Happy January 1, Mizzou fans. The 2016 calendar year wasn’t particularly kind to the Rock M universe — J’den Cox was very nearly the source of the three best Mizzou stories of the year by himself — and the calendar flips with Mizzou continuing a worst-since-the-1960s stretch on the basketball court.
January 1 is a time for both reflection and projection. Here are five predictions I have for Mizzou Athletics over the coming 365 days. A couple of them are optimistic! And I’m going to assume that probably three or four of them will end up incorrect. (I hate making public predictions on anything for that very reason.)
1. Missouri will indeed be hiring a new basketball coach in March.
It’s hard to get around it at this point. Barring a miraculous turnaround, we will probably be breaking out the candidates lists and reacting to SOURCES and FlightAware soon.
We all agree that Kim Anderson was dealt a tough hand since he took the basketball head coaching job in spring 2014. And maybe even an amazing coach would only now be generating momentum. But even if you don’t hold a couple of years of struggles against him, it is clear at this point that Anderson hasn’t proven he can either develop or simply hold onto Division I-level talent. Mizzou athletic director Jim Sterk sees it, too. And he sees a one-third-full Mizzou Arena. Change is coming.
2. The waft of a potential tutor scandal forces Jim Sterk to go young.
Really, the only way you can vote against change at this point is by pointing out that Mizzou might be getting ready to get hit by the NCAA yet again. Former athletics tutor Yolanda Kumar has alleged that she basically helped athletes cheat to stay eligible.
While I’m pretty sure this falls into the “everybody does it” bucket, that doesn’t really matter. The NCAA is going to check on what’s provable, and it might find something. And if it does, that would be the third time in recent memory that the organization will have to smack Mizzou around. That tends to mean significant punishment.
Whether this comes to pass or not, Sterk will likely be attempting to make a hire with all of this hovering over the program. That means any hope of reeling in a higher-end, proven head coach probably passes unless you’re willing to drastically overpay.
I’m guessing that means Mizzou then scoops up someone from the mid-major ranks. And that’s perfectly fine. That’s where Don Faurot came from. That’s where Dan Devine and Norm Stewart and Gary Pinkel came from. But it’s a pool full of less proven candidates, and choosing one is always risky.
3. The Mizzou Softball team underachieves, and Baseball overachieves.
The first two predictions are based on educated guesses to some degree. This one is pure gut. After all the drama of the 2016 calendar year, I have the feeling that there might be a bit of an emotional letdown as Mizzou breaks in a new softball facility. An uncertain pitching staff probably won’t help. This team will still make the NCAAs and whatnot, but I don’t sense a major run here.
At the same time, I think I really like Steve Bieser, the new baseball hire and Mack Rhoades parting gift to the university. And honestly, I think that, if nothing else, a blood transfusion is exactly what the baseball program needed. It will be worth a few extra wins in and of itself. And honestly, it would be lovely to get Tanner Houck to the damn NCAAs at least once before he departs.
4. Drew Lock throws for 4,000 yards.
4,000 yards means throwing for 25 more yards per game than he did in 2015. At least, it does when you’re projecting it over 13 games instead of 12. But I’ll circle back to that in a moment.
With my stat hat on, I’ve found through the years that continuity in the passing game — returning most of your production at quarterback and in the receiving corps — makes a drastic difference in offensive potency, far more than returning your run production or experience on the offensive line.
For the first time since 2013, Mizzou will return most of the bones of its passing game. It will return most of its run production, too, mind you, but having an experienced quarterback, throwing to experienced receivers, sounds surreal at this point. Junior Drew Lock will be surveying a field that features each of his top four wideouts from 2016 (J’Mon Moore, Dimetrios Mason, Johnathon Johnson, Emanuel Hall), plus experienced tight ends in Kendall Blanton and Jason Reese.
That alone should add to Lock’s yardage ledger. Add in the tempo that Josh Heupel wants to maintain, and you should easily have 25 more yards per game. The only question is whether winning more games leads to more rushing attempts and fewer passing attempts. Hopefully it will. But I bet Lock hits 4,000 regardless.
Now about that “13 games” thing...
5. Mizzou's two-year run without a bowl will end.
This has nothing to do with the schedule at hand, though at first glance it appears manageable. Mizzou switches out a road trip to West Virginia with a trip to UConn and welcomes Missouri State, Purdue, and Idaho to Columbia. Retooling Florida and Tennessee teams come to town, as does maybe the best opponent on the schedule (Auburn).
Without going too far into detail, it feels there are at least six wins on the schedule, especially if the offense indeed sharpens up a bit. Add some progression-to-the-mean improvement on defense, and you can talk yourself into well more than six. But for now we'll keep it simple and say that Mizzou will be playing 13 games in 2017. That's reassuring enough for January 1.