Before you start screaming about what is, admittedly, a somewhat clickbaity headline, let’s establish a few things.
First, the Missouri Tigers are almost certainly a Top 25 team heading into the 2019 season. They were 12th in the S&P+ rankings after their 8-5 finish last season and, by Bill C’s projections and ESPN’s FPI, Missouri is projected as the 16th and 19th best team in the country, respectively. You may not be into advanced statistics, especially since the stats don’t always inform the final record. But it’s undeniable that Missouri is at least one of the 25 best college football teams in the country.
Second, preseason rankings don’t mean anything. In fact, rankings before the CFP gets involved generally don’t mean anything. Have you ever noticed how programs promote themselves using whichever ranking is higher? The coaches may rank a team at 22nd and the AP puts them at 24th. You can guess which number the marketing departments will be all over. Rankings are, inherently, window dressing that mean nothing outside of how each respective program decides to sell itself to recruits and boosters. Preseason rankings — instituted mostly on results that are more than half a year old — are even less useful.
That being said, there is meaning in the rankings if only because of the pride they give both players and fans. This sort of arbitrary value system, funny enough, pairs well with the uselessness of preseason rankings. They’re useless numbers that allow fans to get in arguments with other fans (mostly online) about which team and program is better off. How much value you assign to that is completely subjective.
I’m mostly stalling at this point because there’s not really a delicate way to get to the point the headline makes. So let’s just get it out there: by all the ways we measure the value of preseason rankings, Missouri does not deserve to be a Top 25 team.
We’ve spent a lot of the past two years talking about the direction of the program. Amongst the criteria we use to evaluate Barry Odom’s Missouri, final records and bowl victories factor in heavily, mainly because they’re the final impression we get on seasons gone by.
By these measures, the Tigers have been... fine. They’re 19-19 under HCBO with an improving record each season. But they’ve also gone 0-2 in bowl games with one of the best quarterbacks in program history on the roster. In both 2017 and 2018, the Tigers used late season runs to prop up their reputation, garner bids to respectable bowls and sneak into the outskirts of the Top 25 rankings. Bowl wins would’ve left a positive impression of the year and solidified Missouri’s spot in the rankings.
They responded by losing those games to former Big XII rivals, both times in semi-convincing fashion, leaving voters to wonder if their success was real or inspired by desperation. It seems like splitting hairs, but 9-4 looks so much better than 8-5 and 8-5 looks worlds better than 7-6, especially to college football writers whose job it is to “evaluate” the order each team should be placed.
So until Missouri makes good on the underlying numbers, said numbers will be all they have to point to in the rankings. And until writers and bowl committees start choosing by S&P+, Missouri will have work to do to earn the prestige they may already deserve.