COLUMBIA - Missouri needs replacements at quarterback and for its pass rush. After matching the school record with 12 wins capped by a Cotton Bowl triumph, nobody doubts coach Gary Pinkel is up for the task.
The move to the SEC stopped looking like a mistake several months ago. Now, Missouri is a program to be reckoned with, even though there'll be seven new starters on defense next fall and many of the top contributors on offense won't be back, either.
After matching the school record for victories set in 2007, the Tigers (12-2) appear to have the depth to reload without the likes of James Franklin, all-American Michael Sam and Kony Ealy.
"These guys came out, came back in January, they just kind of reset the standards for who we are, what we're about," Pinkel said.
The debut SEC season in 2012 was an injury-plagued, 5-7 downer, prompting speculation about Pinkel's future and the school's readiness for the country's top football conference. Missouri was picked to finish sixth in the SEC East.
The East champions impressed from the start, home and away, with a 7-0 start. The SEC championship game loss to Auburn was the only real stumble.
A total of 20 players on the two-deep roster for the Cotton Bowl have at least two years of eligibility remaining. That'll help compensate for the loss of a handful of likely NFL draft picks led by Ealy in the first round, with cornerback E.J. Gaines and offensive tackle Justin Britt projected to go later on.
Redshirt freshman Maty Mauk produced three victories while Franklin was injured and had a nice cameo against Oklahoma State, too, throwing a touchdown pass. He finished with 11 TD passes and a better passer rating than Franklin and enters spring practice as the clear favorite for the job ahead of freshman Eddie Printz.
Tailback is in capable hands with Russell Hansbrough and Marcus Murphy if Henry Josey decides to enter his name in the NFL draft after a huge comeback season.
"There's not always one guy you can count on," Josey said. "You can count on everyone."
Josey will consult with Pinkel and his grandmother, who raised him since infancy but couldn't attend the bowl game due to flu-like symptoms. Ealy is projected as a mid- to late first-round pick by many mock drafts after going "from boy to man" at Missouri, but there aren't any running backs who figure to go early.
Josey was all-Big 12 in 2011 but was off the field nearly two years after wrecking his left knee. Now he's just the second player in school history with a pair of 1,000-yard seasons, joining fellow Cotton Bowl standout Tony Temple.
"Remarkably, he's a better player now," Pinkel said.
Shane Ray, whose 73-yard fumble return was the Cotton Bowl clincher, is among the defensive linemen returning along with Markus Golden and redshirt freshman Harold Brantley. Sophomore Kentrell Brothers was the only linebacker to start every game and both specialists return.
Ray fed on Oklahoma State bulletin-board material prompted by Missouri's defensive collapse against Auburn.
"They're just going to go back to the drawing board and think about who they talk to next time," Ray said. "To say our linebackers were just above average, our defensive line was just pass rushers - we felt total disrespected from that."
Dorial Green-Beckham leads a strong returning crew at wide receiver.
The Tigers have another tough schedule next fall, with road conference tests at South Carolina, Florida, Tennessee and Texas A&M. The pre-SEC slate includes 12-win Central Florida, coming off a Fiesta Bowl victory over Baylor, plus Toledo was a handful last season and opening opponent South Dakota State was in the FCS playoffs.
The 61-year-old Pinkel is 102-63 in 13 seasons at Missouri, passing legendary Don Faurot for first on the school's career win list at the Cotton Bowl.
"I want to continue to build a program," Pinkel said. "We've got great challenges ahead of us. It's a gauntlet schedule, but I'm very honored, very honored to be the winningest coach in Missouri history."
The fire is still there.
"When you win "em, it's great," Pinkel said. "When you lose "em, it just tears your guts out as a competitor."