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What is Barry Odom’s long-term plan?

In the head coach’s third season, Mizzou looks like a genuinely good team. But is this model of success sustainable?

Missouri v Purdue Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

Just over one year ago, Mizzou welcomed the Purdue Boilermakers to Faurot Field in the third game of what was supposed to be a renaissance season for the Tiger football program. The Tigers proceeded to lay an egg, losing 35-3, causing an uproar of voices calling for head coach Barry Odom’s job.

Athletic director Jim Stern spoke to the media several days after the loss, detailing what he said to Odom after the game.

“I wanted to make sure he felt supported. I know and he knows he has a lot of hard work to do. But it was one game. Don’t let that one game impact the next nine. Let’s move forward from there.”

Things got worse before they got better. Odom’s Tigers started the year 1-5 before rattling off six straight wins on their way to the program’s first bowl in three years. Odom was rewarded with a contract extension. Optimism reigned in the offseason.

One year removed from the catastrophic loss to Purdue, and things seem to have taken a 180-degree turn. Mizzou is 3-0, coming off a hard-fought victory against the Boilermakers, this time in West Lafayette. While the Tigers struggled mightily with Missouri State in 2017, they easily dispatched blood donors UT Martin and Wyoming in 2018. Drew Lock is still likely in the Heisman picture. There could be as many as six or seven Tiger players chosen in next year’s NFL Draft. And, most importantly, 8 or 9 wins seem like a real possibility in the regular season.

So why, in the midst of all these positives, does it still feel like Barry Odom has something to prove?

After Saturday night’s win, you could find a criticism scattered all over Mizzou message boards and social media circles. It came in the form of a question.

“What is Barry Odom going to do next year without Drew Lock?”

Lock, after all, was a Gary Pinkel recruit, so there is an argument that this team’s biggest weapon can’t be 100 percent attributed to Odom and his coaching ability. The same argument could be extended to many of the other best playmakers on the roster: Emanuel and Terez Hall, Johnathon Johnson, Albert Okwuegbunam, Terry Beckner Jr., even Corey Fatony! All — save Albert O, who committed to Pinkel the year before his graduation — were part of Gary Pinkel’s final recruiting class, one marked by big-name pulls (TBJ, Lock) and classic Pinkel gold-digging (the Halls).

So it’s a legitimate question. Is Barry Odom profiting off of his predecessors ability to draw talent? It’s impossible to argue the negative, at least to some degree.

But let’s also remember that 75 percent of these players’ careers have been fostered by Odom and his staff. Lock earned his star reputation under the tutelage of Josh Heupel and now Derek Dooley, both of which appear to be underrated hires. The decision to hire A.J. Ofodile has paid dividends in the development of Mizzou’s talented wide receiver corps and on the recruiting trail. Terez Hall may have been an unrated recruit snatched up by Pinkel, but he emerged as a playmaker under Odom’s watch. And many of them committed to Mizzou while Barry Odom was on the staff. In fact, Johnathon Johnson’s recruitment was spearheaded by Odom, who convinced the staff to take his commitment.

And, for all the players you could point to as Pinkel leftovers, you could point out just as many who came from Odom’s recruiting acumen: Damarea Crockett, Cale Garrett, Tucker McCann, Jalen Knox, and most of the offensive line. That’s not even counting true freshman — Kam Scott, Nick Bolton, Tyler Badie — who have shown flashes of potential greatness.

Finally — on a very basic level — the question of, “What would Odom do without Lock,” is a moot point. What would any coach in any sport do without their best players? The Golden State Warriors don’t make the NBA finals every year because Steve Kerr is engineering perfect basketball robots in his Bay City mansion. The Patriots haven’t won an absurd number of super bowls because Bill Belichick sold his immortal soul to Beelzebub... well, at least probably not.

To win at a consistently high level, you have to have the best players. To question, “What would they do if...” is unhelpful because it fundamentally misunderstands how competition works. Now the question of, “Can Barry Odom recruit the best talent,” is a legitimate one. But it’s also one he hasn’t fully had time to answer yet. You can only play the cards you’re dealt, and it looks like Odom has the hand to cash out of 2018 on a high note.

So we’ve established that Barry Odom seems to have the tools to build a winner in his third season at Mizzou. Reach 8 wins total, and Odom is likely back for a fourth. Get to 9, and there might be another extension in the near future. Both appear to be attainable goals for the program, which is still only three years removed from arguably its greatest coach stepping down.

But again: why does it still feel like Odom, in the minds of fans and media alike, has something to prove?

It all goes back to Odom’s roots and one of the chief reasons he was given the job of defensive coordinator under Pinkel in 2014. From ESPN’s article announcing the hiring:

Odom is plenty qualified for the position based on his recent success at Memphis. This season, Memphis ranks 10th nationally in scoring defense (19.5 points per game allowed), 12th in yards per play allowed (4.74), 20th in rushing (121.54 yards per game allowed) and was in the top 25 nationally for third-down conversion rate, red-zone efficiency and goal-to-go efficiency.

Barry Odom was hired to run a defense with a long track record of success under Dave Steckel. And when he was hired to take over for Pinkel after 2015, the thought was — with Lock growing to lead what would be a high-powered offense — Odom’s defensive savvy would lead to a well-balanced Mizzou team ready to ascend once more to the top of the SEC East.

Odom’s team management — and, crucially, the ability to find coaching talent — has been more than successful on the offensive front. In his three years as head coach, the offense has ranked 42nd, 13th and, so far, 10th in Offensive S&P+. Drew Lock has emerged as one of the best quarterbacks in college football. The offensive line is also near the top of its class. Playmakers abound in the backfield and the outside.

But defense, the very reason Odom came back to Missouri? The calling card on which his career is built? It’s been nothing short of a disaster, ranking 89th, 90th and 82nd in S&P+. The ability to find good coaches to foster talent that he’s shown a knack for on offense is non-existent on the flip side.

Coaches have rotated in and out. The defensive line, once the pride of Missouri football, hasn’t had a star pass-rusher since Charles Harris. Marcell Frazier was good, but not great. And Beckner, for all his talent, has still never reached the same production levels of Mizzou’s greatest like Sheldon Richardson, C.J. Mosley. The secondary has been in shambles for years, continuously shredded by lesser quarterbacks. Ryan Walters will undoubtedly get some time to fix things, but to assume he will would be based in pure optimism to this point.

And the question that so many posed on Saturday night: “What will Barry Odom do without Drew Lock?” Try flipping it around. What will Barry Odom do without Terry Beckner Jr.? Without Terez Hall? Without the few players on the defensive end who have proven their mettle on a consistent basis?

The lack of answers is alarming.

The fact remains that Missouri is 3-0. The next three games will allow the Tigers to emerge, at the very worst, a .500 team and, at very best, a 5-1 team with two major wins on their resume. [As unlikely as it is, you could maybe convince me that Missouri pulls an upset against Georgia.] From there, 8 or 9 wins seems like a very realistic goal. It would be the best season of Odom’s young career. And there’s no question it would all come on the foundation of a great offense, whether the defense chooses to come along or not.

But the day is soon coming when the life cycle of this potent offense will need to restart. Drew Lock, Emanuel Hall and the offensive line will move on, and new players will have to step in and take their places. Odom’s knack for hiring good coaches and recruiting good offensive players has shown there may not be much to worry about in terms of rebuilding.

The same can’t be said of the defense, mostly because the initial rebuild never really got off the ground.

PowerMizzou publisher, and longtime Mizzou media staple, Gabe DeArmond has a go-to adage concerning Missouri football. To paraphrase, it goes something like, “You can coach at Missouri forever if you win 8 games a year.” It’s an insightful philosophy that correctly balances the reality of the program’s past and expectations for the future.

If this first cycle of Barry Odom’s tenure is to be judged on that scale — assuming he gets to that 8 or 9 win goal this year — then it’s still not enough to secure his long-term future. It’s one thing to build a winning team in three years. It’s entirely another to shorten that cycle and build something consistent. And while his ability to build an offense has been heartening, the confounding, persistent questions on defense have kept his acceptance as the program’s overseer in a holding pattern.