Sure, the 2016 season was a tough one to stomach for Missouri players, coaches, families, fans and various other hangers-on.
But the Tigers’ 4-8 trip through the fall wasn’t without its bright spots...especially on one side of the ball. Even though the actual calendar has yet to turn over, the Missouri Football edition did on, oh, about November 26.
So what’s next? What are the lingering questions now that we will most certainly still have once the games get closer again?
Follow me. Won’t you?
— How much better can Drew Lock be?
The improvement in pertinent statistical measures from Lock’s freshman to sophomore year are already stark. Completion percentage went up 11.4 percent, yards per attempt up 54.7 percent, touchdown percentage up 249 percent and interception percentage down 24.3 percent.
If we held Lock’s attempts even (434) for next year and improved him by those factors again, here’s what the final line would look like: 264-of-434, 5256 yards, 80 TD, 8 INT.
OK, so that’s settled. On to the next...
Seriously, though, the main areas Lock can still improve are completion percentage (54.6, 99th among qualified FBS quarterbacks) and those interceptions (10, tied for 73rd among qualified FBS quarterbacks).
That means better decisions, more accurate passes and some more help from his receivers.
Top two targets J’Mon Moore and Dimetrios Mason caught a combined 54.0 percent of the passes thrown at them (109-of-202). Part of it was Lock, part of it was drops.
On the whole, though, you want your two most frequent targets catching at a higher rate than the team as s whole. Moore and Mason were 2.88 percent under.
Nate Brown and Moore were under in 2015 (43.4 to the team’s 49.9, 13% under), Bud Sasser and Jimmie Hunt were 13 percent above in 2014 (60 to 53.3) and Dorial Green-Beckham and Marcus Lucas were 1.5 percent above in 2013 (59.7 to 58.8).
The return of Brown should give Lock a really solid group next year, adding in to Moore, Mason, Johnathon Johnson and Kendall Blanton.
— How are those running back snaps getting divvied?
For the 2016 season, among top backs Ish Witter and Damarea Crockett, Witter received 56.9 percent of the snaps and Crockett got 43.1.
That’s been about par for the course in the Tigers’ platoon backfields over the past four seasons.
Witter and Russell Hansbrough split at a 51.4/48.6 rate in 2015, Marcus Murphy and Hansbrough at a 52.6/47.4 rate in 2014 and Henry Josey and Murphy at a 63.8/36.2 rate in 2013.
But Witter and Crockett’s dynamic got more even-handed as the season progressed.
Over the final eight games in which both played, the split was 50.7/49.3 Witter. And, while Witter carried on 36.2 percent of his snaps this year, Crockett carried on 45.1 percent of his.
So, as the split gets more equitable (and, dare I say, Crockett-tinged?), you may expect to see the carries tip more dramatically toward the younger back.
So where does that leave Nate Strong, Ryan Williams and (possibly) the 2017 back commits? How many snaps/carries are still around for them?
Over the past four years, the top two backs have hogged a combined 82.5 percent of the snaps. So, if an offense runs 79 plays a game as Missouri did this past year, that means about 14 snaps a game for guys not named Witter and Crockett.
Happy hunting, fellas!
— Can this offensive renaissance last?
Offensive coordinator Josh Heupel was a bit of a miracle worker this past season.
Not only did he take over one of the nation’s 10 worst offenses in terms of yards per game, but — in the span of 12 games — he helped turn it around into the most productive offense in terms of yards per game in Missouri program history.
The Tigers’ offense improved 219.6 yards a game (or 78 percent) from 2015 (500.5, from 280.9).
Of all the teams that were bottom-10 offenses since 2011, the one-year turnaround that’s come closest to Missouri’s this season was 2013 Auburn, which lunged up to 501.3 yards a game from 305 (improvement of 196.3, or 64 percent).
Yes...but can it stay?
Of the 50 teams that finished in the FBS’ bottom 10 in total offense over the past five years, 92 percent improved the next year. By an average of 70.9 yards a game, or 24.6 percent.
Going from Year 1 to Year 2, though, the percent of continually improving teams of the 40 we studied (since the 2015 bottom 10 don’t have a Year 3 yet) fell to 70 percent and improved by an average of 24.9 yards a game, or 6.93 percent.
Year 2 to 3, only half of the 30 kept improving.
After improving noticeably in the first two years after cratering, recent history shows us that these teams plateau.
You’d take that, though, right? A 6.93-percent increase for 2017 would mean 535.2 yards a game for the Tigers. That’s not a bad plateau to hit.
More discouraging, though...what if, the more teams get Heupel’s offense on film, the more ready they are to defend it?
And what if the competition gets tougher?
Missouri faced only three top-50 defenses this season: Florida (sixth), LSU (13th) and Georgia (16th).
In those games, the Tigers averaged only 16 points and 366.3 yards a game and 5.41 yards a play.
In four games against teams ranked 62nd through 79th (South Carolina, Vanderbilt, Arkansas, West Virginia), they averaged 21.5 points and 451.8 yards a game and 5.91 yards a play.
In four games against teams ranked 87th through 109th (Kentucky, Eastern Michigan, Middle Tennessee, Tennessee), they averaged 41 points and 600.5 yards a game and 6.65 yards a play.
Oh, and Delaware State was there, too.
Missouri punished bad defenses. It knew its way around average to slightly below average defenses. Good defenses were an issue.
That’s the next frontier.
— Who will be Marcell Frazier’s Marcell Frazier?
Much like peanut butter and bananas, Missouri’s pass rush functions best when it has two complementary edge rushers that can both get after the quarterback. If not in equal measure, then at least in almost equal measure.
For the past four seasons, the Tigers have enjoyed that luxury.
In 2013, Michael Sam logged a sack every 56.8 snaps and a tackle for loss every 34.4 Kony Ealy complemented with rates of 89.4 and 51.1.
In 2014, Shane Ray’s were 54.1 and 31.2. Markus Golden’s were 71.4 and 35.7.
In 2015, Charles Harris’ were 98.9 and 37.4. Walter Brady’s were 70.0 and 39.2.
And in 2016, Harris’ were 80.7 and 60.5. Marcell Frazier’s were 60.8 and 55.9.
Frazier is the only end on the roster who really differentiated himself this season. It was a hard-won victory after starting the year as the guy getting the fourth-most end snaps (behind Harris, Spencer Williams and Jordan Harold) and one he reinforced by playing like a force of nature over the final three games.
That probably gives him the inside track to being the end who enjoys a 70-30 snap split over his backup, while the other side is more like 55-45.
He needs help. Who’s going to give it?
Harold and Williams combined for a sack every 458 snaps and a tackle for loss every 274.8 this year. Not really getting it done.
Josh Moore and Nate Howard saw the field for 82 total defensive snaps this season. So they’re starting over from the back of the pack. Tre Williams set Missouri fans’ hearts aflutter with his highlight film last year and, with an end rotation that’s far from settled and aching for some lean, quick athletes, he should get a long look.
The ends’ status becomes even more important with the relative lack of backfield prowess the tackles showed this past season, adding into the fact that Rickey Hatley and Josh Augusta depart.
Terry Beckner could help on that front (he could even help at end, if DeMontie Cross and Barry Odom’s plan for him as a 3-front end in the Middle Tennessee game were any indication), but he’s also coming off his second knee surgery in as many years.
Seems like this has been a question each of the past two years: Who, oh who, will help carry the torch for D-Line ‘Zou? And Missouri has had a satisfactory answer each time.
This time around, new line coach Brick Haley has Frazier and a number of options who have played significant snaps without showing a Frazier/Harris/Brady/Ray/Golden/Sam/Ealy-like pass rush capacity.
-- What is the best defensive fit for these Tigers?
Missouri’s rush defense was bad. There aren’t many ways to sugarcoat that.
Against FBS competition, the Tigers gave up 250 yards a game and 5.45 yards a carry. Those two measures were 37 percent and 14 percent worse, respectively, than those 11 teams did against the rest of their schedules.
Here’s even better news, though. As the year wore on, the pass defense might have even been worse than the run defense.
Over the final four games, the Tigers gave up 269.3 yards per game and 9.05 yards per pass. Those measures were both 23 percent worse than the rates South Carolina, Vanderbilt, Tennessee and Arkansas put up against the rest of their schedules.
Yes, the 15 interceptions were nice window dressing. But yes, nine of those 15 interceptions are also graduating.
So how do you fix a broken vase? How do you build a defense that won’t get gashed by the run but that also isn’t vulnerable to efficient passing attacks?
Better tackling would help. That’s one way.
Another way would be to allow for the possibility that, even with Odom’s love for the 3-4 look and all things linebacker, Missouri’s way forward might be by taking one of them off the field.
Missouri played out of its base personnel — four linemen, three linebackers in some form of standing and crouching — 65 percent of the time this season. It yielded 6.32 yards a carry, 7.19 yards a pass, 6.39 yards a play overall and a sack every 23.9 pass attempts.
The Tigers played with at least one extra defensive back -- Nickel, Dime, 3-3-5, 3-2-6 — 31 percent of the time.
In those sets, their pertinents were 5.93 (vs. run), 7.07 (vs. pass), 5.81 (overall) and 10.6 (pass attempts per sack).
There are some caveats to throw in, namely that Missouri used extra defensive backs often when opposing teams were in third-down, obvious pass situations and, therefore, less likely to succeed.
It might be worth a look tipping that 31-65 split back a little toward the extra DBs.
The linebackers — all of them -- were liabilities against the pass more often than not. The cast of possible nickelbacks available (T.J. Warren? Cam Hilton? DeMarkus Acy? Ronnell Perkins? Kaleb Prewett?) are not Aarion Penton-E.J. Gaines level pass defenders, but they’re steps above any linebacker on Missouri’s roster.
And if you’re worried about giving up bulk and run instincts in the box...I mean...I wouldn’t be too worried about a dropoff in that department. There is not that much to drop off, based on last season’s production.
The back seven is going to be an offseason proving ground for the Tigers. You can’t really look at any single linebacker, safety or corner off of this year’s roster and say “yes, he is a definite starter. He separated himself and is the piece around which we build.
That means a lot of jockeying ahead for about 19 players in seven spots.
And...you know...possibly a look at a sleeker defensive personnel set a larger proportion of the time?