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The 1960s were Missouri's best defensive decade, but the 2010s are catching up quickly

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Missouri is in the middle of a defensive renaissance.

Missouri's 2014 defense was the best of the Gary Pinkel era.
Missouri's 2014 defense was the best of the Gary Pinkel era.
Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

A majority of Gary Pinkel's tenure as Missouri's head coach was defined by the Tigers' offensive star power. Brad Smith was the first face of Pinkel's Mizzou, and Chase Daniel not only succeeded Smith, but one-upped him. Daniel threw to Jeremy Maclin and Chase Coffman and Martin Rucker and Danario Alexander and Will Franklin, and he handed to Tony Temple, and per my estimated S&P+ figures, Mizzou's 2007-08 offenses were the best in school history.

The star power only slightly abated after Daniel left. Alexander put together the most ridiculous individual season ever in 2009, Blaine Gabbert was a top-10 pick in 2011, and James Franklin had Henry Josey, Dorial Green-Beckham, L'Damian Washington, Marcus Murphy, etc., at his disposal during 2013's run to the doorstep of the BCS title game.

Over the last five years of the Pinkel era, though, the advantage shifted to the defensive side of the ball. After struggling to do much with the players he inherited from Larry Smith, Pinkel and his assistants methodically went about building a devastating attack.

As we see below, Missouri's Def. S&P+ percentile rating was 30.2% (77th) in 2000, the season before Pinkel arrived. It crept to 42% in 2001, then 46%, then 58%, then 73%. After a setback in 2005 (53%), the growth began again, to 65% in 2006 and 67% in 2007. And after another pair of middling seasons (2009-10), Mizzou's D took the leap. The Tigers hit the 90th percentile (90.2%) for the first time in 2010, hit the 80s again in 2012 (82%) and 2013 (86%), then carried weakening offenses in both 2014 (91%) and 2015 (89%).

Mizzou is in the middle of a defensive renaissance of sorts, and at first glance, with the personnel Barry Odom inherits (sort of) as head coach and the staff he has put in place, that might not abate any time soon.

But the 2010s still have a ways to go to catch the defensive dominance of Missouri's 1960s squads.

Here's a ranking of Missouri's defenses, again in order of national percentile. Pinkel teams are in bold.

MU Rk Year Team Def. S&P+ (Adj. PPG) National Rk National Percentile
1 1973 Missouri 9.5 4 95.1%
2 1961 Missouri 5.5 7 94.9%
3 1962 Missouri 7.1 8 94.7%
4 1965 Missouri 8.4 8 93.6%
5 1967 Missouri 8.8 5 93.0%
6 1998 Missouri 15.5 9 93.0%
7 1968 Missouri 12.3 9 91.7%
8 1983 Missouri 13.5 8 91.7%
9 2014 Missouri 18.8 15 90.7%
10 2010 Missouri 18.7 15 90.2%
11 1964 Missouri 8.6 14 89.3%
12 1925 Missouri 4.5 12 89.1%
13 2015 Missouri 19.4 13 88.7%
14 1963 Missouri 9.0 12 88.1%
15 1929 Missouri 5.2 8 87.2%
16 1977 Missouri 13.5 16 86.7%
17 2012 Missouri 20.4 20 86.2%
18 1919 Missouri 4.1 10 85.9%
19 1953 Missouri 10.6 18 85.8%
20 1959 Missouri 9.2 16 85.6%
21 1981 Missouri 13.7 20 85.6%
22 1979 Missouri 13.8 28 85.1%
23 1941 Missouri 7.4 19 84.7%
24 1966 Missouri 11.4 19 83.9%
25 1969 Missouri 15.4 22 83.6%

That the best defense in Missouri history played on an 8-4 squad might seem weird if we hadn't just experienced the 2015 season, in which a dominant defense was dragged down by a woeful offense. Mizzou scored only 219 points in 1973 and averaged just 13 points per game in Big 8 play. But the Tigers indeed won eight games because of a defense that only once allowed more than 17 points in a game. (And allowing 31 points to 10-0-1 Oklahoma was impressive in its own right.) Mizzou beat nine-win Nebraska, 13-12, and held Auburn to 17 points in a 17-point Sun Bowl win.

You know the 1973 defense must have been good to grade out ahead of Dan Devine's most dominant units. Devine teams occupy five of the top seven spots here and nine of the top 14. The dude knew how to recruit for and organize a defense; in fact, the Tigers may have been able to make national title runs in 1961 and 1962 after the great 1960 season if not for offensive cratering.

Mizzou averaged only 16 points per game in 1961-62 but still went 15-3-3 because the defense was allowing 6 PPG. The Tigers didn't allow more than 14 points in a game either year but lost games by scores of 7-0, 7-6, and 13-0. They also suffered 14-14, 3-3, and 0-0 ties.

Also noteworthy among this top-25 list: the 1998 unit was drastically underrated. We remember Corby Jones and Devin West, but the offense slowed down quite a bit when Jones suffered turf toe that year. Mizzou's run to 8-4 (the Tigers' best record in 15 years) ended up powered just as much by a defense that allowed six points to Oklahoma, 14 to Colorado, 17 to eventual Big 12 champion Texas A&M, and 20 to Nebraska.

MU Rk Year Team Def. S&P+ (Adj. PPG) National Rk National Percentile
26 1980 Missouri 15.0 24 82.5%
27 1939 Missouri 5.8 19 82.5%
28 2013 Missouri 21.7 22 82.0%
29 1976 Missouri 14.4 26 81.9%
30 1974 Missouri 14.9 28 80.8%
31 1924 Missouri 5.4 19 80.7%
32 1916 Missouri 6.3 19 79.9%
33 1952 Missouri 13.0 23 78.0%
34 1960 Missouri 10.7 30 76.7%
35 1987 Missouri 18.5 25 75.5%
36 1982 Missouri 17.5 32 75.4%
37 1923 Missouri 6.4 29 75.3%
38 1937 Missouri 6.6 38 75.0%
39 1926 Missouri 7.2 25 74.8%
40 1970 Missouri 17.3 32 73.8%
41 2011 Missouri 22.8 31 73.4%
42 1936 Missouri 7.7 41 73.2%
43 2004 Missouri 21.6 37 73.0%
44 1907 Missouri 7.0 19 73.0%
45 1921 Missouri 8.1 29 72.2%
46 2007 Missouri 24.2 45 67.1%
47 1906 Missouri 6.1 28 66.3%
48 1975 Missouri 17.4 51 65.1%
49 2006 Missouri 21.1 38 65.1%
50 1971 Missouri 18.1 52 64.5%

A moment of silence for Brian Smith. The senior defensive end was not only putting together a ridiculous senior season in 2006 -- in eight games, he finished with 9.5 tackles for loss, 7.5 sacks, 11 QB hurries, and five pass breakups -- but he was giving a surging defense an identity.

Going by my week-to-week ratings, Missouri ranked ninth in Def. S&P+ seven weeks into the 2006 season; the Tigers had allowed just 10 points per game through five games and held both Texas Tech and Texas A&M under 30. But when Smith broke his hip against Kansas State, the defense fell apart. Thanks to the fading defense and an offense that was losing basically every receiver to injury, Missouri dropped three in a row after the Kansas State win and finished just 8-5. The defense, so promising at the midway point, ended up 38th.

If losing one player can make that much of a difference, maybe your D was a bit of a house of cards to begin with. Still, not only did Smith's senior season end early, but Mizzou's also did in a way.

(G.N. Lowrance-Getty Images)

MU Rk Year Team Def. S&P+ (Adj. PPG) National Rk National Percentile
51 1927 Missouri 10.4 39 62.5%
52 1938 Missouri 9.4 51 62.4%
53 1912 Missouri 10.9 32 62.0%
54 1935 Missouri 9.4 52 61.4%
55 1978 Missouri 19.1 57 60.5%
56 1909 Missouri 7.7 39 60.1%
57 1914 Missouri 11.7 39 59.7%
58 1949 Missouri 17.8 52 59.1%
59 1913 Missouri 11.6 38 58.7%
60 1920 Missouri 10.4 47 58.7%
61 2008 Missouri 24.3 56 58.4%
62 2003 Missouri 24.9 53 58.3%
63 1947 Missouri 14.5 54 58.2%
64 1958 Missouri 14.6 55 57.2%
65 1950 Missouri 17.6 55 56.7%
66 1942 Missouri 12.6 61 55.5%
67 1910 Missouri 9.2 36 55.4%
68 1930 Missouri 10.9 54 54.5%
69 1992 Missouri 22.3 57 53.6%
70 2005 Missouri 25.4 51 53.0%
71 1972 Missouri 20.2 58 52.2%
72 1905 Missouri 12.2 46 50.8%
73 1957 Missouri 15.6 59 48.9%
74 2009 Missouri 26.1 55 48.1%
75 1995 Missouri 25.6 67 47.5%

Ah, 2008. William Moore got hurt in the first game of the season and limped through most of the rest of the year, and Mizzou just didn't have the secondary to cope with a patently absurd set of offenses on the schedule. Illinois scored 42 points, Texas scored 56, Baylor (with a freshman Robert Griffin) scored 28, Kansas scored 40, and Oklahoma scored 62.

There were some decent moments -- Nevada, with a young Colin Kaepernick, managed only 17 points, Nebraska scored 17, and Oklahoma State scored only 28 -- but Mizzou managed to lose two games while scoring 31 or more points, and it put a damper on what was supposed to be an amazing season. And then the D got even worse in 2009. But then the rebound began.

MU Rk Year Team Def. S&P+ (Adj. PPG) National Rk National Percentile
76 1955 Missouri 16.4 66 46.9%
77 1948 Missouri 17.7 64 46.7%
78 1922 Missouri 12.6 71 46.4%
79 2002 Missouri 27.4 59 46.2%
80 1928 Missouri 12.7 63 45.9%
81 1993 Missouri 25.2 58 44.5%
82 1946 Missouri 17.1 68 42.7%
83 1908 Missouri 11.2 43 42.3%
84 2001 Missouri 28.1 71 41.6%
85 1994 Missouri 25.8 63 40.3%
86 1945 Missouri 17.7 70 39.0%
87 1903 Missouri 13.7 49 37.1%
88 1911 Missouri 9.9 49 36.8%
89 1915 Missouri 16.1 61 35.5%
90 1999 Missouri 27.8 76 35.1%
91 1956 Missouri 19.0 74 34.4%
92 1988 Missouri 26.6 75 32.8%
93 1997 Missouri 29.0 82 31.2%
94 1944 Missouri 20.1 74 30.9%
95 2000 Missouri 29.1 77 30.2%
96 1902 Missouri 13.7 54 29.7%
97 1917 Missouri 18.6 71 29.4%
98 1940 Missouri 16.6 92 27.9%
99 1943 Missouri 21.0 59 26.5%
100 1954 Missouri 22.2 89 23.2%

Aside from the 1998 season, Larry Smith just couldn't get the defensive side of the ball figured out. He inherited a mediocre defense (58th in 1993) and ranked 63rd, 67th, 84th, and 82nd in the proceeding four seasons. After surging to ninth in 1998 (that defense, honestly, likely benefited from Missouri's strong ball-control O), the Tigers fell back to 76th and 77th in his final two seasons, and when the offense also collapsed, Smith was quickly done in.

MU Rk Year Team Def. S&P+ (Adj. PPG) National Rk National Percentile
101 1996 Missouri 31.1 84 22.6%
102 1931 Missouri 15.7 92 22.1%
103 1990 Missouri 29.8 82 21.8%
104 1986 Missouri 27.5 84 21.2%
105 1989 Missouri 30.1 85 19.9%
106 1904 Missouri 21.2 72 18.1%
107 1984 Missouri 27.4 89 16.1%
108 1934 Missouri 16.3 108 15.0%
109 1951 Missouri 26.3 102 14.9%
110 1932 Missouri 16.8 104 11.0%
111 1985 Missouri 31.1 99 10.0%
112 1991 Missouri 31.7 96 8.9%
113 1933 Missouri 20.3 121 2.3%
114 1901 Missouri 27.9 45 0.2%

And speaking of being done in ... remember how well Warren Powers' 1984 offense graded out in the offensive ratings piece (17th in Off. S&P+, 15th in Missouri history)? And remember how Mizzou still managed go 3-7-1 and get Powers fired that year? Here's your culprit.

A year after putting a dominant defense on the field, Mizzou and its rejiggered unit just couldn't figure things out. The Tigers allowed 30-plus points seven times, ranked 89th in the country, and ranked 107th in Mizzou history. At the time, this was the worst Mizzou D since the 1950s. (It was quickly joined by the 1985 and 1991 units.)