Today, the Mizzou campus was filled with life, as you would expect on the first absolutely beautiful Saturday afternoon of the year. Coeds were tanning, crowds gathered for intramural soccer games, and the Tiger baseball team, almost as hot as the Royals, was too busy with the eight-ranked Cornhuskers to relax and enjoy their first national ranking (#20) in more than five years.
It's not even tax-day yet, so the last thing you'd expect to see on campus is a crowd at Faurot field getting ready for a football game. Nonetheless, a few thousand proud (or, about the attendance of a Rock Bridge-Hickman autumn match-up) touched down at the intersection of Providence and Stadium in Columbia today. They were there to catch the Black and Gold game, the annual scrimmage held at the end of the spring practice period.
There are a number of notable items for discussion surrounding this year's Tiger football team. Who will replace Justin Gage, Missouri's greatest receiver of all time? Can Brad Smith improve upon his remarkable performances from last season? Have defensive and special teams play improved enough to give Mizzou a shot to compete in the Big XII north division? Will the new surface at Faurot give the Tigers the edge that head coach Gary Pinkel believes it can?
Wait. I guess that means that I can brag to have seen the last home Tiger football game on natural grass, at least for the foreseeable future. Has it been that long since the stripes and hash marks were painted on Omniturf at the MU campus stadium? I guess it's been close to a decade, but why the change?
Gary Pinkel, the third-year coach of the Tigers, prefers an aggressive, but balanced, fast-paced attack, combined with a quick, blitzing defense. Playing half of their schedule on Faurot's new FieldTurf surface could give the Tigers the edge at home that they need to become bowl eligible, a feat they were unable to perform at the end of last season in their win-or-go-home contest (in Columbia) against Kansas State.
No one should expect any miracles because of the new surface, though, even if it has received rave reviews from college and pro players alike (The Seattle Seahawks' new stadium, matted with FieldTurf, has been ranked by players as one of the NFL's best playing surfaces, and is tops among pro fields with artificial turf. Big XII rival Nebraska also had field turf installed recently). During several big games in the last few seasons, it was obvious that the Tigers were outmatched physically; they didn't move up and down the field as well as their opponents. For the surface to provide an advantage, the Tigers need speed. Coach Pinkel needs to attract faster and quicker athletes from out-of-state, continue to improve recruiting of the best in-state players, and develop them into thoroughbreds that can play in his system.
Everyone who caught highlights of a Mizzou game last fall knows that Ohio native Brad Smith, a freshman All-American in his first term, wasn't lacking in the speed department. But generally, against better competition last year, the Tigers seemed to be a step or two slow. And with the departure of all-time great Justin Gage, will the Tigers have enough zest in their receiving corps to break open against speedy Big XII cornerbacks and safeties? Can the defense and special teams move quickly enough on the field to stop the dynamic offenses and return squads of their conference rivals?
In a press conference recently, Pinkel said that he thinks "we have more speed. We're a faster football team. I can see that." Hopefully, he and his team are on the right track.
With youngsters such as Quincy Wade, A.J. Kincade and Dedrick Harrington in a position to greatly improve the team's pass coverage and open field tackling, which were weak spots for the Tigers last season, the defensive half of the team seems like it has already progressed. And receivers Sean Coffey, Darius Outlaw and Thomson Omboga looked great on offense today, dispensing the notion that without Gage, the Tigers don't have any go-to wideouts. Overall, the speed of the team did look improved. And although Smith didn't do much running (or even passing, due to the frequent play of Sonny Riccio during the scrimmage), you can count on him to pick up important yards on the ground this season. In addition, a total of 38 letter winners, already well-established in coach Pinkel's system, are around to help lead the 2003 Missouri Tigers to a successful campaign.
Even though there may have been more fans down at Stankowsi field watching the Greek-league soccer matches, the Tiger football team showed their audience today that they have worked hard, so far, in the off-season, that they are faster and stronger than they have been in the past, and that their third year under head coach Gary Pinkel may be the one where their last game isn't the regular season finale against K-State. With just a few months to go, Tiger fans can start to get excited for the Border War on Saturday, August 30th.
And, if you're interested, you can swing by Faurot to pick up a few chunks of sod for a souvenir this coming Monday.