This spring, when Missouri graduates its class of seniors, it will be the final group to ever attend the school during Gary Pinkel’s 15-year tenure as Missouri’s coach. The final connection to the man who took the Tigers to their highest highs will be gone from Columbia, and even though time marches on, nostalgia is still entrenched.
In Missouri, Pinkel’s tenure—the elevation from the Big 12’s basement all the way to the SEC—is still the glory days. There’s 2007, when Chase Daniel was a Heisman finalist and Mizzou was, for one blissful week, the country’s No. 1 team, and 2013 and ’14, when Missouri improbably won consecutive SEC East titles. A program that had been defined for years by the notorious Fifth Down Game, after seasons upon seasons of mediocrity, had established itself as a winner—and then Pinkel was gone in 2015, diagnosed with lymphoma and slowing down to focus on his health.
Since then, the program has stalled. Quarterback Drew Lock has grown into a top NFL prospect over the past two seasons, and the team is bowl-eligible for the second straight year in 2018, but there’s been no sense that Missouri of late is competing for anything except to edge above .500. Overall, a general nostalgia for the Pinkel era prevails—along with the ever-present dread that the Tigers, across all revenue sports, are cursed to never get the best out of whatever nice things they’re given. (See, recently: Dorial Green-Beckham, Michael Porter, Jontay Porter.)
On Tuesday evening, Missouri got a very nice thing: the news that former Clemson quarterback Kelly Bryant, immediately eligible to play in 2019, picked Columbia as his transfer destination for his final year of college ball. Lock is off to the NFL, and the Tigers had a gaping hole at quarterback after his four years starting. Bryant will fill that, and well; despite losing the Clemson job, he’s a very good quarterback, with less of an arm than Lock but much more mobility. In 2017, he completed 65.8% of his passes for 2,802 yards and rushed for another 665. He picked Mizzou over Auburn, Mississippi State, Arkansas and North Carolina, giving the Tigers a quarterback who’s taken a team to the College Football Playoff. That’s no small feat for a program that never made a BCS bowl (it’s best not to mention Kansas and 2007 in the same sentence in the Show-Me State), much less the playoff.
It comes at a fascinating moment for Missouri football, which is heading into the fourth season of coach Barry Odom’s tenure in 2019. Odom, a former Missouri defensive coordinator, has taken the team on an upward trajectory: from 4–8 in 2016 to 7–6 in ’17 to 8–4, and the Liberty Bowl still to come, this fall. That’s encouraging, sure, but Odom’s winning teams these past two years have been as exasperating, in moments, as his 2016 loser. A season ago, the Tigers started 1–5 (their lone win over FCS Missouri State, which put up 43 points) before ripping off six straight wins to get bowl-eligible. Those victories came at the hands of three teams about to fire their coaches and two Group of Five opponents, though, and the Tigers were exposed in the Texas Bowl against the Longhorns. This year, Missouri has its most talented roster since those SEC East titles, but it lost two key games, against Kentucky and South Carolina, with last-minute, bang-your-head-against-the-nearest-surface ineptitude. Win those two, and Missouri would be 10–2, its only losses to Georgia and Alabama, and almost certainly headed to a New Year’s Six bowl.
Missouri ended 2018 with four straight victories, including Odom’s first against a ranked team: No. 13 Florida, on the road. And now the coach, who was on something approaching a hot seat midseason, was just given a raise and an extension through 2024. That’s the right move for a program that would be best served by finding a low-key, smart coach who’s willing to stick around a la Pinkel. It’s still not quite clear what identity the program will take long-term under Odom, but this year’s roster seemed to finally find its defensive identity under the former linebackers coach after several years of, well, a mess on that side of that ball. That’s the most promising step Missouri has taken over the past two years, and in 2019, with a commitment to Odom and Bryant on board for one year, the Tigers need to play like a team worthy of the vote of confidence they were given: by the university’s brass and by Bryant, who viewed the Tigers as his best opportunity out of several good ones.
Offensively, Bryant will slot into a roster with plenty of experience at the skill positions. All-SEC receiver Emanuel Hall is done after 2018, but Larry Rountree III, their leading rusher, will be back. So will Damarea Crockett, who ran for 709 yards this year to Rountree’s 1,012. Tight end Albert Okwuegbunam just lost his position coach, Joe Jon Finley, to Texas A&M, and he hasn’t said if he’ll leave early for the NFL. If he does return, that’s just another target for Bryant, who will also have graduate transfer Jonathan Nance, Jonathan Johnson and Jalen Knox at receiver. Even with so much returning talent, though, it’ll be a new look for the Tigers, who in Bryant have their first true dual-threat quarterback since Brad Smith graduated in 2005. After a string of big arms—Daniel, Blaine Gabbert, Lock—this will be an adjustment, and an interesting one for coordinator Derek Dooley, who will at least have his first year of offensive play-calling behind him.
If Missouri is looking to make a splash for the first time under Odom, 2019 will be the year. The Tigers need to exploit Bryant’s experience and the offensive talent around him—as well as a significantly easier schedule than their slate in 2018, which was by some metrics the toughest in all of college football. It’ll still have plenty of tests—a September matchup with West Virginia at home is the highlight of the non-conference slate—but its cross-division game next fall comes at home against Ole Miss, a relief after 2018’s trip to Alabama.
These are, in fact, a lot of nice things. For Missouri fans, that reality could be jarring. It could portend future, unknowable horrors. Or it might be the best chance at putting together a 10-win season since Pinkel retired, the perfect moment to catapult the program toward sustained success under Odom, stability among the SEC’s better teams. It’s time for the nostalgia to subside.