Missouri: Big 12 North Football Champs in 2004?

Following an eight-win season, Gary Pinkel's football Tigers are poised to accomplish greater things in 2004.

Missouri fans would have ran through walls for an eight-win season a few years ago. Heck, just keep from getting humiliated most weeks would have been good enough.

Now, the Missouri faithful have new hope and a new outlook on Tiger Football. In 2004, several publications have picked Mizzou to win the Big 12 North and take on Oklahoma or possibly Texas in the conference championship game.

Heady times indeed!

Some have said that while Missouri has improved, in reality, most of the Big 12 North have taken a few steps back. Funny, nobody downgraded the teams up in Lincoln or down in Norman when the Big 8 was known as the "Big 2 and the Little 6". However, perceptions, like double standards, often take time to change.

If 2004 is the true breathout year for Mizzou, several things must happen:

1. Good Health - Missouri has been blessed with a good conditioning staff and excellent health over the past two years. Few significant injuries have hit Columbia, and this will need to continue in 2004. Mizzou has good to very good front-line talent across the board, but has few areas of quality, proven depth.

2. Incremental Offensive Improvement - The Tigers had a potent offense in 2003, but lacked the punch to consistently attack good defenses, such as those found at Oklahoma and K-State. Mizzou added one mighty mite in Marcus Woods, but lost one battering ram in Zach Abron. The receivers are deeper, as are the tight ends. The line is young, but underrated right now. Where Mizzou must improve is in its play calling in critical situations and its passing attack. The Tigers cannot fall in love with short passes to the sidelines, while completely ignoring the middle of the field. Brad Smith must also improve his defensive reads and deliver the ball with authority...on time.

3. Defense, As Advertised - Mizzou appears to have an excellent defensive front four, and some new capable blood at linebacker. The defensive backfield looks like they are unproven in some areas, but deeper. All in all, this is probably the best defensive team Missouri will field since the early 80s. If this unit plays as advertised, Missouri will be a very difficult team to beat because the offense has firepower.

4. Kicking & Punting - We saved the biggest concern for last. Special teams are said to make up 1/3 of a football game. In close games against good teams, the effect of good or dreadful special teams can be even more dramatic. While Mizzou's defense appears to be one of the best in years, it's kicking and punting games looked absolutely dreadful this spring. Brock Harvey is recovering from surgery, so punting was not what it should have been. The placekicking was equally troublesome because the kickers were inconsistent and MU was trying to find a new holder after the departure of Sonny Riccio. The good news is that everybody, including Pinkel knows how bad the situation is. The bad news is that there aren't many quick fixes on the horizon. Harvey should be back in the fall, but will we see the Harvey from 2002 or 2003? Alex Pettersen looks to be the best of a shaky group of kickers, but the bar is set pretty low right now. If Mizzou doesn't find some solutions quickly for these two areas, it will likely cost them one to two games this fall.

5. Fans - Will the Missouri fans that went ballistic vs. Nebraska show up this fall at Faurot, or will many folks find excuses not to get out there and support the team? Truly, there are no excuses for not showing up in droves to support this team because the Tigers have a favorable schedule that could lead them to the conference championship game, and a very good bowl game. It's time for Missouri fans to become as invested in the success of the Tigers' program as the players and coaches are now.

We would welcome your feedback and comments on the message boards here at InsideMizzou.com!

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