By Joe Vozzelli
Quarterback James Franklin warms up before the Kentucky game in October. Offensive coordinator David Yost, left, and coach Gary Pinkel look on.
Missouri’s blowout loss to Texas A&M may sting more than any other defeat this season in the minds of Missouri fans.
Missouri didn’t have a chance in that game. Heisman hopeful Johnny Manziel had a highlight reel game, burning Missouri’s defense several times, giving Texas A&M a 42-0 lead before Missouri scored in the waning seconds of the first half.
Like Missouri, the Aggies are in their inaugural Southeastern Conference season. Missouri finished 5-7, wasn’t ranked all year and won’t go to a bowl — snapping a streak of seven straight bowl appearances. Texas A&M finished 10-2, is ranked No. 9 and might go to a BCS bowl game.
When Missouri fans look back at what went wrong in 2012, they’ll likely point to injuries and say the record doesn’t reflect the team’s talent. They’ll say Missouri should have won against Syracuse and Vanderbilt. They’ll say the Tigers hung with Georgia — a team that will play in the SEC Championship game Saturday against No. 2 Alabama— for three quarters.
But, if Missouri’s first season in the SEC says anything, it’s that the team hasn’t shown it can compete against the best in the SEC — Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, Texas A&M and even Florida.
Against those five teams, Missouri lost by a combined score of 187-76.
Missouri struggled to beat a 5-7 Tennessee team. It took a huge second half comeback and four overtimes to beat the Volunteers, who gave up 700 yards of offense to Troy and whose coach, Derek Dooley, was fired with one game left in the season.
The other SEC win came against Kentucky, which also fired its coach, Joker Phillips, and finished 2-10. The Wildcats’ two wins came against Kent State and Samford. Tennessee’s only SEC win was its 37-17 victory over Kentucky.
Franklin’s inability to stay on the field damaged season
In a spread offense, everything runs through the quarterback and in 2011 the healthy James Franklin was Missouri’s best offensive player. This season, Franklin battled injuries (MCL sprain in his left knee, inflamed bursa sac and torn labrum) but he’s also battled a lack of confidence. Against South Carolina, he looked rattled. He didn’t give Missouri a chance to win on the road, throwing for only 92 yards.
When Missouri went with backup Corbin Berkstresser, the offense often looked even more anemic. He’s not ready to be a starting college quarterback. It showed against Kentucky when he had a week full of practice and had to be removed for an injured Franklin, who wasn’t at 100 percent.
The Missouri football team has ridden a seesaw all year, starting at the quarterback position. No spread team can execute without its quarterback in prime form — mentally and physically.
Missouri coach Gary Pinkel made this clear during his postseason press conference Tuesday morning.
“Our quarterback has to play at a very high level all the time,” Pinkel said. “That’s the way it is. That’s how we do things.”
Franklin has been injured but confidence is his biggest issue. There were at least two or three games when he was rattled. After the Florida loss, he showed that the pressure had gotten to him. He seemed to sulk after the game and that carried into the start of the next week at Monday’s media day. He answered questions in a quiet, reserved tone.
He continued to struggle in the first half of Missouri’s next game, against Tennessee, until he was able to pull it together in the fourth quarter and overtime.
Utilizing a spread offense hasn’t exactly been a blueprint toward success in the SEC. Auburn used it to win a national title in 2010 with Cam Newton. Florida executed it well under Urban Meyer, with Tim Tebow at quarterback. Texas A&M is doing it now, with Johnny “Football” Manziel.
But Franklin isn’t Tebow or Manziel or Newton.
So, if Missouri wants to compete next season, Franklin needs to develop into an all-around player. In other words, he needs to become tougher mentally. Chase Daniel, Blaine Gabbert and Brad Smith all had those attributes. The jury is still out on Franklin.
Injuries are not the only reason for Missouri’s disappointing season
Fans and even Pinkel have used injuries as an excuse for Missouri’s disappointing season. Pinkel said that the 2007 team that won 12 games might have only won seven or eight games if it had the same number of injuries as the current team.
But Missouri also had other problems that derailed its season. Before the season started, I thought 7-5 would be a respectable record for Missouri; it finished 5-7. Syracuse and Vanderbilt were games that Missouri let get away from them.
Before people jump to injuries, let’s take into account what happened against Syracuse.
Missouri jumped out to a 17-3 lead. After that, the offense was undisciplined. It committed penalties (8 of them for 86 yards) that stunted drives. When Syracuse was on the ropes, Missouri didn’t finish the Orange off. That’s what good teams do: they finish the job.
Missouri’s defense inexplicably allowed Syracuse wide receiver Alec Lemon to torch them. On the final drive, the defense mixed up its coverage scheme. The cornerbacks were confused if they were supposed to be playing man or zone defense. It may be a small sample size but it gets to the larger point: Good teams don’t make those mistakes.
Missouri did the same thing against Georgia. With Georgia up by four points, Franklin committed two crucial turnovers inside Missouri’s own 20-yard line. The turnovers led to Georgia touchdowns. Teams that win eight, nine, 10 games in the SEC don’t do that.
The Missouri offensive line was ravaged by injuries this season. It lost Justin Britt, Travis Ruth and Jack Meiners to season-ending injuries. Elvis Fisher limped his way through the season and Mitch Morse dealt with injuries, as well.
True freshman Evan Boehm was the only lineman to play the entire season for Missouri.
Maybe if Pinkel and his staff have learned anything it’s that depth is an issue. Alabama’s Nick Saban and the other top coaches in the SEC have depth on their teams. They replace one good player with another almost equally good player.
If Missouri wants to get better and compete with the top five of the SEC, shoring up its depth may be key.
Gary Pinkel facing pressure to win
Pinkel wasn’t close to being fired, not yet at least. But Missouri’s move to the SEC brings with it expectations and hype.
Missouri athletics director Mike Alden and MU chancellor Brady Deaton took a considerable risk going to the SEC. Kansas City, a vital television market for MU, wasn’t in favor of the move. One 5-7 season doesn’t call into question Pinkel’s job security. But, another 5-7 season might.
Pinkel mentioned in his postseason press conference Tuesday morning that he has a close relationship with Alden. Pinkel also acknowledged that Alden’s job is to “make sure we win.” Pinkel has done that for the most part of his career. He has won a lot of games at Missouri (163-98).
But, past accomplishments don’t seem to matter in the SEC, where there’s more pressure scrutiny to win and win now. Auburn fired Gene Chizik less than two years after he led Auburn to a 14-0 record and a national championship in 2010. Auburn went 8-5 in 2011 and 3-9 this year under Chizik.
Missouri doesn’t face Iowa State, Kansas and Kansas anymore. It doesn’t play Texas and Oklahoma every other year. In the SEC, Missouri will face tough teams every year and almost every game.
Like Auburn, Missouri has been on a bit of a downward turn lately. The Tigers are 13-12 the past two years under Pinkel. Before that, Pinkel led Missouri to 10-win season in three of four years from 2007 to 2010.
Alden will also have to consider at some point if Pinkel is the man to lead Missouri’s program to the Promised Land, meaning a BCS bowl game, SEC Championship or national championship.
So far, Pinkel hasn’t done that. He took Missouri to the Big 12 Championship game in 2007 and 2008. But, Oklahoma beat Missouri both years; Oklahoma won 38-17 in 2007 and 61-21 in 2008.
Pinkel may have resurrected Missouri and fans have to realize that, but history shows he may not be the man to lead the program to the top of the SEC.
His numbers against the top teams in country aren’t impressive. Under Pinkel, the Tigers have struggled against ranked opponents: they are 9-20 against Top 25 teams since 2005.
Missouri better learn from its first year in the SEC and quickly. In year one, it looked outmatched in most of its games and another season of losing to teams like Syracuse and Vanderbilt won’t cut it.