As Mizzou prepares for its final five games of the season, we should probably take the time to realize that while we haven't learned much about the program in 2012, we know even less about 2013.
In all, only a combined six starters on offense and defense started all 12 games. The defense managed to somewhat hold steady, falling from 60th in Def. F/+ in 2010 to 67th in 2011, but the offense completely fell apart. The Beavers had ranked in the Off. F/+ Top 25 in each of past three seasons, but they fell to a horrid 91st in 2011. The result? A lot of losses, of course, and few of them close. OSU lost to Sacramento State to start the season, lost by an average score of 35-11 to Wisconsin, Arizona State, Utah, Stanford, California and Oregon, and limped to a 3-9 finish and a No. 86 final F/+ ranking.
As I like to say, injuries hurt in the present tense, but will often do you favors in the future tense. Mike Riley returns a team incredibly deep with experience this fall (if it can stay healthy, anyway). [...]
If Mike Riley can get both injuries and recent displays of undisciplined behavior under control, recent history suggests that this group of personnel can achieve at a much higher level than it did in 2011.
That's from my 2012 Oregon State preview this past summer. We'll come back to that in a bit.
Heading into 2012, I had basically two goals for Mizzou:
1. Learn what works and what doesn't in terms of Gary Pinkel's approach. Figure out what needs changing and what doesn't.
2. Go to a damn bowl game. (As you'll recall, I openly admitted that I thought a 7-5 record would be incredibly palatable, and that was before most of what has become a comedy/tragedy of injuries.)
The first goal seemed like one that would be "accomplished" no matter what, even if we didn't necessarily like the answers we got; the second one was more of a concrete, "it happens or it doesn't" goal.
As it currently stands, there is a very good chance that neither goal gets accomplished. Unless Mizzou upsets Tennessee (not a significant upset, mind you) or Texas A&M, the Tigers will fail to reach six wins for the first time in eight seasons. Injuries have probably only cost Mizzou one game this year -- Vanderbilt (and yes, you could technically make a case for Georgia, too, but not much of one) -- but it was an enormous one. Meanwhile, injuries have to a certain degree wrecked Mizzou's chances of figuring out too many answers to the first question, too.
Yesterday, Dave Matter published a really interesting Trib piece about the year so far. Here are some passages:
Multiple factors have contributed to Missouri's struggles, starting with a nonstop procession of offensive linemen headed to the training room. The Tigers have started five different offensive line combinations in seven games as six different linemen from the season's projected two-deep depth chart have suffered significant injuries, some season-ending. Quarterback play has been unusually poor as James Franklin has been in and out of the lineup with injuries to his shoulder and knee. With little semblance of continuity on offense and a power outage in the passing game, the Tigers ranked among the country's most feeble attacks entering their bye week: 107th in total offense, 111th in passing efficiency, 101st in rushing offense, 123rd in third-down conversions and 104th in red-zone scoring. [...]
[Former Arkansas and Ole Miss head coach Houston] Nutt, now a TV analyst for CBS Sports Network, figured Missouri might be in trouble this season when so many players, including Franklin, came into the season recovering from offseason surgeries.
"It's so important to be able to say, 'Next,' " said Nutt, who coached 14 years combined at Arkansas and later at Ole Miss. "I have a lot of respect for Gary Pinkel. But when I started reading all the" preseason "magazines, and one of the things that really concerned me was when I read his quarterback had shoulder surgery, when I read his defensive tackle had shoulder surgery, when I read his tailback had knee surgery. I said, 'Oh, no. You can't come into this league limping.' … Now, his whole offensive line has gotten beat up, so you're constantly doing this juggling act. But you're doing it in the hardest league in America."
Injuries happen. "The SEC Grind™" happens. (Actually, I still beg to differ on this one, so never mind.) But this doesn't happen. By my count, Mizzou started six players at center between 1996 and 2011; from the last game of 2011 to the third of 2012, Mizzou started three different players there. Mizzou didn't have two players splitting first-team snaps because of injury from 2001 to 2011. That has not been the case in 2012. Arkansas lost its starting quarterback to injury and lost to UL-Monroe and Rutgers (and got shut out by Alabama). Florida State shuffled through 10 different starting offensive linemen because of injury last year and lost to Wake Forest and Virginia. Missouri has had to work through two starting quarterbacks and five different starting offensive lines in seven games. When this happens, it almost certainly kills you, especially when you play against such a tough stretch of elite (Alabama, South Carolina) and good (Georgia, Arizona State, Vanderbilt, UCF) defenses. It just does. We should damn sure expect more from the receiving corps, but all other offensive struggles have coincided almost perfectly with injuries.
That scrutiny, Nutt said, requires a kind of tunnel vision not all coaches possess.
"You can't listen to the outside noise," he said. "And the noise can get loud. We won three Western Division titles" at Arkansas "and went to Atlanta twice" for the SEC championship game. "I remember talking to my brother and saying, 'It just seems like we can't win enough right now.' It wasn't good enough. We got to the championship game, but it wasn't enough. We should have won that game.
"And the noise gets loud the next year when you lose the first couple. You've got to be real, real thick-skinned. You've got to have alligator skin. … So, you just try to put blinders on and go to work and hope along the way you're going to win enough to stay."
There's a reason why the Internet doesn't get a say in coaching changes. If it were up to the Internet, Mizzou would have fired Gary Pinkel in favor of Gary Barnett in 2005 and would have replaced Quin Snyder with Bob Huggins (and Mike Alden with Jon Sundvold) in 2006. And that was even before Twitter.
Pinkel's on a run of seven consecutive bowl games and stands 13 wins shy of tying Don Faurot for the most in school history. But should the Tigers continue to spiral, will he consider staff changes? That's never been Pinkel's approach at Missouri — just three Pinkel assistants have left for other jobs in 11 years — but staff turnover runs rampant through the SEC.
"That's the responsibility of the head coach," Sherrill said of staff changes. "This is where a lot of young coaches don't understand, because your loyalty is to the university. When a coach says, 'When you let people go, you're not loyal to them,' that's wrong."
Honestly, I'm not completely sure I follow the Sherrill quote, but that's of no matter. The bottom line is that changing assistant coaches is not unique to the SEC. In Mizzou's last conference, Oklahoma's Bob Stoops just changed his defensive coordinator (sort of -- he brought his brother Mike back to be co-coordinator again, then Brent Venables left for the Clemson job), Texas' Mack Brown changed both coordinators after the 2010 season, Texas Tech's Tommy Tuberville is now on his third defensive coordinator in three years, and Baylor's Art Briles changed his D.C. before the 2011 season (and will probably do so again soon). But Gary Pinkel did not make a habit of shuffling through assistants in that conference, either, and there's nothing saying he has to do so now just because Mizzou's in the SEC.
Now, for all we know there will be serious changes in the staff this coming offseason. If that happens, I'll trust that changes were warranted. But history does not suggest that will be the case, and honestly, I'm completely okay with that, too, for any number of reasons:
1. This approach has served Mizzou well in the past. Obviously. The last offensive coordinator was every bit as unpopular as David Yost, and he was so bad at his job that Wyoming hired him to be its head coach.
2. This is Gary Pinkel's ship, and he can make whatever choices he wants; he knows as well as anybody that if the ship isn't mended, he goes down with it.
3. Who exactly are you going to get rid of? The offensive line coach (Bruce Walker) who hasn't been able to make "chicken salad" (as the UCF-Mizzou announcer would have put it) this year but did amazing things with a line that lacked Elvis Fisher last year? An offensive coordinator (Yost) who hasn't been able to figure out the right plays to call with two different quarterbacks and a line that has only recently begun to figure out how to do its job (and who produced a Top 20 offense last year and signed Dorial Green-Beckham this past recruiting season)? A receivers coach (Andy Hill) who has created All-Americans out of Jeremy Maclin and Danario Alexander and tends to clean house recruiting in Kansas City? A cornerbacks coach (Cornell Ford) and St. Louis recruiter who happens to be doing great things with E.J. Gaines and has scored commits from all but one major StL high school senior (so far) this year?
Of course, most demand Yost's head, mostly because the offensive coordinator is, at almost every school in the country it seems, incredibly unpopular. To me, this season has been an opportunity for Yost to earn serious bonus points -- if you can craft a strong offense without a healthy James Franklin or Henry Josey and while missing four of your top six or seven offensive linemen for various periods of time, you are one of the best in the game -- and he has not taken advantage of it. But that isn't the same thing as failing overall. It just isn't.
As I've said before, changing coaches is terrifying. This goes most for the head coaching position, obviously, but we've seen the impact (good and bad) a change in coordinators can have. For every "Coordinator A is fired, and Coordinator B leads a significant turnaround" scenario we have seen through the years, the direct opposite is as, or more, common. And if you are thinking of making a change, you might want to wait a year; if, in Theoretical 2013, Yost cannot move the ball very well with Healthy James Franklin, Healthy Henry Josey, Sophomore Dorial Green-Beckham and a wonderfully experienced offensive line, then perhaps a change is needed. That he hasn't figured things out with backups, freshmen and walk-ons, however, is not a fireable offense to me.
This morning at SBN, I wrote a piece on Oregon State's startling turnaround.
Now, as I referenced in my 2012 Oregon State preview, improvement in and of itself should have been expected. The Beavers suffered a cruel number of injuries over the last couple of seasons and, if healthy, had built solid depth and athleticism in the skill positions and on defense. Ten of last year's top 12 defensive linemen, four of six linebackers and seven of eight defensive backs returned for Oregon State, as did sophomore quarterback Sean Mannion, last year's top four running backs, six of the top seven receivers and four offensive linemen with starting experience. Depth and experience make coaches suddenly look smarter, and Riley has looked like a downright genius in the first half of 2012. The Beavers have already beaten three decent teams on the road (UCLA, Arizona, BYU), took out Wisconsin at home in early September, and took full advantage of Washington State and Utah mistakes in double-digit wins.
No, the Beavers have not faced an incredibly difficult schedule thus far (though on the flipside, not a single game has been a complete gimme). Yes, Oregon State is probably closer to Top 25-caliber instead of Top 5. But even playing at a Top 25 level is incredible considering where Oregon State was just last year: a 3-9 record, a loss to Sacramento State and a No. 86 F/+ ranking. Longtime offensive coordinator Danny Langsdorf, once thought of as quite an innovator for the creative ways in which he would get the ball to his playmakers, saw his offense sink to 94th in Off. F/+ last season. And defensive coordinator Mark Banker, now in his 12th season in Corvallis, couldn't figure out a way to even pretend to stop the run last year.
Facing quite a bit of pressure to improve immediately, Riley didn't fire either coordinator, nor did he fundamentally change his approach to the game. Instead, he let his players get healthy, built off of last year's experience, and has produced an infinitely stronger product this fall. A banged up squad got healthier. A young, mistake-prone team suddenly became a hardened, mostly error-free squad that takes full advantage of others' mistakes. A 3-9 team became 6-0. A Top 90 team became Top 25. All without any major changes in the coaching staff or on the roster. Again, for all I know, Pinkel will make wholesale changes this offseason. But he probably won't. And there is evidence that this inaction can be incredibly successful.
Back to Matter's article:
"It's probably exactly what I thought it was," Tigers Coach Gary Pinkel said last week of the Tigers' new conference. "Absolutely exactly what I thought it was."
Heading into 2012, Gary Pinkel likely knew better than any of us exactly what he had. That Mizzou threw what seemed like hundreds of offers at offensive linemen and defensive tackles probably suggests that Pinkel and company might have been at least a little bit concerned with the unit's depth. (Of course, it could also just be because offensive linemen Elvis Fisher, Jack Meiners and Travis Ruth are seniors, as is backup defensive tackle Jimmy Burge, and it's been clear from the start that this is probably the last season Sheldon Richardson will be in a Mizzou uniform.) We have heard since the moment Mike Slive first visited Columbia last fall that depth in the trenches is key to success in the SEC, and Mizzou was immediately forced to deal with offensive line turnover -- three starters accounting for 103 career starts (Austin Wuebbels, Dan Hoch, Jayson Palmgren) graduated -- and more injuries than I've ever seen there. It isn't surprising to Pinkel that Mizzou has struggled with this complete lack of depth on the offensive line, and it shouldn't be surprising to anybody else, either. We demand change because it's what we do, but if Mizzou makes no changes other than "getting healthy" in 2013, there's a chance that pretty big improvement follows.
All I wanted from 2012 was to find out what Mizzou needed to change (if anything) to compete in its new conference. Seven games into the season, I have absolutely no idea (other than "don't get hurt" and "have ridiculous, Alabama-level depth"). That is almost as frustrating as Mizzou's 3-4 record. I honestly don't know if Pinkel's approach will work or not, but none of us know that it won't either. But there's nothing that can be done about it at this exact moment, and whether Gary Pinkel chooses to make wholesale changes or nothing at all, Mizzou could be in line for decent recovery in 2013. His team will return 42 of the 54 players on its October 8 depth chart (PDF), plus Franklin, Josey, Taylor Chappell and Mitch Morse. The Tigers still have a ton to play for in their final five games of the season (assuming a win this coming Saturday, just think about how much the tenor of this season will change if Mizzou does happen to win in Knoxville), but in case 2012 indeed works out as poorly as we fear, it would probably benefit us to remember that 2013 is a new year, one way or another, and through drastic change or none at all, fortunes could change just as drastically next year as they did this year.
Or, as The Beef put it to me in gchat this morning, "Just tell them to shut the f*** up and enjoy the game." That works, too.