COLUMBIA, Mo. — Three games into the season, Missouri football is not where most people in preseason thought it would be.
Forget, for a second, the losing record. The Tigers already fired a defensive position coach, and their two losses were by a combined 50 points. The defense is giving up an average of 443 yards per game, 103rd in the country and last in the SEC, two spots below Florida, and allows nearly six yards per play, just ahead of the Gators and Tennessee.
Missouri's defense gave up 480 yards per game and 6.1 per play in 2016.
According to cfbstats.com, the Tigers have the nation's 36th best offense by yards per game (480), but rank 75th nationally in average per-game scoring, just under 30 points per game. Both numbers were inflated by the Missouri State game. The team's high-flying offense was shut out of the end zone by Purdue and has gone almost seven consecutive quarters without a touchdown.
Said another way: If you had to pick, No. 15 Auburn (2-1, 0-0 SEC) would be near or at the bottom of the list of teams likely to help Missouri recover from two tough losses.
Gus Malzahn's Tigers are incredibly stingy on defense, ceding 202 yards a game to opponents, second-best in the nation, on 3.2 yards per play, and give up 10 points per game. His offense, led by Baylor transfer Jarrett Stidham at quarterback and Kamryn Pettway at running back, has been a middle of the pack group numbers-wise so far.
Missouri doesn't have the defense to beat Auburn the way Clemson did in a 19-13 decision earlier this month, but maybe Barry Odom and company can copy Mercer. Auburn knows a little something about too-close-for-comfort games against FCS schools this year, too. Despite five turnovers — an interception and four fumbles — against the Mercer Bears, those Tigers held on for a 24-10 win.
Missouri and Auburn are tied for 120th in the nation with a minus-five turnover margin. Missouri has yet to win the turnover margin in a game this season.
In a response to the team's rough start, Missouri players called two meetings the day after an embarrassing loss to Purdue: a non-mandatory meeting with Odom, followed by a players-only meeting.
Redshirt senior tight end Jason Reese said the team communicated its thoughts on the season so far to Odom, and used the players-only meeting to critique themselves.
"We resolved a lot of the issues that were going on," Reese said, "more or less talking too much and not doing a lot."
Linebacker Brandon Lee added, "I feel like that was the main focal point of the meeting, just getting guys to understand how important it is that if we don't play right, everything falls to pieces."
A name several players mentioned as a guy who spoke out was freshman linebacker Aubrey Miller, whose snaps have mostly come on special teams, and players generally said some leadership of the meeting came from the team's youth. Reese characterized that as a positive, a sign the young guys care enough to fight for the team even if they're not seeing the field.
"Our faults this season have come from guys not doing their job," Lee said. "Not a lack of talent, not lack of effort, not competing, none of that. It's come from not doing your job. If there's 10 guys out there doing their job, and one guy doesn't do his job, it doesn't matter what the other 10 are doing if it hits right where that one guy's not doing his job."
Terez Hall echoed that, saying the meeting was about individuals needing to step up and stop waiting for teammates to make plays.
"You've got to come out here and want to practice," Hall said. "You've got to love practice just as much as you love the game, wearing the new outfits and stuff like that. That's the main thing, man, you can't — nobody gonna come out here and let you win a game. It's hard, winning."
This meeting comes after players and coaches alike said they were really happy with their best week of practice yet leading up to the Purdue game, only to come out flat defensively on the first three drives. The players especially want to avoid another week of good preparation evaporating at the opening kick against Auburn, and they feel the meeting will help prevent a repeat performance.
"This is our team, and if we want things to change ultimately it has to be through us first," Reese said.
Two high-profile players left the Auburn football program early this week. The first was backup quarterback Sean White, who was dismissed Monday by Malzahn after an arrest early Sunday morning for public intoxication.
White had previously served a two-game suspension this season, according to al.com. A two-year starter for the Tigers, including 10 games in 2016, White lost the starting job to Stidham in preseason camp.
Byron Cowart, a defensive lineman and the No. 1 recruit in the class of 2015, asked for and was granted his release from the program Tuesday morning. According to reports, Malzahn said Cowart had spoken with him several times this season about playing time. Cowart was moved to defensive tackle from defensive end during this offseason, according to al.com.
Cowart told that outlet he wanted to be closer to his mother, who is dealing with some health issues, and that he would finish the semester closer to his home of Seffner, Fla., and explore his transfer options.