The day before the 2013 college football season began, I walked through a series of ifs that Missouri would need for varying degrees of success this fall. With the first half of the season in the books, and a zero in the loss column, I thought it would be interesting to look back at the list.
1. James Franklin is 2011 James Franklin
In 2011, James Franklin rushed for 1,089 yards, averaged 7.0 yards per pass attempt, and accounted for 36 touchdowns, and Mizzou's offense ranked 24th in Off. F/+. In 2012, Franklin injured his shoulder, injured his shoulder again, sprained his MCL, suffered a concussion, rushed for 290 yards, averaged 5.5 yards per pass attempt, and accounted for 10 touchdowns. Missouri's offense sank to an incredible 85th, and while that was only partially on Franklin -- the offensive line was glued together and shaky, Henry Josey was on the sidelines, receivers were dropping passes, etc. -- it is obvious that for Missouri to keep its goals relatively ambitious, Franklin has to at least get back to what he was in 2011. Good health should ensure that, of course. While we hope that Maty Mauk is one day Chase Daniel incarnate, Franklin has been the team's best quarterback through the first eight months of 2013, and the Tigers' ceiling is probably the highest with QB No. 1 behind center.
James Franklin was better than 2011 James Franklin. He was as good as we hoped he would be, really. Of course, that changes now with the shoulder injury.
2. E.J. Gaines is healthy
We have hope for a lot of Mizzou's young cornerbacks, but they're not ready yet. If Gaines is out, the ceiling for this defense drops dramatically.
Again, E.J. Gaines has been healthy and effective. And as with Franklin, he's currently not healthy.
3. The defensive tackles hold their own
There is no replacing Sheldon Richardson, and there is almost no way to avoid regression at defensive tackle in 2013. But there's a difference between regression and collapse. Improvement from others in the front seven can account for DT regression. It can't account for collapse.
Man oh man, has this unit exceeded expectations, not only in its quality but in its depth. Missouri rotates between five tackles with minimal dropoff, and four of the five return in 2014.
4. The offensive line is solid
Speaking of regression vs. collapse, Mizzou's offensive line collapsed in 2012, to the point where you cannot simply pin it on injuries. The interior line was actually relatively stable for the most part -- it was Evan Boehm at LG and Max Copeland at RG for most of the year, with Mitch Morse and Brad McNulty getting flipped at center midyear -- but it was also full of holes which went from an issue to a devastating issue at key moments in tight losses to Vandy and Syracuse.
Again, health and last year's experience should help significantly. But players like Boehm, Copeland, Connor McGovern, McNulty, Mitch Hall, and others have to prove that they are not just able to remain healthy in 2013, but also able to improve a solid amount.
The line has been at least solid.
These four ifs are both relatively realistic and necessary for a 6-6 or 7-5 campaign. Now let's up the ante.
Four-for-four, huh? Granted, it's 2-for-4 heading into week 7, but you know what I mean.
5. Andrew Baggett is late-2012 Andrew Baggett
Andrew Baggett made one of four field goals against Arizona State last year. Bad snaps and iffy kicks were a problem in September, but after Arizona State, Baggett made 11 of 13 3-pointers the rest of the year. For the season, he made five kicks over 40 yards. He made the game-winner in overtime against Tennessee.
We've heard pretty tepid reviews of the kicking game in spring practice and fall camp, but none of that matters as long as the guy who took the field in October and November does so again this fall, the kicking game will be alright. But if he's shaky, Mizzou's not going to be able to thrive as well in close games as it will need to if it wants to sneak past 6-7 wins.
Well, the kickoffs have been fantastic, huh?
6. DGB takes two steps forward
Dorial Green-Beckham caught 28 passes for 395 yards and five touchdowns in 2012. That's quite good for a true freshman, but it was a little disappointing for the No. 1 recruit in the country. Still, he grew significantly. He caught 21 passes for 267 yards and four scores in the last five games; project that over 12 games, and you've got 50 catches for 641 yards and 10 scores. Safe to say, that's the baseline minimum of expectations for 2013. If he produces that, along with the four ifs above, Mizzou's a bowl team. But for Mizzou to raise its hopes beyond six wins or a lucky seventh, he needs to be what we heard he's been for much of the 2013 offseason. Like, 70-80 catches, 900-1100 yards. If Mizzou has a go-to weapon, a solid quarterback and a solid line, the Tigers can hope for eight wins. Well, as long as...
We'll leave this one unchecked. DGB has done exactly what is asked of him -- his per-target averages are lovely -- but with L'Damian Washington surging and the three-headed running back dominating, he hasn't been asked to carry the team. We don't know what will happen if or when he is.
7. Mizzou receivers drop an average number of passes
That counts, too. As Mizzou grew desperate for a receiver to step up as things were falling apart against Vanderbilt and others in October, the drops added up quickly. Marcus Lucas was the prime offender, but he was not alone. We saw improvement late, which was encouraging, but while we don't need Mizzou receivers to have the best set of hands in the country, we need the drops to remain at a steady, average level. We have high expectations for this receiving corps, but we did last year, too. Time to step up.
Unless I'm forgetting one, you have to go back to non-conference play, I think, to come up with a pretty egregious drop. We'll see if this changes with a new QB throwing passes.
If these things happen, Mizzou's likely record probably moves from 6-7 to 7-8. Now it's time to raise the stakes a bit more.
Counting DGB as an incomplete, we're basically 5-for-6, with only Baggett as a question mark.
8. Kony Ealy makes the Aldon Leap
Mizzou's defense as a whole can hold steady in the top 50 with reasonable health and predictable year-to-year progression. But for Mizzou to surpass 7-8 wins, the Tigers will need a top-30 or 35 defense at the very least. And for that to happen, they'll need another star beyond E.J. Gaines. Kony Ealy is perhaps even more physically impressive than Aldon Smith; he's not a defensive end who projects to 3-4 OLB like Smith ... he's a defensive end by every stretch of the imagination. He's approaching 280 pounds with the quickness of a 250-pounder. He's a first-round pick if he plays every game like he played against Arizona State last year.
The problem with Ealy, though, is that like many people with his potential, he struggles to maintain a high level from play to play, game to game. If he takes the Leap, however, if the stories we've heard from fall camp end up true, then he can take his whole team up another level. If Mizzou has a dominant end, complemented by healthy tackles, Michael Sam, and Shane Ray, then the Tigers have the line to field a top-30 defense. No pressure, Kony.
Instead of Kony, how about "The entire unit makes a leap"? Mizzou's ends have been incredible, combining for 15 sacks and 23 quarterback hurries. Technically Kony Ealy hasn't turned into Aldon Smith, but Michael Sam basically has, and everybody else has come up with plays, too. Once per game, Markus Golden makes a right tackle look like a high schooler. Ealy picked off Nate Sudfeld and turned the Indiana game around. Shane Ray stripped Aaron Murray. And of course, Michael Sam had six sacks in two games. What a unit this group has become.
9. A youngster surpasses Randy Ponder
I feel like I'm picking on Randy Ponder sometimes, but he's as known a quantity as Mizzou has on this team. On a scale of 1-10, he's a 6, sometimes a 7. He's a scrapper, a fearless, sound tackler. He's also not nearly as athletic as most of the other cornerbacks on Mizzou's depth chart. His ceiling is clear. If Mizzou is to field, say, a top-25 defense, the Tigers will probably need more from the corner position than just Gaines. It will need a John Gibson, or an Ernest Payton, or a David Johnson, or a Xavier Smith to prove infinitely more consistent than they have to date. Mizzou can have a good defense with Ponder. No doubt. But it might need more to field a very good defense.
Nope. But in Ponder's absence (against Arkansas State) and Gaines' absence (against Georgia), this unit has shown growth. It still needs to improve, but it hasn't cost Missouri a game.
10. Kentrell Brothers is as good on defense as he was on special teams last year
There were times last year where both Kentrell Brothers and Markus Golden gave me "Sean Weatherspoon in 2006" flashes on special teams. Brothers in particular made a couple of those perfect "you see the tackle coming from 10 yards away, and so does the ball-carrier, and he can't do anything about it and gets smoked" plays. They gave starry eyes to both me and the ball-carrier. We basically know what Andrew Wilson is going to deliver at the middle linebacker position, but if Mizzou can complement a good line and good corners with a missile on the weakside, this becomes a defense comparable with 2010 or late-2007.
Sorry, that's "reigning SEC Defensive Player of the Week" Kentrell Brothers. He is a work in progress when it comes to tackling in space, but he's shown off some good hands and pass coverage instincts (three picks, three passes broken up) and he has helped to make sure Missouri doesn't miss Zaviar Gooden too much. And he's a sophomore.
11. Henry Josey is 2011 Henry Josey
I'm putting this pretty far on the list just because I'm refusing to allow myself to dream too big here. Henry Josey's knee basically exploded 22 months ago. His run of success in 2011 was as exhilarating as anything I've seen other than Danario Alexander in 2009, and I am trying my damnedest to avoid setting the bar there. Expectations simply must be lowered until proven otherwise. But ... yeah. if you've got a solid James Franklin, a solid line, a good DGB, a dependable, deep receiving corps, and 2011 Henry Josey? I mean ... that's a top-20 offense, no?
I'm not completely sure Josey's instincts are quite to where they were in 2011. He's never been one to create something out of nothing; he's more of a one-crease-and-go kind of guy. But his high-end speed is still high, and he's averaging 5.5 yards per carry. And to the extent that Missouri has needed big-time play from the running back position, Russell Hansbrough and Marcus Murphy have helped to provide it.
If we get to step 11, with a top-20 offense and top-25 defense, then you're talking about a ceiling a lot closer to nine to 10 wins.
12. James Franklin is better than 2011 James Franklin
Mizzou can get pretty far with 2011 James, the guy who ran tough, threw mostly accurate passes, and stayed out of his way for the most part. But 2011 James also fell into funks at times; one mistake was usually pretty closely followed by another. If Franklin is healthy and accurate and offers a solid run threat, and he moves on from mistakes and makes better reads overall, then Mizzou's offense is almost without flaw here in step 12.
Again, here's where the path diverges. But through six games, this is a check-plus.
13. The offensive line is downright good
This might be too much to ask, but ... 13 ifs is almost always too much to ask. With the team we've created through 12 ifs, the only average unit left is the line. If Justin Britt and Mitch Morse go from solid to very good, if Evan Boehm takes the leap we think he can, and if the guards are at least good, then the line gets back to 2011 level or higher.
14. DGB makes the Danario Leap
As with Henry Josey returning to 2011 levels, I refuse to expect this type of leap out of anybody. But DGB is bigger and stronger than Danario, with comparable (or superior?) speed. He has a Danario 2009 leap in him.
As a reminder, here's what the Danario Leap looks like: For 2009 as a whole, Alexander caught 113 passes for 1,781 yards and 14 touchdowns. Through five games, he had 35 catches for 447 yards and five scores; over 13 games, that's a 91-catch, 1160-yard pace.
Over the last seven games, however, he caught a positively absurd 78 passes for 1,334 yards and nine scores; that's a 13-game pace of 145 catches and 2,480 yards.
I think we'd be very happy if DGB caught 90 passes for 1100 yards. But if he skews more toward 110 catches and 1700 yards? Or, God forbid, better? Who beats Mizzou at that point?
15. Astral assistance
In 2007, it just felt like the stars were aligning. Mizzou was a top-20 team at the end of September, but to move up and navigate a schedule that was going to feature three straight ranked teams (Nebraska, Oklahoma, Texas Tech) and what looked like a very good Kansas squad, the Tigers were going to need to raise their game significantly on defense. They did. And to become a national contender, they needed quite a few other teams to fall. They did. The stars just aligned for that team. And while the Tigers came up short of a national title shot (stupid Curtis Lofton), they still finished in the top 5 for the first time in 47 years. If the ifs above take shape, Mizzou will have a chance to win every game. But even if all of these things break right, the stars need to also be in the Tigers' favor.
Georgia was banged up, Florida is banged up, South Carolina has underachieved a bit, Texas A&M's defense stinks, and Missouri ranks ahead of every remaining opponent on the schedule in terms of F/+ rankings. Everything about this would feel like astral assistance ... if not for James Franklin's injury. We're basically at 10-for-13 or 11-for-14 here so far, but injuries to Franklin and Gaines tamp this down to seven or eight. It changes the complexion of both the team and the season.
Still ... seven weeks ago, I convinced myself that I'd be more or less okay with a 6-6 season. Not happy about it, per say, but tolerant of it. And now Missouri's 6-0. Things could change now -- insert "Missouri exceeds expectations in the most disappointing possible way" comment here -- but it's hard to complain about much, even with the injury to QB No. 1. This has been fun. Hopefully we're saying the same in about nine days. Again, no pressure, Maty Mauk.