by Chuck Sippl, Senior Editor

Missouri is such an obvious dark-horse contender in the re-formed Big XII that a strong run by the Tigers for the title would hardly be a surprise. But MU got a bad break in the now ten-team league, as the new round-robin schedule means Mizzou will have to take on all the teams in the former Big XII South every season, as conference defectors Nebraska and Colorado were both from the North. Thus, Oklahoma, Texas, Oklahoma State, A&M, Texas Tech, and revived Baylor are all on the schedule (along with former North members Kansas, K-State, and Iowa State). Few groups in college football annually boast as much offensive firepower as what was formerly the Big XII South Division.

Thus, the steady progress of Gary Pinkel’s Missouri program figures to be thoroughly tested in the coming campaigns. Now in his 11th season in Columbia, Pinkel has brought stability, depth, competition, and consistency to the Tigers, who have played in six straight bowls (MU is 3-3), not to mention two Big XII title games in the last four years. His contract has been extended through 2017. He has gone out of his way during his tenure in his efforts to keep his assistants intact and to adapt his spread offense each year to the strengths of his personnel. The Mizzou brass also obviously appreciates Pinkel's loyalty, as he has been an annual target by interested suitors over the past several years.

Pinkel's attack TY returns nine starters, all except QB Blaine Gabbert and C Tim Barnes. But the key will be the rate of progress of soph QB James Franklin, more of a dual-threat QB such as Brad Smith than recent pass-happy Tiger QBs Chase Daniel and Gabbert. At 6-2, 225, Franklin packs a wallop, but his passing skills (he was 11 of 14 in limited action LY) vs. live bullets week after week remain in question. A prized recruit in 2010 from the Dallas area, Franklin better be a quick study, as Missouri plays at Oklahoma on September 24. 6-0 RS frosh Tyler Gabbert (Blaine’s little brother) transferred after failing to displace Franklin at QB in spring. That means promising true frosh Corbin Berkstresser might end up as the backup, possibly seeing action sooner than Pinkel had intended.

The big positive for Franklin is his veteran supporting cast, which includes four starters in the Tiger OL, three RBs with at least 400 YR last season, over-achieving WR T.J. Moe (92 recs. LY), and lanky 6-6 sr. A-A TE Michael Egnew (led all TEs with 90 recs. LY). OL anchor LT Elvis Fisher has 40 straight starts under his belt, but Mizzou might miss the reliability of graduated long-time C Tim Barnes, as his replacements had some snap reliability issues in spring. Reliability has been not problem for reliable sr. kicker Grant Ressel, who has converted 43 of 46 FG tries in the last two years.

Although the defense must replace five starters, insiders in Columbia say don’t look for much decline from LY’s stingy unit that allowed only 16 ppg (6th best in the country). Underrated defensive coordinator Dave Steckel, who has been with Pinkel all ten years in Columbia (the last two as d.c.), has crafted a deep, versatile, aggressive defensive unit that was ninth in the nation in sacks LY with 37. DE Brad Madison, a mobile one-time offensive tackle, had 7½ sacks LY while playing mostly as a backup. Sr. DE Jacquies Smith added 5½ more. They will alternate with the likes of soph Michael Ham and promising RS frosh DE Kony Ealy (added 40 pounds in his RS year to get to 250) and Matt Hoch. Sr. DT Tony Resonno will be bolstered by more beef on the hoof in the form of 305-pound sr. NT Dominique Hamilton (only seven games LY due to injury) and likely peripatetic juco DT Sheldon Richardson, a former blue-chip Missouri recruit in 2009 who did not originally qualify grade-wise.

LBs Zaviar Gooden (85 tackles) and Will Ebner (47, due partly to a foot fracture) are solid, but depth in the second line of defense is a question mark for d.c. Steckel. Although the secondary technically returns only one starter—sr. S Kenji Jackson—coaches consider jr. CB Kip Edwards a returning starter because he alternated in the front line of battle all season. Sr. CB Trey Hopson, jr. Roger Steeples, and soph CB E.J. Gaines all shined in spring, boosting Tiger confidence in the quality of depth in that important platoon.

Summary...Soph QB James Franklin will have to grow up quickly, as Mizzou plays Game Two at Arizona State and Game Four at Oklahoma (which goes into the season with 36 straight home wins). And there will be late-season road games requiring Franklin to trade points with the vibrant attacks of Texas A&M and Baylor. While another bowl game might be in store for Missouri this season, the Tigers aren’t likely to produce the quick-striking big plays of the Jeremy Maclin & Danario Alexander years. The team traveled to Joplin in spring to lend help in that tornado-devastated city. While that gives the players more to fight for, it’s hard to see them winning enough games in the smaller Big XII to pass more than a couple of the league’s “big boys”...unless Franklin develops as a passer faster than expected.

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