When Missouri first moved to the SEC (seven years ago, good god), detractors had a ready-made excuse for any failures the program might have in competing with the nation’s premier college football conference — simple talent deficiency.
For all the, “old man football,” comments and online mockery about SEC football over the years — “iT jUsT mEaNs MoRe” — there’s no denying that the SEC does seem to play a different brand of football. There’s a reason SEC players are drafted more often than other conferences. There’s a reason it’s the only conference to ever send two teams to the CFP. Like it or not, SEC football is serious football, and like the cold, cold world outside its walls, only the strong survive.
For years, fans have done a good bit of hand-wringing about recruiting in the SEC. While Gary Pinkel’s reputation preceded him, there seemed to be this idea that the “diamond in the rough” philosophy that GP perfected over the years wouldn’t cut it in the new league. No siree, if you want to compete with teams like Georgia, Alabama, LSU and the like, you have to recruit on their level.
As most of you have probably realized, Missouri isn’t there yet. The most likely scenario says they’ll never get there, barring some sort of dramatic shift in the college football landscape.
However, what we have seen has been the steady erosion of this idea that you can’t win by polishing up rougher recruits. And like Pinkel before him, Barry Odom has compiled a number of contributors who find themselves listed amongst the best players in the sport.
Bolton — who also carried away SEC Defensive Player of the Week honors — wasn’t the only player honored by this week’s PFF team. Cale Garrett also made the site’s All SEC Defensive Team, and Albert Okwuegbunam represented the Tigers on offense. And while their names didn't appear on any lists, players like Larry Rountree III, Kelly Bryant and Jordan Elliott all had excellent outings to propel the Tigers to a dominant victory at home.
Of course, the fact that Missouri has good players isn’t new to Tiger fans. Even aside from the names already mentioned, cornerbacks DeMarkus Acy and Christian Holmes have both been touted as future NFLers, and that’s before Holmes lost his starting spot. Tre’Vour Wallace-Simms has showed up on countless watch lists. Even Yasir Durant has heard his name spoken amongst NFL circles in recent weeks.
“Hold on a minute,” you may be saying in your best southern drawl. “Missouri ain’t played nobody yet. Why don’t we slow our roll here?”
Well, sir-and-or-ma’am, that may be true. But it’s not as if the rest of the SEC is setting the world on fire with their competition either. Yes, Texas A&M played Clemson this week. Yes, LSU took home a big win from UT. Tennessee, though? They’ve lost to one blood donor and another program floundering in mediocrity. Kentucky has rolled over the likes of Toldeo and Eastern Michigan. Hell, even Nick Saban has had to yell at reporters questioning his team’s weak opening slate. If you really want to strap on the black-and-gold sunglasses and go full homer, you might even say Missouri’s loss to Wyoming is one of the better losses in the SEC so far.
The fact is, it’s impossible to fully evaluate talent on the fly. We won’t know what Missouri has until the season has nearly run its course, just enough time for us to regret enjoying the special players we might’ve missed along the way. There are never any guarantees those guys will come along. Most of the time, you just hope a few players stand out and give you hope.
However, if Missouri has shown us anything over the course of two weeks, it’s that they’ve got the players you need to put together a special year. There might not be a Chase Daniel on this team, but Kelly Bryant is an awfully good stand in. Nick Bolton may never turn into Sean Witherspoon, but damn it if he doesn’t have that look about him. And Albert O... well, maybe we’re getting into rarified air there.
There’s no doubt in anyone’s mind that the talent is there for Missouri to have its best season since 2014. The question is: Can that talent form something bigger than itself for 10 more games?