My weekly habits are pretty well-defined. On Monday or Tuesday, I look at last week’s stats. On Tuesday, the new depth chart comes out. On Wednesday and Thursday, I look at the coming opponent’s depth chart. On Friday, I post my keys to Saturday’s game. It’s a pretty reliable, thorough journey.
Today’s Friday, which means it’s Keys to the Game time, right? I guess. It should be pretty obvious what Missouri needs to win this game.
- The improving Missouri defensive line needs to win more battles than it loses against the Auburn offensive front. That would render Auburn’s glitchy offense relatively one-dimensional.
- The Missouri secondary needs to tackle. Auburn’s going to complete its share of short passes, and that’s fine, but make sure five-yard passes result in five-yard gains. Purdue’s ability to cut back and get upfield against Missouri’s scrambling defenders early last week turned a likely loss into an immediate blowout.
- Missouri has to win the field position battle. That means rendering Auburn as inefficient as Missouri’s offense probably will be, winning the punting battle, and probably winning the turnover battle, too.
- Missouri must maximize whatever big plays it gets. The Tigers aren’t going to get many. That means 30-yard gains instead of 20-yarders. It also means not only forcing a couple of turnovers (a novel idea) but taking them the other direction, too. It might also mean attempting a trick play. An even more novel concept.
That’s what I’m guessing is a pretty good list. But I made a list last week, too, and it was immediately rendered useless by the simple fact that Barry Odom’s team played the most unprepared game I have seen the Tigers play in 20 years. You might have to go back to 1993 to find a Missouri team looking that hapless and lost that early in the season. The defense was a step slow for two quarters. The offense was outmuscled for four. The Purdue coaching staff did laps around Missouri’s.
Mizzou will probably have to check all four items on that list to beat Auburn, no matter how iffy Gus Malzahn’s Tigers have looked at times. But the list only matters if Missouri takes the field and plays like a team that has actually scouted its opponent and actually walks onto Faurot Field ready to win. That’s a prerequisite, and we have absolutely no idea how Missouri will respond to last week’s horrendous performance.
Wins and losses will always matter, but it takes pretty special circumstances to get justifiably fired before your third year as a head coach. Sometimes improvement isn’t happening as quickly as you’d like it to, and while that’s frustrating, it’s not necessarily fireable. We know Missouri fans can be as impatient as anyone, but few schools have proved the virtue of patience quite as much as Missouri. Gary Pinkel could have been fired after 2004 or 2005. Or, hell, if you believe what he says in his book, he could have been fired after 2012, too. Patience pays off more often than not.
But patience also requires a baseline of proof. The bar isn’t incredibly high, but you have to clear it. And allowing your team to play as haplessly as Odom did last Saturday — as you announce that you just had the best week of practice in forever, no less — is, if it happens enough, fireable.
It’s only happened once, though. And if Missouri rebounds, plays with fire and some semblance of organization, and finishes, say, 5-7 or so, I bet Odom gets a third year. You can can make a case against it, sure, but I bet he gets it.
If Mizzou puts another no-show together tomorrow, however, I’m not sure there’s any coming back from that.
It’s up to Odom. His meticulous nature, his teaching ability, his attention to detail ... these are all items that were on the “Pros” side of his personal pros and cons list when he was a candidate for Missouri head coach, and none were on display last Saturday. His team looked lost, and he looked lost trying to figure out why.
Here’s another passage from Pinkel’s 100-Yard Journey.
After our first year in the SEC, I reflected on a conversation I had with Jim Harbaugh when he was in his first year as the head coach of the 49ers. It was a profound statement that defined my approach with our players. [...] He had just left Stanford for the 49ers, going from a program that he had built into a national power to a league where it's supposed to be an even playing field across the board. I figured making that jump was going to be difficult for Jim. I mentioned to him, "You're going to have your challenges, right?"
He looked at me with that intense Jim Harbaugh glare and said, "Coach, we've got great players. They've got great players. We compete. They compete. It doesn't get better than this as a competitor." He was almost in a cold sweat. He couldn't wait for the competition. He embraced those challenges. It inspired him.
I was so impressed with his answer. Later that fall we made the decision to join the SEC and the more I thought about how we should approach this challenge, the more I kept coming back to Harbaugh. We were now playing the best teams in the best stadiums. We had to embrace that. I had to embrace that. That's the message I had to get across to our players. "This is an opportunity to compete against the best. We're now part of this great league. It doesn't get better than that." That had to be our attitude.
From the standpoint of recruiting rankings, those 2013 and 2014 Missouri teams weren’t all that different than the current one. But they loved to compete. Missouri played last week like it didn’t think it had to. That cannot continue, and no one knows that better than Barry Odom.
Last Saturday was either the low point before the rebound, or it was a tipping point toward a quick end. It’s up to him to figure out which.