The good news: Missouri won eight games and played in a bowl for the first time since 1998. The bad news: the Independence Bowl game wasn't among the victories. The experience against old rival Arkansas was exactly what fourth-year coach Gary Pinkel has tried to avoid, what he calls "Missouri beating Missouri." The Tigers didn't control what they could control.
The fact is, had Missouri been able to win a couple of Big 12 road games, it might have been playing for the conference championship, which is a realistic goal again this season. Every time quarterback Brad Smith steps on the field, he gives Missouri a chance to win. Plus, he should have reliable defensive support, in contrast to his first two seasons as a Tiger.
OffenseSmith's freshman season was a tough act to follow, but he avoided a sophomore jinx by being almost as productive, finishing just 23 passing yards short of becoming the first player in Division I-A history to pass for 2,000 yards and rush for 1,000 yards twice. He is the "ultimate multi-dimensional guy," Texas Tech coach Mike Leach said. Under Smith's direction, the Tigers scored a school-record 399 points in 2003. Even so, his passing efficiency dropped off significantly.
Thomson Omboga, the leading receiver, returns, as does Sean Coffey, who presents matchup problems because of his size. Plus, Greg Bracey and Brad Ekwerekwu have speed to stretch the field vertically, something the Tigers have lacked.
Tailbacks Damien Nash and Marcus Woods provide a much-needed breakaway threat in an offense that will continue to be run-oriented. Missouri led the conference in rushing last year, but a repeat of that success depends on an offensive line rebuilt around guard Tony Palmer.
DefenseThe defense has been suspect during Pinkel's three seasons at Missouri, but this fall it could be the strength of the team if some young players can contribute. There's certainly room for improvement. The Tigers were 38th in the nation in scoring defense, the most important statistic, but they were particularly suspect against the run -- which Arkansas exploited in the Independence Bowl.
C.J. Mosley and Atiyyah Ellison comprise one of the best tackle tandems in the conference. Linebacker James Kinney is second to none at covering the field sideline to sideline. Dedrick Harrington and Jason Simpson represent the Tigers' markedly improved athleticism on defense. Harrington has moved from rover to inside linebacker with Simpson moving from whip to replace him.
Nino Williams II is a playmaker at free safety -- he was credited with 105 tackles and recovered three fumbles in 2003 -- and he has speed alongside him at cornerback. The secondary needs pressure from the front. The Tigers had only 26 sacks, including eight by end Brian Smith.
SpecialistsPunter Brock Harvey, who underwent surgery on the ankle of his kicking foot and missed spring practice, needs to regain his 2002 form. Punting was a disaster last season. The Tigers ranked No. 114 in the nation with a net average of only 30.6 yards per punt.
"That's got to change," Pinkel said.
The Tigers lack a proven placekicker due to the graduation of two-year starter Michael Matheny.
Final AnalysisThough Pinkel has described the program as taking three steps forward and two steps backward at times, it has progressed in talent -- specifically, speed and strength -- and consistency. The offensive line must be rebuilt and the kicking game must improve, particularly the punting. But with an experienced defense and a Smith-directed offense, the Tigers have to be considered contenders in the Big 12's North Division, which doesn't appear to have a clear-cut favorite. That's assuming they don't continue to melt down on the road.