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Count the ifs: What needs to happen for Mizzou Football to return to relevance?

It’s a pretty feasible list, honestly.

Arkansas v Missouri Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images

You probably know the drill by now. Since about 2013, one of my favorite offseason exercises has been the counting of the ifs.

When I’m writing about everybody in my SB Nation college football preview series, I inevitably find myself saying things like “If Player A or Unit B holds up, then Team C will have a shot at something special.” You can make anybody awesome with the right number of ifs, but the truly good teams require fewer of them.

I walked through Mizzou Basketball’s ifs list last week. Now it’s time for football.

With these, Mizzou probably bowls in 2017

1. If Damarea Crockett stays healthy

My feelings about Damarea Crockett’s potential are both well-known and, well, rather common. It isn’t hard to see what he might be capable of. But if he were to get injured, a la Russell Hansbrough early in 2015, it will be virtually impossible for Mizzou to reach its ceiling.

The Mizzou running back corps is in better overall shape than it was in 2015. Ish Witter is a steady veteran now, Nate Strong showed that he could grind late in 2016, and freshman Larry Rountree III is turning lots of heads. But Crockett is the star. Mizzou needs him to stay upright.

2. If DeMarkus Acy is solid

I’ve already called Acy the most important player on the 2017 roster.

For all the reasons Holmes made the list above, Acy makes it doubly. If he’s up for the task, he will be playing the role of Penton against top SEC receivers like South Carolina’s Deebo Samuel, Florida’s Antonio Callaway, Kentucky’s Garrett Johnson, Tennessee’s Jauan Jennings, etc. If he holds his own, Mizzou might be fine. If Mizzou doesn’t have a No. 1 corner, however, then it’s possible nothing else matters.

No pressure, DeMarkus.

He’ll need to be solid for Mizzou to even think about reaching its ceiling.

3. If the offensive line improves to 65th in Adj. Line Yards

With Crockett in the lineup, Mizzou’s run game will be solid no matter what. But the blocking could still stand to improve. Mizzou ranked a paltry 105th in Adj. Line Yards last year, with Crockett creating quite a bit on his own. With virtually the entire two-deep returning, plus the addition of players like redshirt freshman Trystan Castillo and JUCO transfer Yasir Durant, competition and experience should lead to improvement. But how much?

If Mizzou’s can simply work its way toward decent production stats, and if Crockett and the other Tiger backs are seeing first contact further down field, this run game will hum. The line doesn’t have to be great, but decent would be fantastic.

Delaware State v Missouri
Kevin Pendleton (71) and J’Mon Moore (6)
Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

4. If the defensive line improves to 65th in Adj. Line Yards.

Of course, the biggest run problem for Mizzou came on the other side of the ball. A combination of scheme changes and injury issues destroyed Missouri’s run defense. The Tigers ranked 109th in Rushing S&P+ and 97th in Adj. Line Yards. That’s not going to cut it against the stable of running backs on the 2017 schedule.

Terry Beckner Jr. and Markell Utsey are back and healthy, A.J. Logan returns, and JUCO transfers Walter Palmore and Rashad Brandon are trying to get up to speed following strange NCAA clearance issues. If this group of tackles, plus bigger ends Marcell Frazier, Jordan Harold, maybe Akial Byers, etc., are able to stand up to blocking and create occasional havoc, Mizzou should make enough stops to put itself in position to win a lot of relative tossups.

5. If Tucker McCann is ... stable

While I wouldn’t complain if Mizzou went out and scored 10 touchdowns in the season opener against Missouri State, here’s to hoping the Tigers stall out at around the 25 at some point, and McCann, now a sophomore, comes in and bangs home a 42-yarder.

McCann was a place-kicking bomb as a freshman. He showed off his massive leg on kickoffs, but he couldn’t control it, missing four PATs and half his field goals. The talent is obvious, but place-kicking feels 95% psychological. Building a little confidence early on would be great because Mizzou’s likely going to be playing in a lot of close games this year. Being able to actually rely on your kicker is a preference.

With these, Mizzou probably wins 8-9 games

6. If Drew Lock hits 145.

Considering the vertical passing capability of this offense, with both Lock’s arm and Josh Heupel’s philosophy, you probably don’t need a QB completing 65 percent of his passes to succeed. Lock hit 58 percent in three of his last four games, and something at that level might be enough.

Really, though, evaluating Lock with passer rating might be more useful. Despite its flaws, it does a decent job of combining efficiency (completion rate), explosiveness (yards per attempt), and mistakes (INT rate). And even if you remove the glorified scrimmage against Delaware State, Mizzou still averaged 35.5 points per game when Lock had a passer rating of 144 or better. With a year of experience under his (and his receiving corps’) belt, he should expect to hit that mark more often. If he averages that mark, Mizzou is in business.

Missouri v South Carolina
Drew Lock
Photo by Tyler Lecka/Getty Images

7. If Mizzou defensive ends record 30 TFLs

  • In 2013, Missouri defensive ends combined for 56.5 tackles for loss — 33 sacks and 23.5 non-sacks.
  • 2014: 47.5 TFLs — 27 sacks and 18.5 non-sacks
  • 2015: 39.0 TFLs — 16 sacks and 23 non-sacks
  • 2016: 23.5 TFLs — 18.5 sacks ... and 5 non-sacks

#DLineZou’s reputation may have been held intact because of Charles Harris’ selection in the first round of the 2017 NFL draft, but its production has plummeted. And now Harris is gone.

One way or another, Mizzou defensive ends have to turn this trend around. Commitment to a more aggressive scheme will help, and it wouldn’t surprise me if Marcell Frazier ended up with 15-18 TFLs by himself. But between Harold, Byers, Franklin Agbasimere, Tre Williams, Nate Anderson, and Chris Turner, Mizzou desperately needs to find other sources of disruption on the outside.

More specifically, though, Mizzou needs its ends to be disruptive against both run and pass. Tiger ends actually had more sacks in 2016 than 2015, but the non-sack TFLs vanished. It’s not surprising, then, that the stature of Mizzou’s run defense did, too.

If Mizzou ends can get back to 30 TFLs — with, say, a ratio of 15 sacks and 15 non-sacks — the Tiger defense might have what it needs up front to succeed.

8. If Johnathan Johnson holds onto the damn ball

From my 2017 SB Nation preview:

Johnson was one of the most fascinating players in the sport last year. He averaged 18 yards per catch out of the slot, rushed four times for 114 yards, and averaged 14 yards per punt return. He also fumbled an astounding 11 times — six from scrimmage and five on punt returns.

Heupel utilized his slot guys in dynamic ways, and Johnson is the top guy there. But damn, dude, hold onto the football.

Johnson is Missouri’s most explosive offensive weapon by far. But he simply cannot fumble that many times this year; if he does, then the less explosive but far steadier Richaud Floyd will end up seeing far more reps, I think. That would both lower Mizzou’s ceiling and perhaps raise its floor.

9. If Kaleb Prewett produces something like the following stat line: 6 TFLs, 1 sack, 1 INT, 5 PBUs, 1 FF

Mizzou basically installed a full-time nickel back into its defense. That seems like a pretty big deal, but really it’s just an acknowledgment of reality in today’s college football environment.

Among last year’s top 20 defenses per Def. S&P+, I found about 10 that regularly utilized nickel backs. Between them, they averaged 6.2 TFLs, 1.3 sacks, 0.8 interceptions, 4.5 pass breakups, and 1.1 forced fumbles. Prewett has turned heads in both spring practice and fall camp and appears to be custom-made for the role. Now he needs to produce.

10. If the tight ends combine for 70 catches

As exciting as Mizzou’s wideouts — J’Mon Moore, Johnson, Dimetrios Mason, Floyd, Emanuel Hall, Nate Brown, etc. — appear to be, the key to stability might be the big guys.

Mizzou tight ends caught 50 of 80 passes for 566 yards and five touchdowns. Not bad considering what the position had produced in recent years. But between Kendall Blanton, Jason Reese, and redshirt freshmen Albert Okwuegbunam and Brendan Scales, it feels like there might be more potential here. Tight ends were Chase Daniel’s security blanket in 2007, especially in the red zone; Lock could use a security blanket of his own., and if the final line for Tiger tight ends is something like 105 targets, 70 catches, and 800 yards, this offense’s efficiency level was probably awfully high.

Eastern Michigan v Missouri
Kendall Blanton (11)
Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

With these, Mizzou is an SEC contender

11. If the defensive line ranks in the top 30 in Adj. Line Yards

Let’s say Beckner stays healthy and turns into a true force in the middle of the defense. Let’s say that Brandon is able to follow up on his strong spring performance with a high-caliber full-season effort. And let’s say that Mizzou defensive ends are actually making run stops again. That sounds like more than a decent line.

It’s not likely that all comes together, but if it does, and the offense is fulfilling the ifs we’ve discussed so far, opponents are going to be very stressed and facing a lot of second- and third-and-longs.

NCAA Football: Missouri at Florida
J’Mon Moore
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

12. If DeMarkus Acy is E.J. Gaines Incarnate

Acy and fellow sophomore Christian Holmes have the size that Barry Odom desires on the outside. If he truly turns into a rock for this defense (and the other ifs so far have been fulfilled), then ... well, where exactly is the weakness on this defense?

13. If J’Mon Moore is November 2016 J’Mon more

He was truly awesome late last season.

As it stood, the receiving corps was the least of Odom’s problems late in the year, as J’Mon Moore went nuclear. He caught eight of 14 balls for 138 yards against Vanderbilt, nine of 16 for 134 against Tennessee, and six of 10 for 135 against Arkansas. You always have to be careful with the “on pace for...” game, but projected over 12 games, that three-game pace would produce 160 targets, 92 catches, and 1,628 yards.

Moore went from dreadfully inefficient No. 1 target to Danario Reincarnated (Danario Alexander in 2009: 113 catches, 1,781 yards, and no damn Biletnikoff Award ... damn I thought I was over that, but I guess not) over the last quarter of the season. Hoping for 100 catches and 1,600 yards is a bit much, but it’s quite conceivable that he shows that form for a longer period of time in 2017. That would redefine Mizzou’s offensive ceiling in a pretty dramatic way.

Moore looks the part, and his highlight reel is as good as anyone’s. But his drops and inconsistency have prevented him from threatening “all-timer” status. If November 2016 provided a glimpse of what’s to come in 2017, this offense will dominate.

14. If Mizzou gets some astral assistance

I wrote this as the final item in the 2013 Ifs list:

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.

Sometimes you know when things are lining up in your favor. It’s been a couple of years since Mizzou fans got to feel like that.

As always, it’s obviously too much to ask that all 14 of these ifs come to pass. But if you look back at that 2013 list, you see that about 12 of 15 came true. If Mizzou hits at least seven or eight, the Tigers will put a really fun team on the field. I wouldn’t complain about another 2013, but I’ll take that, too.