The sky wasn’t supposed to fall this quickly.
After winning five straight and sitting alone in first in the SEC East, Missouri has now dropped four in a row, the latest a 23-6 loss to Florida.
The offense is still missing and the mistakes are piling up. Regression from a year ago is now guaranteed, as the Tigers have their fifth loss of the season, which is one more than they lost during the regular season last year. Any lofty preseason expectations are gone.
So, what now?
At the very least, according to head coach Barry Odom and a few players, win for the seniors.
“Our sole focus here the next seven days is to put our guys in a position to leave as they walk off Faurot next Saturday as winners,” Odom said after the game. “We’ve got to find a way to get that done.”
The urgency to not finish the season on a six-game losing streak was apparently not lost on fifth-year senior Richaud Floyd, who stood up in the locker room after the game to try to motivate the other players.
“His message was to come together as a team,” cornerback Christian Holmes said about Floyd’s words. “We’ve got two games left, to think about everybody in the room. We don’t want to lose out.”
The fact that the post-game talk has devolved from potentially winning the division, as it was after the Ole Miss game, to not losing out is an indictment on how far this team has fallen.
Cornerback Jarvis Ware said the team’s overarching goal has not changed, despite the four-game rut.
“The goal will never change,” Ware said. “Everybody is born to win. Everybody loves to win. That will always be our goal.”
But the possibilities of what this team can accomplish have changed, and quite quickly.
The Tigers just need one more win to qualify for a bowl game, but even that is out of Missouri’s hands, with the results of its appeal of NCAA sanctions still yet to be determined. The loss against Florida provided no clarity on how Missouri can break out of this slump. Just as it was the case against Georgia, the defense played well enough and the offense did nothing.
“I don’t have a clue (on what needs to change),” defensive tackle Jordan Elliott said regarding the team’s performance.
After the loss to Georgia, Odom said he knew what buttons to push to keep the team’s morale up. Whatever those buttons were, they were not powerful enough to end the losing streak.
After the Florida loss, players insisted the locker room is still together, but frustration is building.
“The longevity (of the losing streak) is the most frustrating thing and just losing is frustrating,” receiver Barrett Banister said. “We’ve put a lot of time and effort into working to this, and we just have to find a way to get out of this hole.”
Missouri’s next two games are against Tennessee, which has won three in a row and, like Missouri, is 5-5, and Arkansas, arguably the worst team in the conference, sitting at 2-8. With not much else to play for, linebacker Nick Bolton said the players are now playing for themselves.
“We’re just trying to find a way to send this team out the right way,” Bolton said.
Previous Odom teams have suffered slow starts before coming alive in November. This year, though, Odom is faced with a new challenge: salvaging a once-promising season that has gone by the wayside. Whether he can or not will be determined in the next two weeks.
The question of “What now?” is a tough one to answer because it appears Missouri hasn’t been able to pinpoint how to solve its sluggish offense and at times its lack of discipline. The simple answer is that the team needs to win its last two games to avoid a complete train wreck of a season.
But even if Missouri can win out and finish a respectable if disappointing 7-5, the team will lose quite a few important players — including quarterback Kelly Bryant, cornerback DeMarkus Acy, and receivers Johnathon Johnson and Jonathan Nance — to graduation, and possibly Elliott and tight end Albert Okwuegbunam to the NFL Draft. With established talent, this was supposed to be the year for Missouri to take a step forward, and it didn’t happen.
In the near future, when those guys are gone, Missouri faces a more serious question.