Don’t look now, but those gnarly clouds at Missouri have cleared.
Don’t bother with a double take, Tigers fans, because none of this is fantasy.
Optimism? Reasons to anticipate seasons to come? Comfort that better days are ahead?
Positive vibes have come in hot like a gooey, greasy masterpiece at Shakespeare’s Pizza.
Granted, the men’s basketball program is the driver behind the heavy helping of sunshine these days in Columbia. Between the commitments of uber-recruits Michael Porter Jr. and Jeremiah Tilmon, Cuonzo Martin might walk across the Lake of the Ozarks before coaching a game at Mizzou Arena. Or he might part the Missouri and Mississippi rivers, just because he can.
But let’s not end the confetti there. The football Tigers, led by second-year coach Barry Odom, have a chance next fall to enjoy salvation of their own.
“I think we’re going to play a lot more competitive this year and be in a lot of close games,” said Gary Link, a special assistant to Missouri athletic director Jim Sterk who has known Odom since the coach played for the Tigers as a linebacker from 1996-99. “And hopefully, we can get those games to go our way.”
Look, no one expects Mizzou to make a third trip to the SEC Championship Game next season. But it’s fair to demand more than the 4-8 mess that happened in 2016, when the Tigers tumbled to last place in the SEC East with a 2-6 conference record. No one had seen such crazy-bad days near the Columns since the program limped to a 4-7 finish in Gary Pinkel’s first season in 2001.
How did things turn out for him, again?
Take heart, True Sons, even the most stubborn thunderhead doesn’t stick around forever.
First-year pains under Odom can be excused, especially since Missouri is no cradle of 5-star talent. But steps forward after the stubbed toe are possible and should be the expectation among all who have enjoyed a sloppy Saturday night at Harpo’s.
“I really do believe it’s a lot different this year,” Link said. “We know the SEC is the best football conference in America, and it’s not even close. I don’t care what anybody says. … For any first-year coach, to come in and you have to put together a staff, you have to earn the trust of your players. And I thought Coach Odom just did a phenomenal job. I realize no one is going to wait for us to catch up with everyone else, but I think he’s one of the best young coaches in America.
“He’s what we are. He’s a blue-collar, hard-working, chip-on-his-shoulder kind of a guy. We don’t get a lot of 5-star recruits, and we never have. But Coach Odom will do a great job of coaching those guys up with his staff.”
That remains to be seen. There’s fog surrounding the defense, a unit that closed 12th in the SEC last season in scoring and 14th in total defense. Then there are challenges in the SEC East, with Georgia and South Carolina primed to become division contenders along with the usual buzz-worthy suspects in Florida and Tennessee. For Missouri, next season will be no skip along a yellow brick road.
But if nothing else, the Tigers offense should be a thrill ride on turf.
Add the fact that offensive coordinator Josh Heupel is back for a second season, and another Middle Tennessee-like meltdown seems far-fetched.
Rejoice, heart rates throughout the Show Me State!
“There’s certainly a ton of room to grow,” said Gordon McGuinness, lead SEC writer for Pro Football Focus. “If you look at how [Lock] was in 2015, and he really wasn’t good at all, if we’re going to be perfectly honest. There’s no real way to sugarcoat it. He didn’t play well in 2015. But his jump from 2015 to 2016 was pretty significant. … It really just takes another step forward. Especially in the SEC East, it’s crying out for a quarterback to step up.”
Steps forward by Lock and others next fall could lead to bigger leaps later.
No one at Mizzou should demand the moon in 2017. But more sun would be swell after a bunch of rain.
“Our guys are more comfortable this year,” Link said. “They’re very, very hungry. No question. We only won four games last year, so they’re very hungry.”