Missouri’s season drew to a close in disappointing fashion Monday afternoon in a 38-33 loss to Oklahoma State at the Autozone Liberty Bowl. Drew Lock was superb in his finale with the Tigers, passing for 373 yards and three touchdowns, and running back Larry Rountree III rushed for 204 yards and a 55-yard score of his own. In the end, it wasn’t enough to conquer a 16-point deficit Missouri incurred during a nightmarish third quarter.
Win No. 9 was not to be. The Tigers finished the 2018 season with a record of 8-5.
But enough of that. Now that the 2018 season officially is in the books, what better time is there for a way-too-early look into the future and how the Tigers might fare in 2019? After all, Saturday, Aug. 31 — when Missouri travels to Wyoming for its season opener next fall — is only 242 days away. And that team, the next version of the Tigers, will be able to build on the just-completed most successful season since 2014, despite the crushing blow in Memphis.
Earning its first win over a ranked opponent (Florida) since that 2014 season, Barry Odom’s side once again overcame midseason adversity and showed improvement this fall. Seldom making things easy — really, they never seem to do that — the Tigers nonetheless were exciting and made further strides toward contention in the Southeastern Conference.
Per usual, the Tigers will play seven home games at Memorial Stadium in 2019; and the schedule is favorable, at least early on. After a contractually obligated trip to Laramie for a re-match against Wyoming to kick off the year, Missouri will play five consecutive home games. The Tigers won’t leave Columbia again until Oct. 19. Home contests with West Virginia and South Carolina will offer early tests, but the schedule won’t truly heat up until Week 9, when they travel to play Kentucky on Oct. 26. An open week follows that game, and then Missouri is on the road at Georgia (Nov. 9) and home against Florida (Nov. 16).
Headed into what might be the program’s biggest year in the last half-decade, Missouri’s front-loaded home schedule will afford the Tigers an opportunity to get out to a hot start. It might not be inconceivable that they could head to Georgia in Week 11 sitting at 8-0, or at least be very much in contention in the SEC East.
The outlook for the 2019 iteration of the Tigers was altered completely on Dec. 4 when Clemson graduate transfer quarterback Kelly Bryant committed to play his final season of college football in Columbia, spurning the likes of Auburn, Mississippi State and Arkansas in the process. The 6-foot-3 passer from South Carolina has already spent time around the team in Columbia, and is set to officially enroll in classes on campus later this month.
In Bryant, Missouri has its heir apparent to Lock, and the missing piece to an offense that now holds considerable potential.
During his lone season as a starter at Clemson in 2017, Bryant completed nearly 66 percent of his passes for 2,802 yards and 13 touchdowns through the air and racked up another 665 yards and 11 scores with his legs while leading his Tigers to the College Football Playoff. He brings experience at the position and his diverse skill set as both a passer and a runner should allow offensive coordinator Derek Dooley to be even more creative in 2019.
With Bryant in the fold, Missouri will enter the post-Lock era next fall with stability and talent under center.
Surrounding the new quarterback will be many of the key figures in a Missouri offense that averaged nearly 37 points per game and ranked No. 34 in the nation in total offense in 2018.
At running back, the Tigers return all three members of a three-headed monster that ran for a combined 2,128 yards and 19 scores this season. With Larry Rountree III, Damarea Crockett and Tyler Badie all back for another year together, Missouri will head into 2019 with one of the most dynamic and powerful rushing trios in the Southeastern Conference, as well as in the nation. Paired with Bryant’s rushing ability, look for Dooley and his offense to have some fun on the ground next fall.
The situation is a bit less clear when it comes to people to whom Bryant will be throwing his passes when he debuts at Memorial Stadium in September. The departure of Emanuel Hall, who will graduate this year and head to the pros, leaves the Tigers with a hole at the No. 1 wide receiver spot. But there are a number of names on the roster who might be ready to fill in.
Freshman wideouts Jalen Knox and Kam Scott each exceeded expectations in their debut seasons in Columbia, and will factor into the offense even more moving forward. Knox, who twice earned SEC Freshman of the Week honors, hauled in 26 passes for 413 yards and three touchdowns. Scott, meanwhile, proved himself as a deep threat with scoring plays of 70 and 41 yards. The top spot on the depth chart will be there for the taking, and either Knox or Scott may be ready to grab it.
Johnathon Johnson will be back next fall, too, alongside Dominic Gicinto and Khamari Thompson. And Arkansas transfer receiver Jonathan Nance, who visited Missouri with Bryant in October, could deliver some excitement. Tight end Albert Okwuegbunam, a redshirt sophomore, has yet to announce whether he will enter the NFL Draft. His presence, or lack thereof, will have a significant impact as well.
All together, with uncertainty at quarterback now erased, plenty of talent at the skills positions and three returning starters on the offensive line, the pieces will be there in 2019. Missouri’s offense figures to be as dynamic and forceful as any in recent years.
Flip it over to the defensive side of the ball and you’ll find a Tigers’ defense looking to continue the momentum it built over the second half of the 2018 season. Yes, they lose Terry Beckner Jr. and Walter Palmore up front, and linebacker Terez Hall in the middle, but much of the core will return, ready to do more damage next fall.
While Beckner’s forceful presence on the defensive line will undoubtedly be missed, the late-season emergence of fellow lineman Jordan Elliot should lessen the blow. In his first season on the field with the Tigers, the transfer from Texas picked up 21 tackles and three sacks as a redshirt sophomore; and, with increased playing time, he will have a shot to do even more in 2019. Akial Byers developed into an effective pass rusher on the edge as well this year. Missouri will be well-equipped on the defensive line.
Elsewhere on the defense, Missouri brings back already-proven contributors who should be better in 2019. Linebacker Cale Garrett has led the Tigers in tackles each of the past two seasons, and as a senior next fall the first-year captain will serve as an anchor for Missouri’s defense. In the secondary, Missouri will rely on DeMarkus Acy and Christian Holmes, a cornerback tandem that clamped down on opposing offenses over the final six games of the 2018 season.
Defense has not been the Tigers’ calling card in the past few seasons, at least relative to the offense. But with talented pieces all over, Missouri has the potential to be a force on that side of the ball in 2019.
A slightly-cushier (no Alabama this year) schedule, lots of returning talent and the arrival of a star quarterback in Bryant, Year 4 for Odom figures to be the most promising for the Tigers since the 42-year-old head coach took the helm.
All that talent and potential will in turn bring expectations, and Missouri fans know all too well how their teams have failed to live up to such hopes in the past. But with the 2018 season in the mirror and nine months until the next snap at Memorial Stadium, there’s plenty for them to be excited about in 2019.
That much is for sure.
Missouri’s 2019 schedule
Aug. 31 at Wyoming Sept. 7 West Virginia Sept. 14 Southeast Missouri Sept. 21 South Carolina Oct. 5 Troy Oct. 12 Ole Miss (HC) Oct. 19 at Vanderbilt Oct. 26 at Kentucky Nov. 9 at Georgia Nov. 16 Florida Nov. 23 Tennessee Nov. 30 at Arkansas
Supervising editor is Michael Knisley.