The Southeastern Conference has treated the Missouri Tigers kindly at times...and then not so kindly at other times. The Tigers’ two SEC East titles are more than any team not named Florida or Georgia can claim in the division since 2012, and they have a better conference record in that time period than Arkansas, Tennessee, Kentucky, South Carolina and Vanderbilt.
Still, life in this conference is incredibly difficult, as no other league presents the week-to-week grind that the SEC does. Mizzou has faltered at times because of it, and it is struggling to find its way back to being among the conference’s elite after multiple seasons of mediocrity.
Here is where the conference as a whole stands right now, and how the Tigers can move their way up.
Best of the Best
As expected, there are two programs that out-class the rest of this conference right now. Nick Saban and co. have been at this dynasty thing for a while now, but Georgia appears to just be getting started. For now, their respective divisions run through them, and the Crimson Tide and Bulldogs appear to be a on a crash course every season.
However, when Oklahoma and Texas join and divisions are rearranged/eliminated, it will be intriguing to see if these two remain at the same level, take steps back or strengthen their iron grip on the rest of the SEC.
The pool of contenders to Alabama and Georgia appeared to shrink this season. Kentucky and Ole Miss were expected to take steps into this category, but they were humbled by the elite members of the conference.
Instead, LSU and Tennessee took advantage of their opportunities. With both Brian Kelly and Josh Heupel having recently stepped into their roles as head coaches, these two programs appear to be on upward trajectories. Both of these teams managed to take down Alabama in 2022, and with how they are winning on the recruiting trail and the talent each of them brings back, the Tigers and Vols appear to be here to stay.
Middle of the Pack
- South Carolina
- Ole Miss
- Mississippi State
Man, this is a mess. The SEC has an infection of mediocre teams in its midst, although I suppose that has to occur when a handful of teams are so dominant at the top.
Kentucky and Ole Miss were already mentioned, and both are faced with forks in the road in 2023. The Wildcats will experiment with another transfer in former NC State quarterback Devin Leary, while Lane Kiffin will hope that his team can be more consistent from end-to-end. The offseason QB battle between Jaxson Dart and Oklahoma State transfer Spencer Sanders will go a long way in determining how the Rebels perform in 2023.
Arkansas was one of the trendier picks of the 2022 season, but injuries and four single-digit losses led to a disappointing campaign. With KJ Jefferson returning, Sam Pittman’s club still has a lot of potential and should remain a threat in the SEC West.
Mississippi State ended the season strong, but with the tragic passing of Mike Leach, it is now breaking in a new head coach. Zach Arnett was promoted from his defensive coordinator role, and the two-time Broyles Award finalist is a fan-favorite in Starkville. With Will Rogers returning at quarterback, it will be intriguing to see if Arnett continues Leach’s Air Raid system or opts to change the offense in some ways.
Moving eastward, the Billy Napier era got off to a rocky start. After upsetting Utah in its opener, Florida stumbled to a 6-7 record, something that would have gotten many coaches fired in Gainesville. Napier has his work cut out for him in year two, as he has to produce an improvement in the win column despite potentially having more roster holes to fill this year.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, Shane Beamer’s Gamecocks look like a program that is well on its way to contender status. After starting out the 2022 season with a 1-2 record, South Carolina finished at 8-5 with wins over Tennessee, Clemson and Texas A&M (their first ever win over the Aggies). With Spencer Rattler returning and a plethora of positive momentum behind the program, the Gamecocks are a team on the rise.
That leaves Missouri. The Tigers may not be in the worst spot out of anybody on this list (Florida), but they are towards the bottom. The talent level is leveling out with the rest of the SEC, but offensive struggles and an inability to win close games has plagued this team under Drinkwitz.
Bottom of the Barrel
- Texas A&M
Yes, all of these teams belong here. Ironically enough, I would even go as far as to say that Vandy has just as good of a chance of moving up a tier in the coming years as these other two programs do.
The Jimbo Fisher era in College Station has been well-documented, so there is no reason to do a deep dive into the issues there. The talent will never be a concern at Texas A&M, but handling the immense pressure and expectations that comes with this territory on a yearly-basis will always be difficult. On top of that, the sheer amount of money that is floating around the program has become the main topic of conversation, when, in reality, TAMU should be focused on finding an SEC-caliber quarterback. The Aggies have the most potential out of any team in the conference not named Georgia or Alabama, but they are going to have to show some flashes of it to wipe away the negative stigma surrounding the program.
Auburn enters a new era with Hugh Freeze, a controversial yet proven hire. Much like the Aggies, talent is rarely a concern in Auburn, AL. Instead, the impatience of a rowdy fan base tends to doom coaches, and the current roster is not equipped to have much success in year one of the Freeze experiment, especially given the Tigers’ schedule.
Clark Lea has done a about as good of a job as you can do at Vanderbilt in two seasons. After finishing with a 2-10 record in 2021, the Commodores reeled off five wins in ‘22, their most since 2018. Victories over Kentucky and Florida showed marked improvement for the program, and Lea has been taking the necessary steps to build Vanderbilt from the ground up.
How Mizzou can move up the ranks
Making progress in this list gets progressively more difficult as you go up. Essentially, moving from the “bottom of the barrel” to the “middle of the pack” is far easier than making the jump from “contender” to the “best of the best,” and so on.
Recruiting is not an issue for Mizzou right now. Assuming Drinkwitz continues to pull in top 40 classes nationally, the talent gap will no longer be an excuse for this program like it has been in year’s past.
There are other areas to focus on, the most obvious of which is the quarterback room. To contend in this conference, you have to have a quarterback that can win you some games against the high-quality defenses that the SEC throws out onto the field every week.
Connor Bazelak was not an SEC-caliber quarterback, and Brady Cook does not appear to be one either, although he certainly has the opportunity to change that. Drinkwitz can pull in all of the skill position talent he wants, but if he does not have anybody that can get them the ball and make plays on his own, then the offense will continue to be stagnant.
If you have a quarterback that you are scared about letting loose against the likes of Florida and South Carolina, then you are in a world of hurt when you take on Georgia, LSU and Alabama. That is the current scenario in Columbia, Mo.
But, there is perhaps another area that could change the program more. If you talk to anybody associated with the SEC, they will tell you that the main key to having success in the conference is to win in the trenches. On the defensive side, Mizzou figured out how to hold its own up front in 2022, allowing a mere 125.5 rushing yards per game and recording 36 sacks.
It has been well-documented, but the story on the other side of the ball is far different. The Tigers have a lackluster offensive line across the board, and they get mauled when taking on most opposing SEC defensive lines. When the running game can not find any holes and the quarterback has little time to throw, nobody is going to be successful on offense. To have an O-line that could just tread water against the NFL-caliber pass rushers that reside in the SEC would improve this team across the board. With the return of Javon Foster, an influx of transfers and new offensive line coach Brandon Jones, there is reason to expect improvement up front.
As I have said before, Mizzou operates in a smaller market than most SEC teams, has a smaller overall fan base, pours less money into the program and does not have the same historical pedigree that other SEC programs do. So, they are working behind the eight ball already, which makes quick improvement tough to come by.
If this administration and fan base want this program to be back to where it was in 2013 and 2014, they have to have patience. As the saying goes, change doesn’t happen overnight, and this football program still has a lot of work to do to catch up to some of the premiere teams in the SEC.
Is Drinkwitz the man that we should be patient with? That remains to be seen, and the patience with him among the fan base is running thinner as time wears on.
Another six-win season would show that his program is not improving year-to-year, which is a major red flag for a long-term rebuild. An improvement in the win-column would be reason enough to maintain hope, at least for the time being.