COLUMBIA — With a new season comes new possibilities for the Missouri football team. But it also brings new questions to answer.
Missouri opens preseason camp on Thursday, and with that first practice the Tigers have their first opportunity to begin answering those questions. Some will be answered in the month leading up to the season opener against Illinois in St. Louis. Other answers will take a season, or longer, to determine.
It is the last season of the original Big 12 and the last time in the foreseeable future that Missouri will travel to Lincoln, Neb. to challenge the Cornhuskers, ending a rivalry that has just hit its stride. Will the Tigers close the series with a win and the upper hand in the Big 12 North race?
With Nebraska and Colorado leaving, it's likely a 10-team conference will do away with divisions. Knowing that Texas and Oklahoma might be looming annually in 2011 and beyond, is this Missouri's last chance to recreate the magic of the 2007 season?
The Tigers offense is stocked with talent capable of such a run. But will the leader of that unit, quarterback Blaine Gabbert, elevate his game to the levels predicted in his scouting report? And, if Gabbert thrusts himself into the national lexicon, does that mean the end of his Missouri career?
Gabbert is receiving attention from the NFL, and he is among the top quarterback prospects in the class of 2012. Like Jeremy Maclin after his All-American season in 2008, a big season for Gabbert and the Tigers could convince him to leave Missouri early and declare for the NFL draft. For now, this dilemma exists only hypothetically, but the question "what will Blaine Gabbert do?" could be a bittersweet cloud that hangs over Missouri for an entire season.
Another highly-touted recruit entering his junior season is just trying to find playing time. Tight end Andrew Jones came to Missouri expected to continue the tradition of success at his position created by former Tigers Chase Coffman and Martin Rucker. But with only 28 receptions in two seasons, things have not gone as planned for Jones. Now the Smithville native is second on the depth chart behind fellow junior Michael Egnew. A strong camp could help him live up to predictions. A bad camp could reacquaint him with the bench.
The current crop of wide receivers is young, talented, but ultimately untested. Is Jerrell Jackson, who came on strong at the end of 2009, capable of being the big-play receiver the Tigers have had for the past three seasons in Maclin and Danario Alexander? Is Wes Kemp a possession receiver in the mold of a Tommy Saunders? Is Rolandis Woodland a full-time starter, or will a standout group of freshman (L'Damian Washington, Jaleel Clark, Marcus Lucas) emerge as playmakers and command playing time?
Other position battles will be won in preseason camp. Is redshirt freshman and tentative starting left guard Justin Britt the real deal? Who will be the starting strong safety in St. Louis, and can they hold the position, and the defensive secondary together for the entire season? Can Carl Gettis really be a shut down cornerback again? Is Derrick Washington really as untouchable at running back as he seemed in spring practices?
Answers start coming today.