COLUMBIA, Mo. — Missouri’s offense will be the most fun group in the SEC in 2017.
That holds true even after a “meh” performance in a meaningless spring game. Missouri returns 10 of its 11 starters from an explosively inconsistent group in 2016 that ranked first in the conference in total yards.
That doesn’t mean Missouri — 4-8 a year ago — will be good. But, week to week, the Tigers will be appointment TV. They return a 3,000-yard passer. A 1,000-yard running back. A 1,000-yard receiver. Missouri is the first SEC team to return such a trio since South Carolina in 2011, when Stephen Garcia, Marcus Lattimore and Alshon Jeffrey reached each of those marks the year prior.
South Carolina went 11-2 during that 2011 season, despite the bottom falling out of Garcia’s time at quarterback in the other Columbia.
That still doesn’t mean Missouri will be good in 2017. There are too many questions on defense, from a group that finished second-to-last in the SEC in yards allowed per game. It will be hard NOT to improve on that performance in 2017. It still doesn’t mean Missouri will be good.
But with Drew Lock, Damarea Crockett and J’Mon Moore, plus a sneaky-good offensive line that returns all 5 starters, Missouri’s offense will go-go-go in 2017. The Tigers will never be out of any game because of that offense. A game won’t be over early (ask Arkansas about that), not with that group and the mind of Josh Heupel.
Time is meaningless to Heupel. He probably doesn’t even own a clock. When asked about what adjustments Heupel made to the offense after his first year as offensive coordinator, his players’ most common answer was the desire to go even faster. Missouri finished last in the nation in time of possession in 2016, yet was 14th nationally in plays per game.
Despite that paradox, and the possibility that 2017 could provide similarly disparate numbers, the desire for increased tempo makes sense. With what Missouri has coming back, why would Heupel slow things down? He has a plethora of weapons to choose from, even though most aren’t familiar names among other SEC fanbases.
That includes Lock, who has been overlooked in this sudden resurgence of young quarterbacks in the league.
“I think Drew’s definitely in the top [group],” receiver Emanuel Hall said after the spring game. “He put up a lot of yards last year, and a lot of people want to hate and say, ‘It was against this team, this team,’ but the bottom line is he put up a lot of yards, and that’s hard to do. I think he has one of the best arms in the conference, and I think he’s a really good quarterback.”
Lock threw for 3,399 yards, 23 touchdowns and 10 interceptions in 2016, although his completion rate lagged at 54.5-percent. But the number Lock is focused on is 15.
That’s the maximum number of turnovers Missouri can commit this year, Lock said, and have a chance to win an SEC championship.
“Fifteen turnovers, and you’re going to win a conference championship,” Lock said. “Fifteen or less. … Our stat guys, the guys that are football junkies, came in and said a certain number of turnovers the past 5 or 10 years for an SEC championship.”
Of course, that brings up another conundrum. If Missouri is going to go faster and run more plays, it also increases the odds for turnovers. Missouri averaged a turnover every 41 plays in 2017, or basically 2 turnovers a game. Heupel has been an offensive coordinator for six years, and his teams have never finished in that ideal 15-turnover range. The closest was in 2013 at Oklahoma, when the Sooners turned the ball over 16 times. Perhaps not coincidentally, that was also the SLOWEST offense during Heupel’s time as co-offensive coordinator in Norman.
If Missouri can go faster on offense in 2017 and finish with no more than 15 turnovers, that would mean the Tigers are good. That would mean they would be one of the most-efficient offenses in the nation. That would mean they would be in competition to return to the top of the SEC East.
Those goals are seemingly at odds with each other, but Missouri isn’t going to go quietly in its pursuit of both.
There’s no need to break down that vanilla spring game. Missouri will be the most fun team in the SEC in 2017. Whether the Tigers will be good remains to be seen.