Gary Pinkel's 13th spring in Columbia begins today.
"To win in the SEC, Missouri's going to have to ____." We heard that a lot from outsiders (usually accompanied by a condescending tone) heading into Mizzou's first football season in its new conference, and we heard it even more from Mizzou media and fans in the months following the disappointing 5-7 campaign. To win in the SEC, Missouri's going to have to change up its offense. To win in the SEC, Missouri's going to have to get bigger up front. And as we heard ad nauseum on and around National Signing Day, to win in the SEC, Missouri's going to have to recruit better. The No. 41 class in the country just isn't going to cut it.
To be sure, there's truth here. If Missouri improves its offense (through changes, maturation, whatever), gets bigger (and, in theory, better) in the trenches, and starts landing better recruits, it will probably win more games. It's not rocket science. But at the same time, it kind of misses the point. Before we know what Missouri needs to do better or different, before we come to truly understand what pieces of Gary Pinkel's "process" need permanent alteration, we need to see what Missouri can do when it actually fields a Gary Pinkel team. Because we certainly didn't see it in 2012.
One of the benefits of using advanced stats is, of course, the opponent adjustment aspect of it. If you move to a better conference, your raw numbers might regress even if you stay the same or improve in terms of overall quality.
Over the past five seasons, Missouri's offense had ranked in the Off. F/+ Top 25 four times -- fourth in 2007, ninth in 2008, 17th in 2010 and 24th in 2011. If the Tigers' offense had once again been the 24th-best in the country in 2012, their raw numbers would have regressed a bit because of the fact that they played one of the most ridiculous slates of defenses in the country: five Missouri opponents ranked in the Def. F/+ Top 20 (No. 1 Alabama, No. 2 Florida, No. 7 South Carolina, No. 15 Texas A&M, No. 18 Georgia), and another three ranked in the Top 45 (No. 31 Arizona State, No. 35 Vanderbilt, No. 42 UCF). Of course Missouri's points and yards per game were going to regress; but they didn't just regress, they plummeted. Mizzou fell all the way to an unfathomable 85th in Off. F/+ in 2012. And remember, that's an opponent-adjusted figure.
We know why this happened, of course, at least to an extent. James Franklin got hurt on four separate occasions (shoulder in the spring, shoulder again in the Georgia game, MCL in the Vanderbilt game, concussion in the Syracuse game), Henry Josey was busy rehabbing a catastrophic knee injury, and Missouri's line got Elvis Fisher back (after missing 2011) just in time to lose Travis Ruth (for the season), Taylor Chappell (for the season), Jack Meiners (for most of the season), Justin Britt (for the last few games), Mitch Morse (for a while), and Fisher again (for a while).
The offensive coordinator was overworked, the quarterback couldn't stay healthy (and the backup was inconsistent at best), the best player on the team didn't suit up, and the line was a mishmash of spare parts. The offense would have certainly gained a few more yards and scored a few more points in the Big 12, but it would have stunk regardless. This, of course, flies in the face of the "They weren't ready for the SEC" meme that took shape. It's not that they weren't ready for the SEC; it's that they weren't ready to field even a decent offense. We can debate how much of the struggle was simply because of bad luck and how much was due to an unacceptable lack of depth (and it goes without saying that this year's team is going to have to figure out how to produce, injuries or no), but that doesn't really matter. Mizzou's offense stunk, and it would have stunk (relatively speaking) in any conference.
For years, Gary Pinkel has made his name taking Top 30-40 classes and creating a Top 15-30 product out of them. In 2007, Missouri produced a No. 9 final F/+ ranking with a roster that came from classes ranked 28th, 46th, 39th, 47th and 33rd (average rank: 38.6). In 2008, the Tigers ranked 14th with an average class rank of 38.0. In 2010, they ranked 13th with an average class rank of 33.2. In 2011, they ranked 22nd with an average class rank of 33.4.
At its best, Gary Pinkel's "process" produces results above what recruiting rankings would suggest. And if the "process" is operating properly, that doesn't have to change in a new conference. Granted, a Top 15 product is more likely to produce a 9-3 record instead of a 10-2 record in the SEC, but it would still be a Top 15 product. And granted, a Top 30 product might only go 7-5 or 8-4, but ... 7-5 is not 5-7. A 7-5 record in 2013 would represent a clear step forward. We'll worry about other steps after the first one.
QB James Franklin (6'2, 230, Sr.)
QB Corbin Berkstresser (6'3, 225, So.)
QB Maty Mauk (6'1, 200, RSFr.)
TB Marcus Murphy (5'9, 185, Jr.)
TB Russell Hansbrough (5'9, 185, So.)
TB Henry Josey (5'10, 190, Jr.)
WR-X Marcus Lucas (6'5, 220, Sr.)
WR-X Dorial Green-Beckham (6'6, 220, So.)
WR-H Bud Sasser (6'2, 210, Jr.)
WR-H Jimmie Hunt (6'1, 215, Jr.)
WR-Z L'Damian Washington (6'4, 200, Sr.)
TE Eric Waters (6'4, 245, Sr.)
TE Sean Culkin (6'6, 240, RSFr.)
LT Justin Britt (6'6, 320, Sr.)
LG Evan Boehm (6'3, 315, So.)
C Brad McNulty (6'4, 305, So.)
RG Max Copeland (6'3, 295, Sr.)
RT Mitch Morse (6'5, 305, Jr.)
RT Taylor Chappell (6'5, 320, So.)
There are a lot of exciting names on the pre-spring depth chart released yesterday. New offensive coordinator Josh Henson has quite a few toys in the toy box, and with the first semi-healthy two-deep in two years, he could engineer a pretty swift recovery. But after last season, the burden of proof is heavy. It doesn't really matter what the offense looks like on paper, or what its advanced ratings are; it has to produce. And it will have to even produce a little bit more to offset what could possibly be some regression on the defensive side of the ball.
To win in the SEC, you have to … field a good team. That's it. To win a lot in the SEC, you have to field a great team. It doesn't matter how you do it -- recruiting, development, blind luck -- it just matters that you do it. There's nothing saying the type of team Gary Pinkel produced for most of the 2006-11 range, with performance exceeding recruiting rankings by 10-20 spots, wouldn't fare alright in the SEC; maybe the records are slightly different (say, one win worse on average), and maybe at some point in the future we have to determine whether the quality of a good Pinkel product (Top 15-25 on average) is good enough. But in 2012, Missouri fielded its worst team since 2004. Maybe the Tigers pull off a 6-6 record in the Big 12, but last year didn't see the typical Pinkel product, and it's up to him to prove he can, at the very least, get Missouri back to where it was before the injuries came cascading in. Pinkel turned the program around starting in 2005; now he gets the chance to do it again.
In 2013, Gary Pinkel's goal isn't to change everything about his process because of Missouri's new conference; it's simply to prove that his process can still field a good team. That's it. And today, the work begins in earnest.