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Press Box: Football Tigers appear primed to exceed expectations this season

Press Box: Football Tigers appear primed to exceed expectations this season

News Tribune Sports Commentary

July 16th, 2017 by Colin O'Brien in Mizzou Sports
Missouri NCAA college football coach Barry Odom speaks during the Southeastern Conference's annual media gathering, Wednesday, July 12, 2017, in Hoover, Ala.

Missouri NCAA college football coach Barry Odom speaks...

Photo by Associated Press /News Tribune.

In case you missed it, Missouri football was picked to finish last in the East in a poll of Southeastern Conference media members released Friday.

Colin O'Brien

Colin O'Brien

Expectations outside of Missouri are low. Media predictions rarely reflect the end result of the league's standings, but in the first five seasons in the league, MU has been especially adept at avoiding accurate assessment by professional writers, radio broadcasters and TV reporters.

The Tigers, under Gary Pinkel and Barry Odom, have made predicting the team's finish in the SEC a fool's errand since joining for the 2012 football season. Polled at fourth that year, they finished in fifth at 2-6, the closest a preseason SEC poll has come.

Then Missouri pulled off something nobody could have predicted and went 14-2 in regular-season league games and took advantage of a weak East to win back-to-back division titles.

Southeastern Conference media rewarded that by picking the Tigers to finish third in 2015. Pinkel and company finished 1-7 under the duress of a cancer diagnosis that was part of Pinkel's retirement decision and a campus protest that earned the endorsement of the team and brought national media attention to Columbia.

Odom's first season, a 2-6 last-place finish in the East that came with wins against Vanderbilt and Arkansas, had more ups than downs, including blowout losses to Florida and LSU and bad losses to Tennessee and Middle Tennessee.

Missouri football has finished below expectations in three of five years. The good news? The 2017 season won't make it four. Nowhere to go but up.

And there's evidence to support the belief that's where this team will go: a talented offense that graduated almost nobody with potential All-SEC threats at quarterback, running back and wide receiver. If that offense returns in 2017 and the defense progresses, none of which are guaranteed, a bowl game is absolutely within reach.

And Odom has made it clear he wants to make a bowl game this year. Every coach wants that for his team. But where will those six wins come from?

The Tigers starts the season with four straight home games: Missouri State (for the first time since 1923 and the first time ever by that name), South Carolina, Purdue and Auburn. The team's best shot at a bowl is to hit the road for Lexington with a 3-1 record, but a 2-2 record wouldn't be the end of Odom's goal. Missouri has two other non-conference games against Idaho and UConn — everybody will be hoping for at least one touchdown Oct. 28 — and realistically needs to go win all four non-conference games to have a shot at a bowl game.

This team could win 10-plus games. It's within the realm of possibility and these Tigers have a recent history of coming on strong right as everyone writes them off. But so too is a finish at the bottom of the conference and another December without Missouri football. An 11-win and a 12-win season sandwiched between 5-7 seasons discourages prediction, but hasn't prevented it.

Expectations in SEC football will only burn you, unless you're Alabama, but nothing is guaranteed in this sport, even for Nick Saban.

If you've got hope for this team, hope away. If you're convinced Barry Odom isn't the coach to take his team to a national championship or even a bowl game, that's fine. Just know that, for better or worse, this team has 12 chances to prove you wrong.