Coach Gary Pinkel said during preseason practices that Missouri was not as good as its top-25 ranking.
The Tigers proved Pinkel right when they lost to Troy 24-14 on Sept. 9 on national television.
Missouri responded well though with a 48-0 pummeling of Ball State to improve to 2-1 heading into Big 12 Conference play.
Many experts picked the Tigers to win the Big 12 North Division, but even with the winning record, Missouri has to raise its grades to reach that goal.
Missouri has eight games to show the improvement needed to reach the conference title game on Dec. 4 in Kansas City. Here are the Tigers’ nonconference marks:
Missouri lost respect losing to unranked Troy, but two blowout victories restore some credibility. Offensive experimentation and defensive adjustments were bonuses of playing lesser nonconference opponents, but the Tigers must pull it together Oct. 2 in the conference opener against Colorado.
The unit entered the season with question marks along the offensive line with two redshirt freshmen starting. It performed smoothly without many problems against the lesser competition of Arkansas State and Ball State. In between those games was a disappointing effort against Troy. The line responded to the loss with more aggressive play calling, including four trick plays against the Cardinals.
For this team to succeed in the difficult Big 12, it must improve its running game. Although 192 yards per game will work against nonconference opponents, the Tigers must prove they can duplicate the effort against proven defenses such as Nebraska and Texas.
Any Heisman Trophy aspirations Brad Smith had entering the season likely vanished after his lackluster showing against Troy, and after the game, Smith and the Tigers’ coaching staff received criticism for not having the quarterback run more. Other than that, though, Smith has few blemishes. He has thrown three interceptions in three games, which is half of his total last season.
In limited play, backup Brandon Coleman has done well, completing 4-of-5 passes, one for a touchdown.
RUNNING BACKS: STEADY
Damien Nash has done a solid job replacing Zack Abron and leads the team with six touchdowns. Marcus Woods has proven to be a nice change-of-pace back, breaking a 30-yard gain last Saturday, but has fumbled twice with limited carries.
WIDE RECEIVERS: Rising
Sean Coffey has emerged as the unit’s go-to receiver with 13 receptions and two scores. Thomson Omboga and Brad Ekwerekwu have also been solid. Freshman William Franklin emerged against Ball State as a big-play threat with two catches for 76 yards, including a 41-yard touchdown.
TIGHT ENDS: RISING
Senior Victor Sesay and redshirt freshman Martin Rucker have combined to make 16 receptions for 227 yards and three touchdowns, making this the strongest position on the team. With 12 catches, Sesay is second on the team in receptions, and his two touchdowns are third best behind Nash and Smith.
OFFENSIVE LINE: Steady
Like most of the team, the offensive line performed better in the Tigers’ two wins. Redshirt freshmen Adam Spieker started the season at center, and Tyler Luellen started at tackle.
Spieker has done well enough to maintain his starting job, but Luellen, after a rough outing at Troy, did not start against Ball State. Tony Clinker replaced him in the starting lineup.
To its credit, the line has allowed three sacks.
The defense was a big concern after the Arkansas State game, but played better against Troy and Ball State. The game against Troy showed a vulnerability to give up the big play, something the Tigers need to remedy before conference play.
DEFENSIVE LINE: rising
Defensive tackles Atiyyah Ellison and C.J. Mosely are proving they are one of the top tandems in the Big 12 with 18 and 17 tackles respectively. Mosely also has three sacks. Ends Xzavie Jackson and Zach Ville also have double-digit tackles.
James Kinney leads the Tigers in tackles with 26 and is on pace to set the Missouri school record. However, newcomer David Richard has made few plays and middle linebacker Dedrick Harrington was benched against Ball State.
After a poor start, allowing 350 passing yards against unheralded Arkansas State, the Tigers recovered and allowed 298 yards combined against Troy and Ball State.
The secondary has had success in creating turnovers, with five interceptions by five different players.
SPECIAL TEAMS: rising
Although not yet truly tested, place kicker Joe Tantarelli is 2-for-2 on field goals and has not missed an extra point.
Punter Brock Harvey has improved after a mediocre performance last year to average 43.2 yards per punt, sixth best in the Big 12.
KICKING GAME/COVERAGE UNITS: rising
Harvey is punting like he did two years ago when he was named honorable mention All-Big 12. Tantarelli is perfect on the season after winning a preseason competition. Also the coverage units performed much better against Ball State after struggling in the first two games.
Aside from sporadic kicks out-of-bounds, Adam Crossett has put most of his kicks inside the 10-yard line.
With his 22.1 yard per punt return average against Ball State, Omboga gives this area quite an encouraging review.
Omboga nearly broke two returns for touchdowns and changed field position in the Tigers’ favor.
In the first game and a half of the season, Shirdonya Mitchell didn’t do much to fill the shoes of Marcus James, who finished sixth in the nation last year.
As for kickoff returns, Mitchell and Alex Woodley haven’t had much of an opportunity.
Pinkel has yet to prepare the team for road games and the offense has not yet proved it can have back-to-back stellar performances.
Until this happens Missouri will not move into the upper echelon of college football. Games against Kansas State at home and Texas and Nebraska away give Pinkel a chance to change his reputation.