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2014 Missouri football: The Ifs list

it is once again time to lay out the ifs Mizzou needs to succeed this coming football season.

Bill Carter

Last year, on the eve of the 2013 season, I created a list of ifs to serve as a guideline for the season as a whole. Making predictions is impossible -- especially when you're talking about Missouri football of late -- but it's nice to lay out what needs to happen. And last year, just about everything that needed to happen, did.

1. James Franklin is 2011 James Franklin. He was.

2. E.J. Gaines is healthy. He was for 12 of 14 games, and late in the season, he was even better than Mizzou fans expected him to be.

3. The defensive tackles hold their own. They did.

4. The offensive line is solid. It was.

5. Andrew Baggett is late-2012 Andrew Baggett. Well ... he was ... sometimes.

6. DGB takes two steps forward. He took at least one.

7. Mizzou receivers drop an average number of passes. They did. Fewer, even.

8. Kony Ealy makes the Aldon Leap. He didn't, but Michael Sam did. Markus Golden almost did, too.

9. A youngster surpasses Randy Ponder. No one did, but we got the best of both worlds instead: Ponder was solid, and youngsters showed potential when Gaines got hurt.

10. Kentrell Brothers is as good on defense as he was on special teams in 2012. He was.

11. Henry Josey is 2011 Henry Josey. Late in the year, he was even better.

12. James Franklin is better than 2011 James Franklin. Until the postseason, he was.

13. The offensive line is downright good. It was.

14. DGB makes the Danario Leap. He didn't.

15. Astral assistance. Got it. The stars aligned quite nicely, and Mizzou got to within a quarter of the BCS Championship because of it.

So Ifs No. 1-4, 7-8, 10-13, and 15 came true, and three others either almost did or worked out well regardless. The result: a 12-2 season and a top-five finish.

It doesn't always work out that well. It certainly wouldn't have if I'd made a similar list in 2012 (with items like "The offensive line doesn't completely fall apart" and "James Franklin stays healthy"). But to build off of both last year's list and Thursday's 2014 Checklist from CapnCribbs, let's play the Ifs game once again. Some of these are repeats, but that's always going to be the case, I assume.

1. Maty Mauk doesn't turn into Tin Cup Maty

We had the same fears about Chase Daniel, and for the most part they were unfounded. But basically any aspirations Missouri and its fans have this year could be dashed if Maty Mauk tries too hard to make plays, throws the ball into windows that are too tight, and throws too many interceptions. I assume we're safe here, which is why it's the first "if" on the list, but it's technically on the table. Mauk was born to make plays, but sometimes you can try too hard.

2. The offensive line is solid

We assume the line will be more than solid this fall. There are two athletic, versatile pass protectors on the left (Mitch Morse, Anthony Gatti), one of the nation's best centers in the middle (Evan Boehm), and two road graders on the right (Mitch Hall, Connor McGovern). The memory of last year's strong line and the return of five players with starting experience give us hope, but the loss of Justin Britt and Max Copeland at least crack the door a bit when it comes to regression. Both the run game and pass blocking will be needed to take pressure off of Mauk and an uncertain receiving corps, and a sketchy line could bring about offensive collapse.

3. Mizzou receivers drop an average number of passes

Bud Sasser and Jimmie Hunt have both had episodes with the dropsies in their career, and Mizzou will be running routes with a lot of inexperienced receivers at times. Drops could be devastating for a unit that doesn't have nearly as much margin for error, in terms of pure talent, size, and athleticism, as it did last year.

4. The corners stay reasonably healthy

Injuries to the offensive line in 2012 were particularly devastating because they happened to a unit that was already thin on experience. Missouri will be starting two sophomores at cornerback (Aarion Penton, John Gibson III), with two juniors (Kenya Dennis, David Johnson) on the second string and a couple of true freshmen (Logan Cheadle, backup nickelback Thomas Wilson) in the rotation. We're pretty excited about all of these players, but when you start with inexperience and then thin out the depth a bit, trouble can follow.

5. The linebackers stay reasonably healthy

Take everything I said in the above paragraph and alter it slightly. Mizzou will be starting a junior (Kentrell Brothers) and two sophomores (Michael Scherer, Donavin Newsom) at linebacker, and only one backup (Darvin Ruise) has seen any extensive playing time. The athleticism and potential are as high as they've ever been in this unit, but potential takes a while to turn into production sometimes.

6. The freshman ends are good enough

We're quite confident in Markus Golden and Shane Ray effectively replacing Michael Sam and Kony Ealy as starting defensive ends. (Granted, they have something to prove when it comes to run support, but the pass rush probably won't suffer much.) But who replaces Golden and Ray? Mizzou's line depth was such that fatigue was never an issue in the fourth quarter; the Tigers frequently made big late-game plays up front. If Golden and Ray have to carry too heavy a load, however, that might not happen this time around. Redshirt freshmen Marcus Loud and Charles Harris don't have to dominate this year, but they have to at least play well enough to prevent Golden and Ray from tiring.

7. Andrew Baggett is late-2013 Andrew Baggett

For two straight years, Andrew Baggett has been lights-out late in the season. In 2012, he nailed a long overtime field goal to give Mizzou a win over Tennessee. In the 2013 postseason, he hit two field goals to keep Mizzou close against Auburn, then made two more (including a long one in the fourth quarter) to pace the Tigers past Oklahoma State.

That's the Andrew Baggett Mizzou is going to need at some point in 2014, not the one who missed three of his first six field goals to start 2013, and not the one who missed the field goal against South Carolina, then missed another one against Tennessee (and a PAT against Kentucky).

8. Josh Henson goes from good offensive coordinator to great offensive coordinator

Josh Henson passed all of the requisite tests for a first-year offensive coordinator last year. He utilized Mizzou's unique strengths, he helped to create big-play opportunities for two different quarterbacks, and ... well, he called the touchdown play plenty of times. In 2014, Henson's job gets harder. He'll still have a high-ceiling quarterback and a good running game at his disposal, but with less pure athleticism in the receiving corps, passing success will be dictated a bit more by good play-calling than play-making ability. If he's as good as he was last year, Mizzou's offense will be fine. If he improves in his second year on the job, Mizzou's ceiling obviously gets higher.

9. Maty Mauk is 2006 Chase Daniel

So If No. 1 is that Mauk doesn't implode. If No. 9 is that Mauk is downright good, like we assume he can/will be. In 2006, Chase Daniel improved from a 58 percent completion rate and 9.1 yards per completion (as a freshman) to 64 percent and 12.3, respectively. On a per-attempt basis, Mauk doesn't have to improve to that degree -- if he does, he'll be a Heisman contender -- but if his efficiency numbers improve, and if he simply becomes a steady defense-reader and play-maker for an offense with an only decent receiving corps (Mizzou's six leading receivers in 2006: two tight ends, Will Franklin, freshman Jared Perry, Brad Ekwerekwu, and walk-on Tommy Saunders), Mizzou will be pretty good.

10. The defensive tackles dominate

Lucas Vincent made The Leap. Harold Brantley is back in the staff's good graces. Josh Augusta is an oak tree. Matt Hoch is healthy again. We heard more positive talk about the defensive tackles during fall camp than any other unit. The levels of experience, depth, and upside here might be as high as they've ever been, and that's saying something considering Mizzou has produced two first-round tackles since 2009. If the tackles dominate -- and it's at least reasonably conceivable this could happen -- then Mizzou has more than enough run-stuffing weapons to put opponents in must-pass situations. And between a great pair of pass rushers and experienced safeties, Mizzou should be quite solid in must-pass situations.

11. The offensive line is downright good

This was certainly the case last year. It's difficult to simply assume that the line will be as good or better after losing an all-conference, second-round left tackle. But it's not difficult to like not only the potential but the proven production of guys like Boehm and Morse. It's not difficult to be excited about how McGovern and Hall have looked in run blocking this fall. It's not difficult to be giddy about Boehm's leadership potential.

It's not difficult to talk yourself into this line at all. Now it just needs to live up to hype.

12a. Duron Singleton takes the Pig Leap

12b. Donavin Newsome is sophomore-level 'Spoon

Either/or for this one. Missouri is going to spend a lot of time in the nickel this year, so even though Newsom is listed as an official starter, Singleton, the nickelback, will quite likely get nearly as many snaps, if not more. We've both seen and heard great things about both. Singleton is a large, hard-hitting safety who should be strong in run support, but we don't know a lot about his coverage abilities. And from an athleticism standpoint, Newsom has been compared to Sean Weatherspoon by no less than Gary Pinkel. 'Spoon spent a year as a special teams wrecking ball (as Newsom did last year) before moving into the starting lineup and exploding as a sophomore. Meanwhile, Pig Brown was decent as a first-year JUCO transfer before putting all the pieces together as a senior. If we're looking back at 2014 and still comparing Singleton to Brown or Newsom to Weatherspoon, Missouri's 2014 defense was probably very, very good.

13. Jimmie Hunt puts it all together

By the time you reach your senior season, you more or less are what you are. The Michael Sam cases exist, but they are rare. Usually, you're improving incrementally, and the chance for major breakouts is about over.

Keeping that in mind, we basically know what to expect from Missouri's starting receivers this year. Bud Sasser is going to make some tough catches and, potentially, drop some easier balls. Darius White is going to look like a smooth, fast athlete streaking down the field one moment, then go invisible for a couple of quarters. Both are potentially outstanding blockers, but neither are likely to turn into true No. 1 receivers this late in the game.

But if you are what you are ... then what is Jimmie Hunt? Is he the guy who scored four touchdowns on the first 12 catches of his career, averaging 18.0 yards per target in 2011-12? Is he the guy who thickened up a bit, blocked like crazy, and did very little with the ball in his hands in 2013? Is he a slot receiver capable of 2-3 catches per game? Is he a potential 800-1000 yard receiver? We really don't know. And while Mizzou's passing game struggled at times in fall camp, Hunt was out with a nagging injury for part of that. If it turns out that Mizzou's passing game was excellent this fall, it's probably either because Mauk was just that good, because one of the freshmen had an unexpected breakout campaign, or Hunt turned out to be more 2012 than 2013.

14. Maty Mauk is 2007 Chase Daniel

Don't say you can't see it happening. You probably won't see it this year, but it's on the table.

15. Astral assistance

I'll just repeat what I said last year.

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.

They were in 2013 just as much as they weren't in 2012. What happens now?

None of these 15 ifs are givens. If they were, they wouldn't be ifs. We could look back on the 2013 2014 season and find that none of these things happened. (If I'd made a similar list 12 24 months ago, the odds are good that I'd have indeed gone 0-for-15.) But the more that ifs become whens, the more wins Mizzou takes home this fall. We'll see how many we get to check off. But if there's ever a time to dream about all 15 ifs becoming a reality, it's a day before the season begins.