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Big 12 Week: Missouri as Frontrunner

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Taking its cues from Phil Steele, hard scrabble and hopefully wheat-chompin’ middle western media last week named Missouri, a team that lost half its defensive starters, as your Big 12 North favorite by a fairly stunning margin over defending champ and magazine fave Nebraska. It’s not the first time members of the prognostoscenti has bitten on the Tigers’ annual "prolific duel-threat quarterback vs. iffy division" sell – before there was Chase Daniel, there was Brad Smith, after all – but it would be those pickers’ virgin voyage on the elusive yacht of accuracy, the same one they've watched sail by from the dinghy of disappointment every year since 1969, when ‘virgin’ was a foreign concept, metaphors were protected from torture and Missouri was Big Eight champion for the last time. My, how the times change (especially those poor, submissive metaphors):

Missouri Under Gary Pinkel
vs. Big 12 Avg. Margin vs. >.500 Avg. Margin Ls vs <.500
2001 3-5 – 8.6 0-7 – 21.1 0
2002 2-6 – 6.8 1-7 – 13.4 0
2003 4-4 + 6.5 2-3 + 0.8 2
2004 3-5 – 3.6 2-2 Even 4
2005 4-4 – 4.5 3-4 – 7.6 1
2006 4-4 + 4.5 3-4* + 3.5 1

*-Ohio U. of Ohio excluded, because the Bobcats only distort.
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You know, Missouri used to be a helluva a good program, back in 1969. Now the rest of the division thinks it’s gonna cut their throat or somethin'. They're scared, man.
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The far left column is the penny pitchfork stand just in time for the naysaying mob: not only has Missouri not won a conference title in decades, it hasn’t come close to winning its division since the formation of the Big 12 back in ‘96. Save the arch mediocrity that emerged in the form of Colorado in ‘04 and ‘05, the Tigers haven’t been within a game of the eventual North champ. A competent-looking Nebraska team finished with a two-game cushion last year and returns significantly more from that team than Missouri, especially on defense, where the Huskers were slightly better to begin with.

At least Pinkel’s teams have improved over time within the larger template of blandness, though, to the point it can consistently match up with other winning teams and could conceivably overtake them with a talent like Daniel, something it barely managed to do with Smith and clearly couldn’t do at all before him. The annual loss to the rotating division whipping boy (Kansas in 2003 and 04, K-State in ‘05, Iowa State last year) has obscured the Tigers’ steadily better efforts against their bowl-bound peers relative to where they were in Pinkel’s first two years. The offense bizarrely tanked in 2004, Brad Smith’s junior season, and a young defense betrayed a worthy rebound effort in ‘05, but you can clearly see one of three macro possibilities at work: a) Missouri has raised its level to consistently compete with the better half of the conference, b) the better half of the conference has dramatically sunk to Missouri’s level, or c) somewhere the twain did meet. At any rate, Missouri gave to Texas Tech, Kansas State and Kansas as good or worse than it got from Nebraska, Oklahoma and Texas A&M, which wasn’t the case in either of Smith’s last two years and shows the beginnings of some distance from the middle pack.

Yet the middle continues to beckon. Missouri is certain it can finally beat every other team in the North, because it actually has beaten every other team in the North over the last two years alone. Thing is, it’s also lost to every other team in the North in the same span; every series was a split. So the real silent killer is the persistent failure against the worst of the division, teams Mizzou should beat and has to beat to win it – its win totals since 2003 could be ten, nine, eight, nine and nine, all likely good enough for the top 25 and at least one good enough to win the damn thing, finally, if it just took better care of basic business against the most vulnerable. In reality, the Tigers haven’t won nine in a season since, yes, 1969.

It seems shallow to think Daniels can’t carry MU to a championship because Brad Smith couldn’t, but their mission and their obstacles are the same. Daniel gets most of the credit for keeping the offense on the same plane it was on with Smith, which is, admittedly, some statisticla feat, but Missouri was a better team last year because of its defense, one that rivaled the 2004 unit (and its nine returning starters from ‘03, when they were lousy) as the most experienced of Pinkel’s tenure, and the best. But five of the top seven tacklers are gone from that side of the ball, six three-year starters and the top two pass rushers, leaving this year’s version as Pinkel’s youngest since the overwhelmed noobs of 2005, and about as likely to keep average opponent scores below the mid-twenties. Historically, that hasn't cut it.