On Saturday (6:00 P.M., PPV), the Missouri Tigers open their 2012 season by playing host to the FCS Southeastern Louisiana Lions of the Southland Conference. Missouri finished the 2011 season with an 8-5 record, including a 41-24 win over North Carolina in the Independence Bowl.
"Like every team in the country, we're excited about playing," said Coach Pinkel, as his team prepared to take on the Lions in the season opener. "You know, we've worked so very hard, as everybody has since January, on the process of becoming a good football team…………………………………………… This is the first game that we're going to play as members of the Southeast Conference. We're very proud of that, and we're looking forward to getting going."
During the past five seasons (2007-2011), Missouri has won 48 games, which is tied with Oklahoma State, Texas, Wisconsin, and West Virginia for the 9th most victories during that period from among schools that played in BCS automatic-qualifying (AQ) conferences. Only Alabama, LSU, Oklahoma, Oregon, Virginia Tech, Florida, Ohio State, and USC won more games than Missouri during that period from among BCS AQ schools. Four non-BCS AQ schools, including Boise State, Utah, TCU, and BYU have each won more than 48 games during the last five years. By any measurement, Missouri has achieved top-twenty on-field success over the past five years.
In looking at Missouri, the 2012 Tigers may well be Coach Pinkel's best team. Several coaches and players have told me that in the off-season testing, that the 2012 Missouri players measured out as the biggest, fastest, and strongest squad that Coach Pinkel has had at Missouri. In addition, coaches and players alike have expressed that this year's Missouri's Tigers are the hardest working squad that they've seen at Missouri, as well as exhibiting the best leadership and togetherness of any of the previous teams of which they've been a part. Players and coaches have stated that this year's Missouri team is the most unselfish group that they've been around during their time at Missouri. And, I've witnessed this unselfishness, togetherness, quality of character, and leadership first hand.
The 2012 Missouri Tigers have talent and depth of talent all over the field. No one is more emblematic of the quality of the above-mentioned intangibles, or more essential to the team's success on the field, than junior QB James Franklin. Fully recovered from off-season shoulder surgery, Franklin is throwing the football better than ever. And that's saying something, considering that he enters the 2012 season with a career completion percentage of 63.8%, and a career average of 7.62 yards/pass attempt. His career passer efficiency rating of 140.3 is second only to Chase Daniel in the school's record book.
Last year, Missouri featured one of the most balanced offensive attacks in the country. And this year, Franklin has quite an arsenal at his disposal. Tailbacks Kendial Lawrence, Marcus Murphy, and Russell Hansbrough are poised to sustain Missouri's prolific rushing attack that led the Big XII Conference a year ago. Lawrence is a senior, and he's averaged 4.9 yards/carry during his Missouri career. As a true freshman in 2010, Murphy averaged 8.2 yards/carry, and 19.8 yards/kickoff return. He's back better than ever after missing 2011 with a shoulder injury, and he excels as a receiver out of the backfield. Hansbrough is one of four true freshman who have earned playing time in Missouri's offense this season. He's an exciting prospect who combines speed and elusiveness with a toughness that belies his size.
Missouri is loaded at receiver. Offensive coordinator David Yost talked about what to expect at the receiver position.
"Our depth will show our eleven personnel," explained Coach Yost, referring to the official depth chart showing a tight end in the starting line-up. "On our chart, we have at least six different personnel packages. Because we have the guys, we can do it."
Coach Yost was referring to various personnel packages that do not include a tight end, most of which will include four wide receivers, including various combinations of T.J. Moe, Gahn McGaffie, Dorial Green-Beckham, Jimmie Hunt, and even Bud Sasser lining up in the two slot positions.
"He is a remarkably talented player," said Coach Pinkel, speaking of Green-Beckham. "He is what people think he is. He's also a very humble guy. He's a great team player. The reason that I mention that is that those guys have a chance to be really, really good because they're eager to learn, they ask for advice, and they take coaching. And that's everything that he is…………………………………… I'm very, very pleased with his progress."
Freshman tight end Sean Culkin is expected to play this season, and he's an exciting talent, as well. He's coming back from a broken finger, but he should be cleared to play by week one or week two.
Along the offensive line, the Tigers have experienced a quartet of injuries among their pre-camp two-deep. Jack Meiners is expected to return to the line-up for week two. In his stead, Max Copeland will start at right guard, and true freshman Evan Boehm will on Saturday become the first true freshman to ever start along the offensive line for Coach Pinkel.
"Evan Boehm is a national recruit who is going to be a real good player," said Coach Pinkel. "He's going to be learning on the run a little bit…………………………………….. It's hard to do, but he's worked hard. He's going to make some mistakes. We understand that…………………………………….. He was a national recruit that lives up ability-wise to a national recruit. A lot don't. But he does."
Avoiding further injuries along the offensive line will be a key to Missouri's success this season.
On the other side of the football, this has a chance to be Coach Pinkel's best defense at Missouri. During the spring, Matt Hoch emerged as a very capable defensive tackle to pair with the very talented Sheldon Richardson. During fall camp, Kony Ealy took charge on the outside, and claimed a starting job over former all-conference performer Brad Madison, who will now split time with Michael Sam and Ealy. Richardson and Ealy are difference makers, and earlier this week, Coach Pinkel referred to them as "impact players".
Missouri's starting linebackers have played in more than one-hundred games for the Tigers, including 53 starts between them. Number four linebacker, Donovan Bonner, is just as good as the starters, and he told me that this may well be Missouri's best group of linebackers under Coach Pinkel.
This is Missouri's best secondary under Coach Pinkel. First-Team All-Conference corner E.J. Gaines has just continued to improve, and he's playing a very high level this fall. Senior Kip Edwards is coming off of an injury, and he has a chance to play this weekend. But if he doesn't, there's no drop off with Randy Ponder in there. Missouri's starting safety tandem of senior Kenronte Walker and sophomore Braylon Webb, a 2011 All-Big XII Honorable Mention player as a red-shirt freshman, is the best pair of safeties Missouri's had since at least 2007.
One of the biggest question marks on the team heading into the season is in the place-kicking position. Coach Pinkel said earlier this week that a mid-week kick-off would decide which of Trey Barrow or Andrew Baggett will handle the place-kicking this Saturday.
Barrow is the school's career leader in punting, with a career average of 44.83 yards/punts.
Coach Pinkel talked about getting his team ready to open against Southeastern Louisiana.
"Good football teams focus on playing their game and they do not evaluate who they are playing," explained Coach Pinkel. "Quite frankly, we have to get better each and every week………………………………………………. This is about us playing our best game and that is my job to get our team to focus on playing our best game regardless of who we play."