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Keep an Eye on the Tigers

By BJ Bennett
SouthernPigskin.com
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Missouri might be the biggest threat to Georgia in the East.

Looking at the SEC East, a division where just two teams topped seven wins a year ago, there are legitimate questions as to who, if anyone, can even challenge defending conference champion Georgia. Coming in ranked fourth overall, the Bulldogs were the only program from the seven-team grouping ranked in the pre-season Coaches Poll Top 25. Is there a potential contender? Could another member make a run up the national rankings? Who should college football be on the lookout for?

In a year where any other team will have to show their worth, Missouri just might be the one to do it.

No SEC team had a better second-half of last regular season than the Tigers, defending College Football Playoff Final participants Alabama and Georgia included. From mid-October to the end of November, Missouri went 6-0; simply for point of reference, the Crimson Tide and Bulldogs both went 4-1 in that same span. The Tigers rallied from a winless-in-the-FBS start to ultimately earn a Texas Bowl bid and finish with a winning record. Moral of the story is: Missouri has momentum. On paper, this is a team that checks most boxes. 

The obvious starting point for the Tigers is quarterback Drew Lock, who turned down the NFL after leading all of college football and setting a new SEC record with 44 touchdown passes in 2017. He was recently named the summer's first-team all-league signal caller by conference media; for whatever it's worth, the teams of such quarterbacks have averaged almost nine victories per year over the last five seasons. Lock makes Missouri relevant and a threat to win every game they play.    

Lock's production really has been remarkable. Since 2000, the only power five quarterbacks with at least 40 passing touchdowns, nine yards per attempt and a passer rating of 165 in a single year are: Sam Bradford, Marcus Mariota, Baker Mayfield, Jameis Winston and Lock. The other four quarterbacks each won a Heisman Trophy.

Amongst SEC signal callers last fall, Lock threw for more touchdowns than Jake Fromm and Jarrett Stidham combined. Lock, remarkably, had a seven-score game and a six-score game as a junior; you can take those performances completely off his resume and nobody in the league still has more passing touchdowns in a single season since Johnny Manziel. A true downfield passing threat, Lock, additionally, just averaged more yards per pass than any league quarterback since Manziel and Zach Mettenberger back in 2013. 

Both in the backfield and on the perimeter, the skill position talent is also elite. After tying for first in the SEC with eleven touchdowns as a freshman, tight end Albert Okwuegbunam is another All-American candidate. Wideout Emanuel Hall paced all eligible P5 receivers with over 24.7 yards per catch. The Tigers return a 1,000-yard rusher from two years ago in Damarea Crockett, now healthy. He and Benny Snell are the conference's only tailbacks with over 1,000 yards and double digit scores in a season. Furthermore, a veteran offensive line is fresh off finishing in the national top five in fewest sacks allowed.

Missouri's defense, last in the SEC in 2016, showed modest improvement last fall and, most specifically, significant progress later in the year. In a month-plus run during the Tigers' winning streak, they held five straight opponents to 21 points or less. Albeit in defeat in the season finale against Texas, Missouri gave up just 280 yards, the program's fewest against P5 competition since November of 2014. Tackle Terry Beckner, a former blue-chip recruit, and linebackers Cale Garrett and Terez Hall are poised to contend for all-conference honors.    

On special teams, Missouri, without question, has one of the best trios in the country. The trio of kicker Tucker McCann, punter Corey Fatony and returner Richaud Floyd are all elite, capable of changing games on their own.

Head coach Barry Odom clearly has pieces in place. The spotlight is on former Louisiana Tech and Tennessee head coach Derek Dooley, who steps in as the Tigers' offensive coordinator after five seasons as the wide receivers coach for the Dallas Cowboys. Dooley replaces Josh Heupel, hired as Scott Frost's replacement at Central Florida. Under Heupel, Missouri averaged over 500 yards per game each of the past two years.

For Odom, perhaps the stretch run of the season prior was his program settling in. High-powered and attacking on both sides of the ball, there was an edge to how the Tigers finished. Lopsided wins helped confidence grow, as Missouri beat Florida and Tennessee in back-to-back weeks by a combined score of 95-33, but the Tigers also showed grit, kicking a game-winning field goal with mere seconds remaining in a late triumph at Arkansas. Even in the bowl loss to Texas, Missouri had over 100 more yards of total offense than the Longhorns.

Though it may seem like distant history, the Tigers were in the SEC Championship Game in 2013 and 2014, entering, the first time, as a top five team with a chance at moving on to play for the national title. Odom was part of that Missouri magic. He appears to have this group headed in the right direction. 

With respects to Georgia, the overwhelming and warranted pre-season favorite, the Tigers will welcome the Bulldogs to town in late September. In the last Missouri-Georgia meeting in Columbia, it took a late 4th-down touchdown pass to give the visitors a dramatic one-point win. Even last year, the Tigers scored the second-most points against the Bulldogs of any team in the regular season, totaling 28 in Athens. Interestingly, over the last five meetings between the schools, Missouri has a win, 2013, and two losses by a combined four points.

The schedule, for this fall, is obviously quite challenging. There will be plenty of opportunities to make a statement, however. Road games awaiting are Purdue, South Carolina, Alabama, Florida and Tennessee, while the Tigers will host, among others, Georgia. That September 22nd date with the 'Dawgs could prove to be an especially big one. 

Countless SEC storylines will soon be in play as another season in college football's toughest conference kicks off. Don't forget about or overlook Missouri. In a conversation about who else to keep an eye on, don't be surprised if the Tigers do show up.

BJ Bennett - B.J. Bennett is SouthernPigskin.com's founder and publisher. He is the co-host of "Three & Out" with Kevin Thomas and Ben Troupe on the "Southern Pigskin Radio Network". Email: bj@espncoastal.com / Twitter: @BJBennettSports