorites Georgia.
The Bulldogs will be heavy favorites. That’s why we’re going with the game the following week when Florida comes to Columbia. Missouri has beaten Florida in each of the last two seasons and the Tigers are 4-3 against the Gators since joining the SEC.
If Missouri gets a third straight win over Florida it could have a shot at second in the SEC East. And for all the games Missouri has lost in September and October over the last two years, the Tigers haven’t lost a game in November since a Nov. 19, 2016 loss at Tennessee.
RB Larry Rountree
Did you know that Rountree had more yards last season than Georgia’s DeAndre Swift and Elijah Holyfield and Alabama’s Damien Harris? And that only three backs — Texas A&M’s Trayveon Williams, Kentucky’s Benny Snell and Vanderbilit’s Ke’Shawn Vaughn — had more yards among SEC running backs?
Rountree had a quietly spectacular 2018. He rushed for 1,218 yards and 11 touchdowns on 225 carries and broke the 100-yard mark in each of the last three games of the season. He also had just three games where he averaged fewer than four yards a carry.
A junior in 2019, Rountree has averaged over five yards a carry for his entire career and should be Missouri’s feature back again ahead of Tyler Badie with Damarea Crockett’s departure to the NFL. With defenses forced to account for Bryant’s rushing ability at quarterback and the Tigers returning three starters on the offensive line, Rountree should break the 1,000-yard mark again with a healthy 2019.
From Gabe DeArmond at Power Mizzou: While most will focus on the loss of Drew Lock, Kelly Bryant joins an offense that brings back Larry Rountree III, Albert Okwuegbunam and an experienced offensive line. The Tigers' big concerns lie elsewhere. When Barry Odom took over as head coach, most assumed he would continue to have a strong defense as he did at Memphis and Mizzou as a coordinator.
That hasn't happened. Teams threw the ball nearly at will against the Tigers last year.
Yes, the coverage has to improve, but more than that, Missouri has to find a serviceable pass rush. Mizzou built its reputation as a place that turned out great defensive linemen, but the Tigers didn't make many quarterbacks uncomfortable a year ago. Even bigger than that, Mizzou's special teams were very not special a season ago. The return teams were blah, the coverage teams were average at best and Missouri struggled to get a clean snap back to the holder on placekicks. Oh, they have to replace four-year punter Corey Fatony too, and right now it looks like K Tucker McCann will handle all kicking duties.
Power Mizzou’s breakout player
DT Jordan Elliott
The former five-star recruit transferred in from Texas and came on strong in the second half last season, notching three sacks against Arkansas. He's good enough that some around the program believe this will be his last year in college before heading to the NFL Draft early.
Top 2020 NFL draft prospect
TE Albert Okwuegbunam
From Yahoo Sports NFL draft analyst Eric Edholm: The tape shows that Okwuebgbunam just wasn’t himself last season, even before a shoulder injury effectively ended his season early. Dropped passes, mental mistakes and a lack of consistent production were all quite evident early for him in the 2018 season following a breakout freshman campaign that saw the 6-5, 255-pounder catch 11 TDs in 13 games. Interestingly, the Tigers didn’t seem to notice his absence, either, scoring 38, 33, 50 and 38 points in wins over SEC foes without him on the field.
But Okwuebgbunam has some athletic traits that can’t be ignored and size that makes him an NFL prototype, even as he’s not yet considered a great blocker in the trenches. How Okwuebgbunam can take that next step is turn that natural athleticism into more consistent production in his redshirt junior season and give QB Kelly Bryant a reliable target over the middle and in the red zone. The Mizzou coaches also have hinted that Okwuebgbunam could stand to develop a little more dog in his game as well.
Still, he tops the list of 2020 draft prospects for now — especially in what could be a thinner tight end class than we saw this past April — with Bryant, CB DeMarkus Acy and offensive linemen Yasir Durant and Tre’Vour Wallace-Simms in line behind him.
WR Jalen Knox
Emmanuel Hall was Missouri’s best receiver in 2018 and averaged over 22 yards per catch. He also wasn’t healthy for the entire season. Hall’s absence allowed younger receivers to get significant playing time and Knox had 27 catches for 419 yards and three touchdowns a season. Knox should start in 2019 behind more recognizable names like Jonathan Johnson and Jonathan Nance, but he could get 50 catches.
You might have been able to get Missouri as low as 6.5 or 7 at some books if gambling is legal in your state. Eight is still a pretty good number to go over on. Missouri would have to lose to two other teams in addition to Georgia and Florida to push.
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Nick Bromberg is a writer for Yahoo Sports
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