The 2009 football season has thus far been a moderate success. At 8-4, heading into the Texas Bowl, the Missouri Tigers are poised to take a giant step forward into prominence. It's imperative that the Tigers complete the season at 9-4, and ride the wave of a four-game win streak into the off-season. The Tigers are the youngest team in the FBS, with 35 of 51 players listed on the two-deep, and 10 starters, who are either freshmen or sophomores.
Over the last 5 games, Missouri held opponents to 52 yards rushing per game, and a paltry 1.85 yds/carry. Missouri finished the regular season with the number 12 rushing defense in the NCAA. The Tigers rank 55th in total defense, and 56th in scoring defense. The Tigers were led by a trio of seniors, DT Jaron Baston, DE Brian Coulter, and LB Sean Weatherspoon. Weatherspoon will be remembered as one of Missouri's all-time greats, and has a chance to finish his career as the second-leading tackler in Mizzou history.
Several young players made big contributions on defense for the Tigers, including sophomore LB Will Ebner, sophomore DT Dominique Hamilton, and RSF DE Aldon Smith. Ebner's 69 total tackles, despite missing one game, and only starting in six games, was third on the team. Hamilton, with 41 total tackles, emerged as a productive force in the interior, and Aldon Smith earned multiple conference and national honors with his record-setting productivity. Smith's 59 total tackles were fifth on the team, and his 18.5 TFLs (11th NCAA, 2nd Big 12) and 11 QB sacks (10th NCAA, 4th Big 12) lead all freshmen nationally by a wide margin.
Missouri's offense is ranked 32nd in total yards and 33rd in scoring. On the season, Missouri was very balanced between run (49%) and pass (51%). Missouri's leading rusher, junior Derrick Washington, rushed for 803 yards (4.5 yds./carry) and 10 TDs.
Sophomore QB Blaine Gabbert is 2nd in the Big 12 (31st NCAA) in pass
efficiency (141.61 rating), and 4th in the Big 12 (11th NCAA) in total offense (294.17 yds./game). His 3302 yards passing currently rank as the fourth-best season in Mizzou history, only behind each of Chase Daniel's three seasons. Gabbert averages 275 yds./game passing, and has completed 59.7% of his passes this season. An outing against Navy of 226 yards passing would move Gabbert's 2009 season ahead of Daniel's 2006 season.
Gabbert's season is clearly defined by three distinct four-game segments. During the middle four games, in which he struggled through an injury, Gabbert completed fewer than 50% of his passes, and threw all 7 of his INTs. His first four games were impressive, but it was the final four games that provides the most optimistic, and perhaps, most accurate view of where Gabbert is at present in his development as a QB. During the final four regular season games of 2009, Gabbert's passer efficiency rating (159.27), and passing yards per game (351.5), if extended over an entire season, would place him among the nation's elite, and compare with Chase Daniel's best seasons.
Of course, some would say that those numbers are the result of Danario Alexander's other worldly performance during that stretch. I would counter that Daniel's numbers were achieved with a couple of pretty good receivers, too.
Speaking of Alexander (107 receptions, 3rd NCAA) (1,644 yards, 1st NCAA) (13 TDs, 5th NCAA), who fell just short of achieving consensus All-American status, he's aready posted the greatest single season for a receiver in Mizzou history, and has climbed to a place among Missouri's greats (Maclin, Coffman, Gage, and Rucker) on the career receiving lists. In fact, he's just 64 receiving yards away from moving ahead of Justin Gage into first place on MU's career list, and two receiving TDs in the Texas Bowl would put Alexander ahead of Jeremy Maclin (22) for second place on Missouri's career list. Chase Coffman's 30 career TDs might just be out of reach.
Perhaps most telling is the comparison of Alexander to Maclin made recently by Coach Pinkel, who cited Alexander and Maclin as the only players he'd ever coached who could change a game any time they touched the ball.
For some reason, Alexander didn't receive the consensus All-American selection he deserved, but I suspect that he'll be the one smiling on draft day this spring.
Sophomore WR Jerrell Jackson is yet another young player for the Tigers who emerged this season. He's just beginning!
Another sophomore, PK Grant Ressel received first-team All-American honors from one panel, and is another Tiger who was unfairly passed over by others. He leads the country in FG% (24-of-25, 96%), and in combined kick accuracy (98.4%), which would break the current single-season NCAA mark of 98.3%.
Senior punter, Jake Harry, is averaging 42.74 yards per punt (4th Big 12, 31st NCAA). His net punting average of 40.29 (5th NCAA) is currently second in the conference. Harry's career average of 42.084 yards per punt stands as the best in MU punting history.
A win over Navy in the Texas Bowl would be Gary Pinkel's 68th in his nine years at Missouri, and would place his winning percentage at Missouri over 60%, which is second only to Dan Devine's 70%. The six bowl games in which Pinkel's Tigers have played ties him with Devine for the most in school history, and would place Coach Pinkel 25 victories behind Devine, and 33 behind Don Farout.
Considering the youth and talent on hand, the next few years will likely see Coach Pinkel surpass those win totals, and establish him as perhaps Missouri's greatest football coach. That brings me to the aching question for Missouri fans. Are conference championships on the horizon?