You know those funhouse mirrors that pull your head taller and your feet lower? That’s what South Carolina is looking at in its first SEC opponent.
The Missouri Tigers have a dynamic offense just like the Gamecocks, although theirs is a bit more experienced and a bit more explosive. Their defense was one of the worst in the country last year and isn’t likely to improve, while USC’s slightly edges that with experience and OK-at-times showings last year.
Picked seventh – by a wide margin – in the SEC East in the preseason media poll, the Tigers aren’t expected to wow anybody. But if they can get the defense figured out against a conducive schedule (Missouri State, Purdue, Idaho and Connecticut are the nonconference games, although UConn is on the road), their offense could be enough to finish one-up every game and flirt with where they ended two of their first three SEC seasons – Atlanta.
“They want to come to our house, they want to step on our field, they want to run through the A-gap. Well, you’re gonna get hit in the mouth,” linebacker Eric Beisel claimed at SEC media days. “It’s disrespectful to step on the field at the University of Missouri and think you’re coming out with a win.”
Beisel may be speaking for the entire defense, but the results must be 180 degrees different than last year. The Tigers gave up over 31 points and 479 yards per game in 2016, poorly producing under a new scheme.
Coach Barry Odom, defensive coordinator before replacing Gary Pinkel as head coach, took the blame for it, admitting he tried to get his guys to play his way instead of designing it to suit their talents. They improved at the season’s end, giving up 17 and 24 points in wins over Vanderbilt and Arkansas, but the Tigers were sledgehammered 63-37 at Tennessee and finished 4-8.
“Defensively, we weren’t near good enough last year,” Odom said. “I know that’s been talked about enough since season’s end. And when you win four games, guys, believe me, it hurts your soul.”
Odom has a riddle that, if solved, can spring his team back to a winning season and perhaps further. Figure out an answer on defense – with five returning starters, although only three in the back seven – and watch the offense fly.
Offensive coordinator Josh Heupel made the Tigers one of the country’s more exciting teams last year, averaging 500 yards per game and seeing three stars emerge. Quarterback Drew Lock (3,399 yards), tailback Damarea Crockett (1,062) and receiver J’Mon Moore (1,012) are included among 10 returning starters.
Heupel has more to work with this year, too, because Lock has fully bought into football (he was a basketball and football player growing up, and said football was more of an exercise, not a love)The Tigers have had a year to get used to Huepel’s quick-strike style. Mizzou ran more plays than nearly every team in the nation last year but finished last in time of possession, averaging 31.4 points per game.
Lock needs to improve his accuracy (54.6 completion percentage, 10 interceptions) but the Tigers have plenty of options to help him. Odom’s offense will give the Tigers a chance to win every game – if defense, his specialty, holds up.
Just like in the other Columbia.
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