Let’s be completely honest — despite the headline on this article, there’s a strong case to be made that there is no “saving” the 2019 Missouri football season.
Before the season started, most of this site’s masthead picked the Tigers to finish 9-3 or better. In fact, that was seen as a somewhat median point of expectation. Should Missouri lose against the two demonstrably better teams plus one mulligan, the Tigers would still roll into a possible postseason with a chance to get to double-digit wins.
Of course, there were a few people who picked the Tigers to go 8-4. However — and maybe I’m just telling on myself here — those sorts were considered pessimistic or fatalistic. It was tough to find more than two obvious losses on the schedule, much less two more. Most three-losses picks foresaw Missouri dropping a game to Kentucky on the road or to South Carolina at home. Almost no one picked Wyoming, and I’d dare you to find anyone that picked Vanderbilt preseason.
Yet, here we are headed into Week 12 of the college football season. Missouri is 5-4 and, at best, will finish 8-4 in the regular season.
Again, a three-game run to finish the season wouldn’t be seen as a “win,” by most of the fanbase. After all, there are more than enough pieces of evidence to suggest Missouri backslid in year four of the Barry Odom era. The offensive line, once formidable, turned into a sieve midseason. The wide receivers, a young, exciting corps, either failed to develop or suddenly forgot how to catch a football. A team known for beating up on the weak and stumbling against the strong found itself at the mercy of two lower-level SEC opponents (though that designation is questionable at this point). Other than the early season sprint to 5-1, there has been little reason to believe that Missouri has gotten any better in the last calendar year.
However, there’s still a chance for Barry and Odom and company to... well, maybe not redeem themselves, but at least prove that this year isn’t a total loss.
Florida rolls into town this coming weekend fresh off an eight-touchdown pounding of Vanderbilt, the team that started Missouri’s slide. While it would be a stretch to call the Gators one of the nation’s truly elite teams, there’s no doubt Dan Mullen’s squad is one of the country’s toughest outs. Boasting an elite defense and a sneaky good offense, the Gators don’t have any true weaknesses. In a sense, they’re what Missouri wants to be — a team that competes in the SEC East year in and year out, with a realistic shot to win it more often than not.
A win over Florida wouldn’t erase the disasters that have dotted 2019. Unless the offense springs to life in the last three games, there are major questions about the health and talent moving forward. Special teams will be an open question no matter what because of the graduation of senior punter Tucker McCann and returner Richaud Floyd. And while the defense may stand out as a bright spot, it’s a unit that will lose a lot of production to graduation. Big wins are great, but they’re not nearly as good when they’re trying to cover for bad losses, and Missouri has plenty of those.
Still, a victory on Saturday would offer a compelling case to continue on with the current regime, especially if it can be paired with wins over Tennessee and Arkansas in the ensuing weeks. Barry Odom has been a war-time coach for most of his young career, but he’s never been quite in this position. Beating Florida would show that Odom can bring a listless team to life, even in the midst of crumbling fan enthusiasm. A Tiger win would begin and end with pride, and that’s no small achievement against a team like Florida.
It would also allow program leadership a pathway to explaining the last few weeks. This is where things get hairy, but imagine Missouri does end up rattling off three straight wins to end the year. Is that enough for Jim Sterk to consider the possibility that losses to Vanderbilt and Kentucky were more of the exception and less of the rule? That’s a tough pill to swallow now, but not so much when you’ve got another W over Florida to wash it down.
Of course, this is all moot if the Gators come into Columbia and steamroll a Tiger team that hasn’t looked interested since late September. It’s possible to talk yourself into contentment after an 8-4 season with a win over a borderline Top 10 team. It’s decidedly less possible when you finish 7-5 and your best win is over South Carolina or Tennessee.
So as the week kicks off, the truth is settling in: Missouri has one more shot to scrounge up some pride and find redemption in what feels like a lost season. It won’t be enough for many fans, but it’ll be more than the team has been able to hang onto for the entirety of this season so far.