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Welcome to Year Zero, Missouri

NCAA Football: Kentucky at Missouri Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

For the last six years, I’ve written team-by-team offseason previews for SB Nation in the offseason. It is a labor of love, and it is a wonderful experiment in perspective. Instead of having Missouri as ‘my team,’ I try on other hats and get to know the ins and outs of other programs (and their fan bases). That, in turn, allows me to look at Mizzou through a rather wide-angled lens.

One of the concepts I return to a few times per year is the idea of Year Zero. I’m not sure where I pilfered that idea — strangely enough, it might have come from former Tennessee coach Derek Dooley, of all people? — but it is a beautiful, easy-to-understand concept, as defined by Matt Hinton in that link:

1. Term describing a head coach’s first season over a program in disarray, often characterized by extreme youth, lack of depth, high attrition and low expectations.

2. Unremarkable season later viewed as laying the groundwork for a return to prominence in subsequent seasons.

When you are undergoing a program rebuild, or when you are installing a relatively significant culture change, the odds of a Year Zero are pretty solid. But since we never know as much as we think we do about the culture of a program behind closed doors, we never completely know when and where Year Zero is going to unfold until it does.

Welcome to Year Zero, Mizzou fans.

Missouri is now 2-6. That the Tigers were 2-4 wasn’t that big of a surprise — they were underdogs in the four games they lost, after all, and three of the four teams they’ve lost to (WVU, LSU, and Florida) are now a combined 17-4.

But two games into a stretch that was supposed to produce a 3-1 or 4-0 record, Missouri is 0-2. Its depth has been tested by injuries, and it has failed. Its leadership has been tested, and it has failed miserably.

While plenty of people were down on Mizzou’s chances heading into 2016, I don’t recall reading anyone saying, “The offense will improve, but the defense will collapse completely.” But no matter how the Tigers got here, or how surprising it may be that they’re gotten here the way they did, they’re here. Saturday proved it.

That the run defense got gashed by Kentucky on Saturday wasn’t a surprise. Kentucky run game has become one of the best in the country over the last month, and Missouri’s run defense was already incredibly bad before injuries to Michael Scherer and Terry Beckner Jr. (and, this week, Donavin Newsom and Terez Hall).

Still, from a play-calling standpoint, Kentucky never really even had to leave second gear. They ran their base plays, and it worked. They ran obvious-run direct snaps to running backs, and it worked. Missouri supposedly retreated to some of last year’s defensive concepts this week in order to restore confidence, and it really, really didn’t work.

So that meant the offense had to step up to provide support. Mizzou got one first down on its first drive, then punted. It went three-and-out with a bombed third-down snap on its second drive. It went four-and-out on its third drive, five-and-out on its fourth.

Missouri didn’t generate more than one first down in a single drive until midway through the second quarter, when the Tigers were down 21-0.

The run game that was supposed to be able to keep pace with UK’s to some degree — UK’s run defense has been almost as bad as its run offense has been good — was nowhere to be found. Mizzou running backs gained five yards in six carries in the first quarter and 18 in seven in the second quarter. This was the offensive line’s most disappointing performance of the year by far.

Kentucky v Missouri
Damarea Crockett
Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images

As I’ve written plenty of times, you eventually become your record. My S&P+ ratings haven’t liked Kentucky very much; the Wildcats lost at home to No. 67 Southern Miss, got romped as badly by Florida and Alabama as Mizzou did by Florida and LSU, and graded out pretty poorly in recent, tight wins over Vanderbilt and Mississippi State.

But they beat Vanderbilt and Mississippi State. Missouri, meanwhile, graded out well in losses to Georgia and, yes, MTSU. But the Tigers lost. Young teams under new coaching need proof of concept; Mizzou hadn’t gotten much in the last month and played like it. Kentucky, meanwhile, played like a team that knew it was going to win. Funny how much of a difference that can make.

“Discouraged without question. Very discouraged. But never once did I think this would be easy. Never once did I think we’d just breeze through and everything would plan and happen and execute just like I wanted it to. That’s why college football is hard. It’s hard to win consistently. We’ve got a long ways to go. We’re going to get there. I’m going to lead this program to the direction of winning at a consistent basis. I know what it’s going to take and I feel very, very strongly that it’s going to happen. I wish it would have happened five weeks ago but it hasn’t.” [...]

“I had pretty good feel for what it was stepping into it. On Aug. 3 when we reported I knew we had a long ways to go. After the first game I felt even more along that line. There’s a lot of really good things going on inside these walls. The results aren’t coming yet. We’ve got to get there. It’s got to take a great group effort from everyone to get that done. I also know that I’m going to get that done. There’s not one question in my mind. There’s not anything I’ve ever set out for that I haven’t done. I wish it would happen a lot quicker. We’ll get it done.”

Barry Odom

Year Zero doesn’t tend to be very fun. It usually involves quite a few losses, quite a few freshmen and sophomores having to step up before they’re ready, and, in some cases, quite a few veterans underachieving under new guidance. That can cause fissures in team leadership.

The latter is always the most disappointing because, be it because of buy-in or changes in responsibilities (which might not play as well to strengths). Charles Harris recovered a fumbled yesterday; by default, that made it his second-best game of the season. He had a great Georgia game and has otherwise been damn near invisible. Josh Augusta has been fun to watch on offense but has three TFLs in seven games on defense. Rickey Hatley has one TFL. Anthony Sherrils has been in and out of the doghouse, it seems.

After the game, Odom couldn’t quite decide whether to publicly call his team out or remain encouraging. He made clear he didn’t think the effort was where it needed to be from a tackling perspective, but then he said he didn’t question his team’s effort. He acknowledged frustration from some, then said the locker room didn’t have divisions.

Odom is struggling to figure out what face to put on this struggle, in part because he’s also in his first year in a new role and in part because, well, there are no right answers at the moment. That last part is important.

No matter what he says, the results are going to speak louder. And it’s clear now that, while there could still be a positive outcome or two this season, a) there also might not be any positive outcomes left this year, and b) any serious turnaround isn’t going to come until next year at the earliest.

The good news about Year Zero, though, is that the depth of the fall doesn’t really matter. Lou Holtz famously went 0-11 in his first year at South Carolina, then went 8-4 the next year and 9-3 the year after that. George O’Leary began his wonderfully successful tenure at UCF with an 0-11 dud as well. Even Nick Saban struggled to get pieces in the right place, with the right amount of buy-in, in his first year at Alabama, going just 7-6.

Whether Mizzou goes 2-10 or 5-7 this year (and yeah, the former’s far more likely than the latter at this point), what matters is the response.

And in that sense, what matters most is player leadership.

Under Gary Pinkel, you can usually tell how Missouri did in any given season by looking at how its captains played. In 2007, you had Pig Brown playing like an All-American before his Achilles injury, and you had Martin Rucker playing like an All-American all year. In 2008, Chase Daniel was awesome, and Tommy Saunders and Ziggy Hood were underrated, but the season was packed with a twinge of disappointment ... just like William Moore’s injury-plagued performance was.

In 2009, you had Danario Alexander and Sean Weatherspoon dragging a super-young Mizzou squad to eight wins. In 2013, James Franklin, L’Damian Washington, Andrew Wilson, and E.J. Gaines all raised their games and became maybe the best superfecta of captains this team has ever had. In 2014, Mitch Morse, Markus Golden, Bud Sasser, and Braylon Webb also significantly raised their respective games as leaders.

(2010 was the exception to this rule. The captains were Tim Barnes, Luke Lambert, and Kevin Rutland, all of whom provided strong leadership. But none of them were All-Americans, and the fourth captain, Derrick Washington, was kicked off the team. And the team was awesome regardless.)

In 2015, two of the captains — Evan Boehm and Russell Hansbrough — were struggling with injuries from nearly the first snap of the season and couldn’t carry an otherwise desperately inexperienced offense.

This year, there are no captains, at least not by the same definition. Odom changed the process to a weekly selection, which, fine, whatever, it can work too. But it’s just as well that he didn’t go with the “four seniors” approach because there almost weren’t enough seniors to choose from. Some combination of Scherer, Aarion Penton, Newsom, Hatley, Augusta, and John Gibson would have been selected for the two defensive spots. We’ll say it would have been Scherer and Penton, and both have tried to lead by example.

The biggest problem, though, has been the size of the class. On offense, the only seniors who a) have contributed and b) aren’t graduate transfers are Sean Culkin and former walk-ons Tyler Hanneke and Eric Laurent. They are Mizzou’s sixth-, 12th-, and 21st-leading receivers for the year. (The grad transfers haven’t done a ton either.)

Under Pinkel, Mizzou was usually at its best when its seniors took ownership and stepped up. This year’s senior class is almost too small to provide the requisite leadership, and if you’re looking to figure out if “Year One” under Odom in 2017 is going to include a rebound, you’re basically asking if these juniors will step up and take charge, both in the offseason and on the field:

Missouri’s 2017 senior class

(I’m still under the assumption that Charles Harris will be declaring for the NFL Draft, so I’m not listing him here.)

  • Current starters: S Thomas Wilson, WR J’Mon Moore, WR Nate Brown (though at this point, he might be a redshirt junior), OL Tyler Howell, OL Alec Abeln, DE Marcell Frazier, DT A.J. Logan, LB Joey Burkett
  • Current contributors: RB Ish Witter, TE Jason Reese, OL Adam Ploudre, CB Logan Cheadle, DE Jordan Harold, LB Eric Beisel, S Anthony Sherrils
  • Others: QB Jack Lowary, WR Dominic Collins, CB Anthony Hines

From a quantity standpoint, that’s a little bit better, but it’s still only 18 guys. And from a quality standpoint, it’s ... okay. Guys like Wilson, Howell, Frazier, and Reese have shown a pretty high ceiling; maybe they’ll put all the pieces together. Or maybe we’ll be waiting until 2018 for things to come together around the current sophomores.

I think we all knew this season could go poorly, even while we expressed reasonably optimistic predictions. And to be sure, this defense shouldn’t be this bad no matter what. There’s a lot to assess this coming offseason.

But no matter how we got here, we’re here. And the last four games of this season are for searching for evidence of future leadership and future breakthroughs.

We can certainly still hope for a win or two, too. That would be bonus proof of concept.

By the way, to those who voted this way...

...just stop. Please. Have some respect for yourself and your damn school.