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Mizzou Crystal Ball

In Football on May 16, 2012 at 11:29 am

The Missouri Tigers have to adjust to a new conference, but their first SEC season should be a good one.

There’s a buzz in the air at the University of Missouri. With classes completed and graduation ceremonies concluded, there are no distractions between now and football season. For many Mizzou fans, a sense of anticipation always accompanies the first snap of the season. But with the Tigers entering their first season of play in the Southeastern Conference, this summer’s buzz includes something else — a sense of arrival.

For the first time since the 1960s, Missouri has the chance to be in the national spotlight on a regular basis. The seats at Faurot Field will be sold out, viewers will tune into broadcasts, and the games will count. But receiving the benefits of playing with the big boys in the SEC means actually having to play against them. How will Mizzou fare in its first trek through the south? Even with the perils of competing in a conference that boasts eight of the last nine national champions, the Tigers stand a good chance of shining in their first SEC campaign. An 8-4 record seems a likely possibility.

Perhaps the biggest advantage Missouri has going into 2012 is its schedule. The Tigers will play seven games at Faurot Field this season. In the last five seasons, Mizzou played only six games in Columbia. In fact, the Tigers start out the season with three consecutive home games before they take to the road. That opening stretch at home provides a good opportunity for the team to build up its confidence before entering the heart of its conference schedule.

Mizzou could also benefit from a schedule that avoids many of the SEC’s better teams and more harrowing venues. Two of the Tigers’s more difficult matchups on paper — a week 2 game against the University of Georgia and a week 7 contest against the University of Alabama — will be held at Faurot. The Georgia Bulldogs posted a 10-4 record last year, and the Crimson Tide was even better, going 12-1 en route to the 2011 BCS national championship. Missouri appears to be the underdog in both games, but the Tigers are more likely to pull off upsets while playing at home than they would be at Sanford Stadium or Bryant-Denny Stadium.

The rest of Missouri’s home schedule looks more amenable. The Tigers start the season against the FCS Southeastern Louisiana Lions. FCS teams occasionally pull off the upset over FBS teams, but this won’t be one of those occasions. The Lions went 3-8 in the Southland Conference and were outscored by over 100 points last season. In week 3, the Tigers take on Arizona State University. The Sun Devils narrowly defeated the Tigers last season in Tempe as they stumbled to a 6-7 finish. Shifting the venue to Columbia should be enough for the Tigers to prevail.

After two consecutive road games, Missouri will spend October at home, facing off against Vanderbilt University, Alabama and the University of Kentucky. Missouri looks to be favored in two of those contests. The Vanderbilt Commodores made it to the Liberty Bowl last season, but they’ve been awful for a decade, finishing over .500 twice while losing 10 games four times. Although they haven’t been nearly as bad as Vanderbilt, the Kentucky Wildcats have also been in a football funk. After five consecutive bowl appearances, the Wildcats dropped to 5-7 under second-year head coach Joker Phillips. With no clear starter at the quarterback position, Kentucky has a lot of ground to make up before October 27.

The Tigers finish out their home schedule November 17 against Syracuse University. Big East football is quickly falling apart, but the Syracuse Orange started crumbling long ago. Since 2002, the Orange have made only two bowl games —  and have finished above .500 only once. The Orange went 5-7 last year. The potential remains for them to improve on that in 2012, but the Orange’s defense has been depleted by the departures of Chandler Jones and Philip Thomas to the NFL. Missouri should be favored in this game.

Mizzou’s away slate could be a more difficult assignment, however. In recent years, the Tigers benefitted from “away” games held at neutral sites. The popular Arch Rivalry game against the University of Illinois was held at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis for the six meetings from 2002-2010, while the Border War rivalry with the University of Kansas was played at Kansas City’s Arrowhead Stadium from 2007-2011. Although Missouri technically gave up a “home” game in each of these contests, it’s difficult to argue that the Tigers were hamstrung by road trips to neutral venues in their home state. But those comfortable road trips have been replaced by three jaunts to the east coast. The Tigers are going to have to start getting used to the Eastern Time Zone.

The Tigers have a tough week 4 matchup against the University of South Carolina. The Gamecocks tallied an 11-2 record last year, including a 30-13 win over the University of Nebraska in the Capital One Bowl. Coming off of the best season in school history, head coach Steve Spurrier’s squad, led by returning quarterback Connor Shaw, will be a difficult obstacle for the Tigers to overcome. Missouri follows that game with a contest against the University of Central Florida. The Golden Knights had a disappointing 2011 season, including a string of close losses. UCF’s offense — which now includes Missouri transfer Tyler Gabbert — looks stronger going into 2012 and could make for a competitive game.

After a three-week home stand, Missouri will be on the road for three of its next four games. The University of Florida is still trying to find its way in a post-Urban Meyer world. The Gators finished 7-6 last season and won the Gator Bowl, but Florida was only 3-5 in conference play. These aren’t the Tebow-Meyer Gators of the last 2000s. The Tigers next travel to Knoxville to take on the University of Tennessee. The Volunteers have been a mixed bag since Philip Fulmer’s final season as head coach, but this season could be a rebirth for Tennessee. The Volunteers have a restocked and experienced offensive corps that could do lots of damage in 2012.

The Tigers finish the season against a familiar foe — Texas A&M University. The Aggies came to the SEC as Missouri’s cross-division rival. With a new coach and a new conference, the Aggies have a lot of uncertainty going into 2012. Combine that with the departure of quarterback Ryan Tannehill, and 2012 could be a disappointing year for Texas A&M.

After leaving the shaky Big 12 for ostensibly the best conference in college football, Missouri fans have high expectations for the 2012 season. And they should. The Gary Pinkel era has been one of the most successful times for Mizzou football. But success in the new SEC era rides on several factors: the health of quarterback James Franklin, tailback Henry Josey’s knee injury, and the introduction of wide receiver Dorial Green-Beckham, just to name a few. Despite all of the uncertainties surrounding the 2012 Tigers, one thing is certain: The new era starts September 1.

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