In 2013, the Missouri Tigers were projected to finish sixth in the SEC East. Instead, they finished first with an 11-1 record, putting them in the SEC Championship. Last season, Mizzou was expected to finish fourth and yet again proved critics wrong, putting themselves on a flight to Atlanta. Why would anyone expect anything to be different in 2015? Surely this unusual success has to come to an end now, right?
3 Is a Magic Number: Why Mizzou Can Three-Peat
No team has won the SEC East three times in a row since the Florida Gators in 1996, almost 20 years ago. And of course, it was plausible considering Florida was a founding member of the Southeastern Conference since 1932. Despite considerable doubt, the newly adopted Missouri Tigers have a chance to three-peat in 2015, and they believe it.
“I want to win every game we play; that’s what we do”, said Head Coach Gary Pinkel at the 2015 SEC Media Days in Hoover, Alabama.
Pinkel finished his quote with a simple yet direct response, as well as a smirk. “Last year had nothing to do with this year, so here we go.”
Mizzou’s mindset has remained consistent regardless of preseason polls, critics, or injuries: find a way to win, and they have.
This year, the quest for those wins begins immediately as the Tigers open up their season with a relatively modest schedule. Beginning with Southeastern Missouri State, Arkansas State, and UConn, the Tigers should have no problem heading into SEC play with a 3-0 record. Other than trips to Athens and Fayetteville, Missouri hosts their toughest conference games in Columbia. South Carolina, Tennessee, Mississippi State, and Florida all have to come to Columbia. The Tigers conclude regular season play with a newly founded rivalry game in Arkansas Thanksgiving weekend.
One of Missouri’s biggest advantages this season is the talent and maturity of the offensive line. That maturity begins with it’s veteran leaders. Selected as one of four captains last week, center Evan Boehm has been a leader for the Tigers since his start in Columbia. This offseason, the 6’3″, 320-pound lineman trained relentlessly to improve speed and flexibility. Boehm is listed as the fifth-best center available for next year’s NFL draft. Another offensive force is tackle Connor McGovern who has recorded 28 career starts for the Tigers. McGovern is ranked 14th at guard by the NFL’s early-entry evaluation process.
“Other years, we’ve always had good offensive lines, but the most experience wasn’t always on the line,” said McGovern.
“Connor and Mitch [Morse] are the two biggest (physical) freaks I’ve ever seen,” Boehm said. “It’s just freakish how well they can do some of these things. They definitely made me better. They pushed me to become what I am.”
Another huge advantage to the offensive line is its depth. In 2012, the Tigers were plagued with injuries to its O-Line including key players like Mitch Morse, Justin Britt, Elvis Fisher, and Travis Ruth. This year, Missouri will have a stockpile of players to step up including Paul Adams, Mitch Hall, Andy Bauer, and others. Important 2015 signings included wide receiver Justin Smith (Dublin, GA) and wide receiver Richaud Floyd (Gulfport, MISS.)
If you stop anyone on the streets of Columbia and ask about defense, you’ll hear #DLineZou. It’s become a household label for the continually successful defensive line at Missouri. Producing high caliber players each year, Missouri’s defense is infamous on a national scale. There’s also a strong chance it will be followed by the adage “Burn Your Boats”. Harold Brantley introduced the phrase last year during a speech before the Texas A&M game, and it has become a proverb for the Tiger’s defensive line.
“It means there’s no coming back,” explained defensive end Rickey Hatley. “Once you get across there, there’s no going back. You’re going to war.”
“Burn Your Boats” found new meaning when tragedy struck the Tigers, specifically to the author of the motto. Brantley, a junior defensive tackle, was severely injured in a car accident on June 21 in Columbia. Out of the hospital and expected to make a full recovery, Brantley’s presence off the field is still important to the Tigers’ success.
“We always like any player that’s injured to be a part of the team, so his responsibility is to be here,” Pinkel said. “You get treatment and everything else, but he’s been great. His leadership skills have been so great.”
Brantley was a huge asset for the Tigers in 2014, recording 54 tackles, five sacks, two blocked kicks, and a fumble recovery. Pinkel will look to returning players as well as freshmen to step up into new roles. The players catching the eye of most are the duo of Michael Scherer and Kentrell Brothers, who combined for over 100 tackles last season. Scherer, a 6’3″, 235 pound redshirt junior from St. Louis and Brothers, a 6’1″ redshirt senior from Oklahoma are both players who look to have a breakout season in 2015. It will be an important year for 6’4″ 300 pound defensive lineman Josh Augusta as he looks to replace Harold Brantley in a starting position. The junior from Peoria, IL has already been a standout at preseason camp and scrimmages. One of the biggest stories of the year for Missouri defense is the signing of five-star defensive tackle and East St. Louis native Terry Beckner Jr. With the last two national champions as runner-ups to Missouri, Gary Pinkel was certainly pleased.
“I think he’s a great player,” said Pinkel. “I think it says so much about him and his humility that he was in tears. You got a look at what kind of a young man he is. We’re excited about him and think he has a chance to be a great, great player.”
Becker Jr. is the highest-rated recruit Missouri has had since 2012 when wide receiver Dorial Green-Beckham committed to the black and gold. Other major defensive signings included defensive backs Cam Hilton (Webster Groves, MO) and TJ Warren (Conyers, GA) as well as defensive lineman Josh Moore (Olathe, Kan.)
One of the most battle-tested players and leader of the Missouri Tigers is quarterback Maty Mauk. A veteran dual-threat quarterback, the 6’0″ 200 pound redshirt junior from Kenton, OH is 14-4 as a starter. Mauk finished the 2014 regular season ranked sixth in the SEC in total offense and seventh in passing yards per game (189.1). Last season Mauk threw 25 touchdowns, putting him sixth in program history. From last season to now, Mauk has brought his body fat from 20% to 11% while also clocking a 4.4 40-yard dash. Mauk is also on the Manning Watch List for the 2015 season. Aside from his own motivation to be the best quarterback in college football, Mauk is playing for something bigger than himself in 2015. Early this summer, Mauk revealed that his father, Mike, was battling colorectal cancer. He reached out to offensive coordinator Josh Henson and the support from the entire coaching staff and team began to pour in. Fan support was in full effect with tweets, messages, and well wishes to Mauk and his family. That’s just how it works at Missouri; it’s one big family in Columbia.
Mauk addressed the media on the matter, very simply.
“My dad, he has a big influence on everything I do and who I am. This is going to be for him, for sure. I don’t even want to talk about it to anybody. I just want to go out there and play. I don’t need to tell you what I’m going to do. Just watch me. I’m going to do it.”
Mauk’s father, one of his biggest fans, still plans to attend his son’s games. He’s even set his surgery on a Monday so he could make Saturday’s game, although doctors aren’t so sure. Yet, he remains hopeful.
“If I’m still alive and able to, I will be at his games,” Mike said.
Mauk is number one on the depth chart for Missouri and there’s no question that he will remain there. His biggest needs this season are continued improvement with consistency.
“When he’s in the crunch time, he’s at his best,” says Pinkel, “We just need more consistency at the position, we need more consistency on offense and I think it starts with him.”
“It’s not just him, but certainly his consistency will help all the people around him play better.”
Mauk is certainly the type of player that improves those around him, both on and off the field.
“Maty has become a great player and a great leader on this Missouri Tigers Football team,” said Boehm.
“I’m excited to see some of the people that have criticized him for so long kind of bring back the praise to Maty because he totally deserves it.”
It’s no question that Missouri has high expectations to live up to, mostly their own. Whether it’s lack of respect, or just plain disrespect year after year, the Tigers have continued to use it as motivation. Any group of 18-22 year olds being passed over in preseason polls despite winning two years in a row, they’re going to take that as motivation and run with it. Head first. And you can guarantee, the Tigers have already set fire to their boats. There’s no coming back, they’re going to war.
SEC reporters picked Missouri to finish third in the division. As Gary Pinkel says, “Here we go.”