Media Days are upon us. And in the Southeastern Conference, that marks the unofficial beginning of the 2018 season. But there’s still six weeks before the games are underway. So now that everyone is back to work and fall camps are right around the corner, it’s time to look ahead and make some 2018 predictions.
Which SEC Team Will Surprise Everyone In 2018?
There is an established pecking order in the SEC. But with 14 teams with this much talent, there’s always a chance for one team to surprise everyone. This year it will be the Missouri Tigers. Most outlets are picking the Tigers to finish 4th or 5th in the SEC East. Here’s why that’s wrong.
Missouri should have one of the best offenses in the nation this year. Last year, the Tigers were 14th nationally in scoring offense (1st in the SEC). They were 14th nationally in passing offense, second in the SEC behind Ole Miss. Drew Lock was, statistically, the 10th best quarterback in the nation. And Missouri finished 8th in total offense nationally. The next closest SEC team was Ole Miss at 18th. The next closest SEC East team was Georgia at 32nd.
But that was last season, right? The Missouri offense returns 9 of 11 starters. And in the two positions where starters were lost, running back and receiver, there is ample talent to fill the starter’s position. Emanuel Hall is easily one of the top four receivers returning in the SEC, and Johnathon Johnson isn’t far behind. Hall 24.76 yards per catch last season. That’s the definition of big-play threat receiver.
The Tigers also boast the best returning tight end in the conference. Albert Okwuegbunam returns to Columbia after a 2017 season with 11 touchdowns, 415 total yards, and 14.31 yards per reception. At 6’5″, 260, he’s a match-up nightmare for defensive coordinators. He can also be effective in run blocking at that size.
Damarea Crockett and Larry Rountree together bring back almost 1,200 yards of rushing offense and 8 touchdowns from last season. And that’s as the second- and third-string running backs. While neither is All-SEC caliber, they make a very effective combination.
Everyone knows about Lock, Hall, and Okwuegbunam (or at least they should). What’s going to get overlooked is the return of all five starting linemen. Missouri returns all five starters from last season and 96 total career starts on the offensive line. In a league won and lost on the line of scrimmage, this is the tell-tale sign of good things to come in Columbia.
Drew Lock passed up a chance at the NFL to return to Missouri for one final season. Lock is the most underrated quarterback in the country, and it’s not even close. Lock has the talent and the arm to make a difference in the SEC. His numbers were astounding last season. He had 21% more passing yards (3,964) than the second highest total in the SEC (Jarrett Stidham, 3,158). He had 44 passing touchdowns, 41% more than the second highest total in the SEC (Kyle Shurmur, 26).
If it weren’t for the fact that Lock plays at Missouri and the Tigers defense allowed them to lose 6 games last season, Lock would be in the Heisman Trophy conversation. He’s got perfect size for a quarterback as well at 6’4″, 225.
If it weren’t for inexplicably bad games early last season against South Carolina and Purdue, Missouri could easily have had a 9-win season in 2017. In those two games he totaled 378 yards on 26-for-60 (43%), well off the pace for the rest of his season. He’s good enough to carry this team on his back and get those nine wins — and maybe more.
Here me out. Anyone that watched Missouri last season saw a defense that gave up a ton of yards and a ton of points. The Tigers yielded 32 points on 414 yards to their opponents last season. The good news is that they can’t be much worse. The better news? They’ll be much better.
Missouri returns seven starters on defense. The star will be defensive lineman Terry Beckner, Jr., who also returned for his senior season instead of going to the NFL. It’ll be sophomore Jordan Elliot that’ll make the difference. Elliot, a former top-125 national recruit, is a Texas transfer and sat out 2017. With Elliot and Beckner, Jr. manning the inside of Missouri’s 4-3 defense, you will have two All-Conference caliber players totaling more than 630 pounds of football player. Defensive line coach Brick Haley has to be looking forward to that. Missouri’s run defense should be at the top of the SEC East this season.
The linebacker corps, much like the running backs, don’t have one stand-out star, but make a solid group collectively. Of the group, Terez Hall received some All-Conference mention last season and can be an effective pass rusher off the edge.
And that’s good news, because the weakness will be in the secondary. Missouri gave up 260 yards passing per game last season. They’ll have to be better than that in 2018 to reach their potential. The good news is that the SEC East, other than Georgia’s Jake Fromm and South Carolina’s Jake Bentley, doesn’t have consistent big-time passers.
There’s a lot to be said about experience in the SEC. And Missouri has that. They return 16 total starters on offense and defense. The return 73% of their lettermen, and 14 of those are seniors.
More importantly, they weathered a disastrous first half of 2017. The Tigers beat Missouri State on opening weekend and then lost five straight. It was only a matter of time until Barry Odom lost his job. Except that the team rallied and won their last six, including four straight SEC games (Florida, Tennessee, Vanderbilt, and Arkansas). They won those last six games by an average of 51-21. This team learned how to overcome adversity and win big SEC games–at home and on the road–in the second half of last season.
There are a few things working against Missouri.
First, the hiring of Derek Dooley as the offensive coordinator is bizarre. He might be the only coach in the SEC that can stop Drew Lock. It’ll be a shame if Lock is held in check by his own offensive coordinator.
And that segues into Barry Odom. Odom enters his third season with lingering questions. He certainly righted the ship in the second half of 2017, but does he have the abilities of Gary Pinkel to lead the Tigers back to a division championship? Or is he a 7- or 8-win coach at best. His hire of Dooley left many people scratching their head.
And while they have talent all over the field, their depth is questionable at best. As with most teams, they are one high ankle sprain away from disaster.
They also have a fairly favorable schedule.
Their non-conference schedule includes Tennessee-Martin, Wyoming, at Purdue and Memphis. UT-Martin and Wyoming should be wins. Missouri has more talent than both Purdue and Memphis and gets the Tigers at home. 3-1 is a reasonable expectation from the non-conference schedule.
They have the permanent cross-over with Arkansas, which will start the season expected to finish last in the SEC West. They do draw Alabama as the yearly cross-over. We’ll go 1-1 here.
The SEC East is still lagging behind the West. Missouri gets Georgia early, and in a tricky part of the schedule for the Bulldogs. Columbia is also a long trip for any SEC East school. That’s a trap game, if there ever was one. Regardless, with Florida and Tennessee still trying to find their way and Kentucky and Vanderbilt in the never-ending treading water phase of their programs, Missouri should go at least 4-2 in the SEC East. Their game against South Carolina might be for second place in the SEC East. But don’t be surprised if Missouri can pull an upset early in the season.
That makes the Tigers 8-4, and probably second place in the East. A ten win season isn’t out of the question for Missouri, especially if they get lucky with health and Drew Lock has the season he’s capable of.
And that would make Missouri the surprise team of the SEC for 2018.
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