by Chuck Sippl, Senior Editor

When it comes to conference affiliation, it seems fair to categorize Missouri as pretty damn stable, for sure, and more of a follower than a leader. The Tigers followed Texas A&M to the SEC. And before that, Mizzou stuck it out for decades with the Big Six, Big Seven, Big Eight, and Big 12, at various times investigating, or being investigated for, a place in an expanded Big Ten. But for more than a century the Tigers--and their hated border rival Kansas Jayhawks--were members of essentially the same league of Midwest state schools.

Then, after the 2010 season, Nebraska broke ranks and beat Mizzou to the Big Ten. So, when big-money school A&M a few months later announced plans to take off for the SEC in order to escape playing second fiddle to the Longhorns in Texas, the SEC needed another team to balance things out with new seven-team divisions. That opened the door for the Tigers to look south. There’s no knock here on the SEC’s romance of Missouri for its 14th team over the likes of Clemson, Virginia Tech, or Florida State--with one observation. While A&M fits well as a natural western extension of the SEC West, the new footprint of the league puts Mizzou somewhat awkwardly in the SEC East. Whatever. Given the subsequent reshuffling of so many leagues (Boise State and San Diego State joining the Big East??? Que???), Missouri in the SEC East doesn’t seem so whacky.

Moreover, if the Tigers get a little better injury luck than last season, this is not such a bad time for them to be joining the prestigious SEC. (Such is not the case for A&M entering the deep and rigorous SEC West, where it’s hard to envision the Aggies even making it to the SEC title game for the foreseeable future).

The key Mizzou player to keep healthy is 6-2, 225 jr. QB James Franklin (right), who seems to be the perfect guy to run what is one of the best-balanced spread offenses in the country. Franklin is rugged enough to run (981 YR and 15 TDR last season) and a good enough passer (63.3%, 21 TDs, 11 ints., 2865 YP) to more than keep defenses guessing. Credit head coach Gary Pinkel for being able to tweak his version of the spread option to take advantage of the best talents of his QBs through the years, from speedy Brad Smith, to stumpy passer Chase Daniel, to strong pocket thrower Blaine Gabbert, and now the dual-threat Franklin. Franklin is expected to be ready for the season opener after undergoing surgery for a torn labrum on March 23 and missing most of spring practice. But the QB was limited in summer (lots of throwing with a nerf football), and baseball GMs will tell you they are always extra cautious whenever a pitcher has work done on his shoulder.

Getting most of the action at QB in spring was 6-3, 225 RS frosh Corbin Bernstetter, more of a pocket thrower than Franklin. And, if Franklin isn’t 100%, incoming 6-2 true frosh QB Maty Mauk might also get a look after twice being named Ohio prep player of the year.

The Tigers were ninth in the nation in rushing last season (244 ypg), 12th in total offense, and generated a healthy 33 ppg. But that was in the Big 12, not the SEC, where some offenses struggle, but where most of the defenses boast speed and depth. MU RB Henry Josey (1168 YR, 8.1 ypc) was a revelation on offense last year, but he suffered a major knee injury in November and is unlikely to play this season. Still, 5-9, 175 sr. Kendial Lawrence (566 YR) is a former starter who had edged out Josey prior to the start of 2011.

There is a load of potential at WR, where 6-0 sr. T.J. Moe (left; 54 recs. LY) returns as the go-to guy, while 6-6, 220 blue-chip true frosh Dorial Green-Beckham joins the team after being tabbed the top recruit in the nation last winter by most services. Meanwhile, 6-5 jr. Marcus Lucas and 6-4 jr. L’Damian Washington offer valuable size at wideout, and 6-0 soph Jimmie Hunt flashed big-play ability in spring. Jr. Eric Waters (MCL surgery in spring) is expected to move into the traditionally-productive Mizzou TE spot.

Unleashing the offensive potential will be a very veteran OL that might be even better than 2011's, as LT Elvis Fisher (a three-year starter who tore a patellar tendon in camp and missed all of last season) has been awarded a medical redshirt year by the NCAA. After being redshirted early in his career, this will be Fisher’s sixth year in the program. There isn’t a college coach in America who won’t tell you he would love to have sixth-year linemen. With Fisher back, jr. Justin Britt switches to RT from LT. Returning starting Gs Travis Ruth and Jack Meiners are both seniors, while new starting C Mitch Morse is a RS soph who played in all 13 games last year. If Franklin remains healthy, the offense should be strong.

There are several questions on the defense, which returns six starters. The strength is at LB, where OLBs Andrew Wilson (98 tackles LY) and Zaviar Gooden (right, vs. North Carolina in the Independence Bowl; 2 ints. LY) both return. Former starting MLB Will Ebner, who missed virtually all of 2011 with a concussion, now appears ready to go. The biggest concerns are in the DL, where starting DE Brad Madison (4½ sacks) and starting DT Sheldon Richardson (2 sacks) both had shoulder surgery in the offseason. Soph DE Kony Ealy has flashed pass-rushing potential, but overall, the Mizzou DL (3.6 ypc LY) remains youthful and a little undersized for the challenges in its new league.

Two of four starters return in the secondary, where 5-10 jr. CB E.J. Gaines has blossomed into one of the top cover men in the country, with 16 passes broken up and two ints. last season. Sr. CB Kip Edwards is reliable on the other side. Sr. Keronte Walker (44 Ts LY) is the veteran at safety, but 6-4 soph Daniel Easterly flashed impressive, useful potential in spring.

The Tigers’ normally-reliable kicking game turned shaky last season, when quality punter Trey Barrow (7 of 9 FGs) replaced PK Grant Ressel (only 9 of 16), who labored with a hip injury. In spring, Barrow turned erratic, so RS frosh Andrew Daggett might be the placement guy in the fall, with Barrow (44.8 yards per punt) sticking to his specialty.

Summary...It’s a shame to see Missouri’s extremely fierce rivalry with hated neighbor Kansas come to an end, even though the hoops contests often have out-shown the gridiron battles in many recent years. But, after this transitional season to the SEC, MU will begin a promising Ozark rivalry with southern neighbor Arkansas. And the change of conference has boosted Tiger ticket-sales enthusiasm. There are also new, re-designed, light-weight, player-popular Nike uniform combinations on the way, coordinated to elevate the Missouri brand across other school sports. Those are nice. But, the most important thing for the Tigers’ 2012 season is its SEC opener in Game Two, with defending Eastern champ Georgia traveling to Columbia and likely being short-handed due to some suspensions. If the Tigers win that game (and Mizzou fans have been getting geeked up for it for months), they will be early contenders in the SEC East. Can Mizzou win it? With divisional road games at South Carolina, Florida and Tennessee--plus a home clash vs. defending BCS champ Alabama--probably not. If Franklin is healthy, Missouri has a proven offense. But Mizzou’s recruiting and its defensive depth must improve in the next couple of years if the Tigers are going to threaten in their new league.


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