Hours after a 14-7 loss to No. 7 Florida in Gainesville, Tigers fans are left to consider their options.
In one scenario, James Franklin starts at quarterback, the offense gets more elaborate and, like clockwork, costly interceptions bring hopeful drives to a sudden halt.
Or, redshirt freshman Corbin Berkstresser starts, the offense is reduced to run plays and screen passes, and Missouri is left relying on its defense to grab enough turnovers to eke out ugly wins.
The phrase “between a rock and a hard place” seems suddenly appropriate. And regardless of who starts at quarterback for Missouri the rest of the way, the path to a bowl game is riddled with roadblocks.
With the loss to Florida, Missouri fell to 1-5 in the SEC and 4-5 overall. The Tigers need to win two of their last three games to become eligible for a postseason bowl.
All three games are winnable, with just one of those opponents ranked nationally. But for this Missouri team, winnable games don’t always yield wins.
The first hurdle comes next Saturday, when Missouri travels to Knoxville to take on the 4-5 Tennessee Volunteers.
Tennessee has a capable offense, led by junior quarterback Tyler Bray. Bray has thrown 20 touchdowns on the season and averages nearly 300 passing yards per game. But as capable as Tennessee’s offense has been, its defense has been the opposite.
Tennessee has allowed at least 38 points in each of its last five games. On Saturday, it was thrashed by Troy, a 4-5 team from the Sun Belt Conference that scored 48 points and nearly won.
Missouri, though, has yet to win a conference road game. And if Franklin remains careless with the football, the Tigers' offense may have trouble keeping up with Bray.
After that, Missouri hosts Syracuse, a team that is 4-5 overall in the lowly Big East conference. Missouri should win that game, plain and simple. It has an identical record to Syracuse but plays in a much stronger conference. And Memorial Stadium, though not as intimidating in 2012 as in previous seasons, should provide comfort for a shaky team.
Missouri should win, but that doesn’t mean it will. After all, Missouri was expected to coast past Vanderbilt at home, too.
The regular season closes with a road game at Texas A&M, and though Missouri has won at Kyle Field in each of the past two seasons, this Texas A&M team isn’t the same one from 2010 and 2011.
Under first-year coach Kevin Sumlin, the Aggies are 7-2 in their first season in the SEC, with their only losses being close defeats to top-10 teams LSU and Florida. True freshman Johnny Manziel gives Texas A&M something Missouri thought it had going into the season — a productive dual-threat quarterback. He has thrown for 16 touchdowns and run for 13 more, helping Aggie fans forget about first-round NFL draft pick Ryan Tannehill.
Three winnable games. Two shaky quarterbacks. How many wins?
That, for Missouri fans, is the ultimate question. Coach Gary Pinkel has led his team to a bowl game every season since 2004. But if Missouri doesn’t figure out how to score enough points to support its capable but tired defense, it could finish its first SEC season without one.
Brad Smith, Chase Daniel and Blaine Gabbert are gone. Franklin and Berkstresser are all that’s left.
With a once-great offense suddenly lacking in firepower, Missouri’s streak of consecutive bowl games might soon be gone, too.