This week we're looking at the key questions facing every SEC team this offseason. Now we take a look at Missouri, a team coming off a 4-8 campaign in Barry Odom's first season:
1. Can the defense return to its pre-2016 form?
If there was aspect of the Tigers that figured to be a strength in 2016, it was the defense. The unit returned seven starters from a 2015 group that was one of the best in the SEC and nationally, and the Tigers' new head coach, Odom, was the team's defensive coordinator before being promoted. Instead, the Tigers regressed to one of the SEC's worst defenses, allowing 31.5 points per game (12th in the league) and an SEC-worst 479.7 yards per game. Down the stretch, Odom took over play-calling duties from defensive coordinator DeMontie Cross and at least some progress was made: after allowing at least 6.7 yards per play in their four October games, the Tigers allowed 5.9 or fewer in three of their four November contests. Odom said in 2017 he'll maintain the same role he had on defense late in the season, but now the Tigers must overcome the losses of several key players, like defensive end Charles Harris, linebacker Michael Scherer and cornerback Aarion Penton.
2. Will the Missouri offense take the next step?
If there was a pleasant surprise for the 2016 Tigers, it was the emergence of the offense. Under new offensive coordinator Josh Heupel, the unit took a significant step forward, going from the SEC's worst (13.6 points per game in 2015) to one of the better units (31.4 points per game, fifth in the SEC). Sophomore quarterback Drew Lock was much improved, his weapons developed (namely running back Damarea Crockett and receiver J'Mon Moore) and the offensive line -- a concern coming into the season -- turned out to be a strength. However, take a closer look at the numbers and it's clear more improvement is needed: The Tigers averaged only 21.3 points per game against Power 5 conference opponents (12th in the SEC) while averaging 53 points against their two FBS non-Power 5 foes. In SEC play, the Tigers averaged only 22.6 points per game. It's still a big improvement, but another step needs to be taken. The good news for Heupel is that 10 of 11 offensive starters will return next season, including those three names noted above. Tight end Sean Culkin, who was a senior, is the only loss.
3. Can the Tigers go bowling in 2017?
After two bowl-less seasons, this will be an important goal to achieve in 2017. Taking over for someone as successful as Gary Pinkel isn't easy, as Odom learned, but it's even more difficult when taking into account what transpired at Missouri in 2015 and in Odom's first offseason, with significant attrition from the roster at key positions happening. If Odom can fix the defense, the Tigers seem to be a prime candidate to get back to the six-win mark. The offense is good enough already to get the Tigers through a solid non-conference schedule; if they can go 4-0 against Purdue, Connecticut, Idaho and Missouri State, they'll have a good shot at it, because two more wins in SEC play is easily doable (the Tigers achieved that this season). In Pinkel's last 11 seasons, the Tigers went bowling nine times and won four division titles. Getting back on the winning track is important for the future of Missouri's program.