So I’ve spent a lot of words and breath in this space telling you how difficult it would be for Missouri to follow Clemson’s path to a national championship.
How about a more positive, life-affirming message this time? Why don’t we look back at the 2007 and 2013 teams — the ones who finished top-5 nationally and came within a whisper of a possible national championship game berth — and see what went right for them.
And how much work the current Missouri squad would have to do in order to duplicate their success.
Ah, the ‘cruitin trail.
See below for the five classes that made up the 2007 and 2013 teams — based on Rivals national, interconference and interdivision rankings -- and how the 2017 team stacks up.
In overall ranking, the 2007 and 2013 classes were very similar: 37.0 average for 2013, 37.6 for 2007. Notice, also, that the two classes that combined to make up the bulk of those teams’ senior class enjoyed a higher rating than the classes that followed: 30 vs. 42.7 for 2007, 32 vs. 40.3 for 2013.
So the more experienced players on those teams were also, on average, the most talented ones.
The 2017 team’s national average isn’t that far off, clocking in at 39.2. Notice, though, that the senior classes don’t enjoy quite as wide a talent gap as the younger ones: 37.5 vs. 40.3.
Also, the average of the two youngest classes (47.0) lags behind the ones for 2007 (44.5) and 2013 (36.0).
Look, too, at how Missouri’s classes have stacked up within its division and conference. For the 2009-2011 classes, we took them and plugged them into how they would have finished in the SEC -- even though they were in the Big 12 — as those were the teams against which they would soon be competing.
The 2007 classes averaged 7th overall in the Big 12 and 3rd in the Big 12 North. Middle of the pack in both and, thus, not that difficult to envision upward mobility toward the top.
The 2013 classes averaged 13th in the SEC and fifth in the SEC East. A little harder to conceive. But that 22nd-9th-4th 2010 class worked up more toward the middle of the league, where Missouri has proven it can compete when the talent gets within striking distance. And that 2010 class made up a staggering number of key contributors on that 2013 team (Kony Ealy, James Franklin, E.J. Gaines, Matt Hoch, Henry Josey, Marcus Lucas, Mitch Morse, Marcus Murphy, Bud Sasser, Lucas Vincent, Braylon Webb...to name a few).
Now look at 2017. Average 13th in the SEC and 6th in the East. Never higher than 12th in the league and 5th in the East in a season.
That makes things tougher.
That’s another reason why this 2018 crop of in-state talent is so crucial, a fact the staff seems to grasp entirely.
As it stands now, Missouri just doesn’t have the talent profile -- nationally, yes, but more importantly relative to its league and division — that the 2007 and 2013 teams had.
Here’s where things get a little more optimistic for this year’s Tigers. Because, as young as the team was last year, it is significantly more seasoned this year thanks to a bunch of green players getting thrown into the fire.
Here’s a look at the rosters from 2007, 2013 and 2017 when it comes to players by class, starts by class (taking the 2016 figures) and returning starts at each position heading into the seasons.
Those “player by year” numbers include walk-ons. And the 2017 one is for how the roster stands right now, including the new signees. So things could change before the season starts.
But, for now, Missouri is set to bring back a much higher proportion of juniors and seniors in 2017 (51.8 percent) than either 2013 (34.9) or 2007 (39.6).
That’s a good thing. That’s a real good thing. That means that, even if those upperclassmen haven’t experienced much success lately, at least the majority of them have been around, bridged the gap between two staffs and know how the place is wired.
Also encouraging: the proportion of starts on last year’s team that came from juniors (40.2 percent). Because that means that -- barring some of them being surpassed by younger players this year — a bunch of that 40 percent will be senior starts this year.
The 2013 team was very senior heavy (46.4 percent of starts), while the 2007 team was junior-heavy (46.8). But the prevailing theme is both teams got a boatload of starts from upperclassmen: 81 percent in 2007, 76 in 2013.
The 2016 team got only 63 percent of its starts from upperclassmen. But if you look at the juniors and sophomores from that team (i.e., the juniors and seniors of this year’s), that number looks to be trending up (66 percent).
Another good sign: The returning players for 2017 who have started and their total career starts are pretty much in line with the figures from 2007 and 2013.
2017 has more returning players who have started (34) than either of the other two years and bests 2013 in number of career starts heading into the season (254 to 242) while lagging behind 2007’s figure of 288.
This year’s team falls between 2007 and 2013 when it comes to both returning offensive starts: fewer offensive starts than 2007, fewer defensive starts than 2013.
At quarterback, Drew Lock is more experienced than Chase Daniel and right about where James Franklin was (20 starts vs. 21) when the 2013 season kicked off.
Lock’s receivers are less experienced than Daniel’s (Martin Rucker had a lot to say about that...) and more experienced than Franklin’s, while his running backs and offensive line follow the same formula.
This year’s team has the defensive line with the least starting experience out of the three, but paradoxically with the most players returning who have started a game. While both 2007 and 2013 had one solid linebacker holdover to steady the group (Brock Christopher, Andrew Wilson), 2017 has a hodgepodge of part-time starters making up for the losses of Michael Scherer and Donavin Newsom. The secondary is, again, flush with players who have started (and adds former Kansas State starter Kaleb Prewett to the mix), but misses out on the full-time starter stability that Gaines and Webb provided for the back end going into 2013.
This year’s offense is right about in line, starting experience-wise, with the 2007 and 2013 teams. The defense is a little more of a patchwork deal than those two groups. And, in all likelihood, without a first-time starter the caliber of Sean Weatherspoon waiting in the wings.
Which could be a problem, because...
...the defense was a huge issue last year. Newsflash, I know.
Just look at how far behind last year’s defense was to the 2007 and 2013 ones in...well...almost everything.
The lack of run defense is especially alarming. The 2007 and 2013 teams were very strong against the run. The 2016 team 52 and 91 percent worse than those two in yards allowed per game and 26 and 47 percent worse in yards allowed per rush.
The pass figures allowed were about in line but, when the run defense is so bad, that doesn’t really matter now, does it?
Also lagging: the number of plays between turnover forced.
What both 2007 and 2013 had going for them — 2013 especially -- was that they could rely on a game-changing turnover even if the defense was bleeding yards. Once every 31 plays in 2007, once every 34 in 2013.
In 2016? Once every 48 plays. So about 41-51 percent less frequently.
So not only was last year’s defense lenient, but it wasn’t very selfish either.
They also were on the field 5-6 minutes longer a game than their 2007 and 2013 counterparts were. Because, as we’ve discussed before...
...for all the offense’s strengths last year, it really didn’t do its defense many favors with ball control.
When you look at the above spreadsheet, the 2016 offense stacks up really well with the 2007 and 2013 versions. And, with 10 starters returning, that should continue next year.
But Josh Heupel and Co. really need to figure out how to possess the ball longer. The 2007 and 2013 teams (the other two most successful offenses in Missouri history) could still be a pace offense while possessing the ball near 30 minutes a game.
The offensive line play (in rush yards per game and per rush, pass attempts per sack and plays per tackle for loss) all measure really well against 2007 and 2013, while the passing stats (while plentiful) are a little less efficient.
Which brings me to the next point: turnovers. Ten interceptions and 13 fumbles for a rate of a turnover every 41.2 plays. The 2007 (one every 55.6) and 2013 (65.1) offenses took much better care of the ball. Which, in turn, helps time of possession.
Look at the red zone score percentage as well: 74.5 percent. Significantly below 2007 (91.0) and 2013 (87.5). That led to about .60 fewer points per red zone trip for the 2016 team then 2007 or 2013 enjoyed, not counting extra points.
Doesn’t sound like that big of a deal? Well, over a 50-red zone trip season, that’s 30 points. That means, taking last year for example, wins over Georgia, Middle Tennessee and South Carolina, with 10 points left over for good measure.
The offense, while explosive, needs to get more efficient and patient if it wants to emulate 2007 and 2013. The defense just needs to get better.
Strength of Schedule
Let’s end with some more good news. Missouri’s 2017 schedule is setting up to be pretty terrible, easier by far than what the 2007 and 2013 teams faced.
Here’s a breakdown of the records of the FBS teams Missouri faced each season (not counting their results against Missouri) home, away and on neutral field during its 12-game regular season slate.
The 2017 marks use the 2016 records of the FBS teams the Tigers will face this year (again, discounting their 2016 results against Missouri):
The .522 overall win percentage is much more forgiving than 2007 (.575) and 2013 (.591).
The 2007 had a pretty easy home slate, but supplemented that with high-profile neutral site games against Illinois and Kansas. The 2013 team did very well against a tough schedule, although got lucky with the caliber of team it played on the road taking a dip.
This year’s team has a tougher home slate than road (at Connecticut, Vanderbilt, Kentucky, Arkansas and Georgia) as well as a manageable home one (South Carolina, Purdue, Auburn, Idaho, Florida and Tennessee).
While a number of teams on that list should be improved this year, none of them are going to be world-beaters.
So the schedule should be a big help.
Missouri is set to have the returning starting experience and offensive explosiveness in 2017 that its most recent top-5 teams shared, along with a favorable schedule.
The Tigers do, however, have some deficiencies to shore up on that offense and a major refurbishing to do on defense, all with an overall talent level on its roster that isn’t as highly ranked as the cast of characters it worked with in 2007 and 2013.
So maybe 2017 isn’t the year for another conference title game run that puts a scare into the College Football Playoff. But the conditions are there, at least, for a modest improvement.