There was something different about the locker room tone after Missouri’s 29-7 loss in Kentucky, something about the dejection in players’ faces and voices that contrasted with their response at another low point this season.
A brief flashback: At field level of Wyoming’s War Memorial Stadium, Missouri fans leaned over metal barricade fences, shouting encouragement at the players returning for the second half of an unflattering loss. Several players’ parents were in the crowd, waving, but the Tigers didn’t turn their heads or their eyes. Just silent, steely, straight-ahead glares.
Two parents said it at the same time: “They’re pissed.”
They were, and you could tell it after that game — a 37-31 season-opening loss. An indignant attitude throughout the roster seemed to work; the Tigers won their next five games and cracked the AP Top 25. Halfway through the season, they were in first place in the SEC East.
The state of Missouri football is cataclysmically gloomier now than it was after Week 1, a low point from which the Tigers rebounded in usual Barry Odom fashion. The fourth-year coach has built a reputation on his ability to rally his teams from a nadir. The post-Wyoming win streak was similar to the 2017 Tigers turning 1-5 into 7-5, or last year’s team turning 4-4 into 8-4.
But this time, something is different. For the first time in Odom’s four years, Missouri (5-3, 2-2 SEC) is on track to regress — or at least stay stagnant — from the previous season’s record. After back-to-back duds at Vanderbilt and Kentucky, it’s hard to shake the feeling that this 2019 season, once so promising, has lost some of its meaning.
After this bye week, the Tigers play Georgia and Florida in consecutive weeks. Considering they struggled so much against sub-.500 teams Vanderbilt and Kentucky, it’s hard to imagine either of the next two games as wins right now. That would make Missouri 5-5, with Tennessee and Arkansas to wrap up the season. A realistic record at this point, then, is 7-5. But 7-5 would be moving backward after last year’s 8-4 (pre-bowl game).
Take a step back. It isn’t often that Missouri gets a Clemson quarterback, so the presence of Kelly Bryant and an enticingly easy schedule rotation (by SEC standards) inspired optimism. Combine that with the sense that Odom had really started to figure out how to win big games in 2018’s 8-5 campaign, and 2019 had all the makings of a dream season.
Missouri was a betting favorite in each of its first eight games. Reaching Georgia at 8-0 was plausible, though self-aware MU fans assumed the Tigers would let one game slip away by this point, two max.
Then the slip-up was wasted right away, in Wyoming. But even that defeat could be considered a mulligan of sorts; Missouri’s SEC record wasn’t affected, after all, and that’s what really matters. Players were angry and accountable about the loss, and upbeat about what was to come. It showed on the field.
That wasn’t the case after Vanderbilt. The mood was despondent. This didn’t feel like the same motivational defeat archetype, the same fire-fueling energy. Most notably, multiple players said they thought Missouri played well in some aspects of the game, and that the week of practice had gone well.
That was the sentiment after the Kentucky loss, too. Center Trystan Colon-Castillo said practice was productive again but indicated that internal issues were a factor, saying the problem is “off the field” and that “everybody’s got to quit pointing fingers.”
“Some of us aren’t taking take care of our business outside of the facility, outside of practice,” Colon-Castillo said.
Seven games into the season, that’s a concerning testimony. If it’s true, that’s the sort of issue that Odom should swiftly have under control.
One thing should be clear: Most, if not all, Missouri players genuinely love Odom. He has continuously taken the program in a positive direction since he was hired, and there wouldn’t be much benefit to MU firing him after this season. He signed an extension after 2018. The athletic department appears to have faith in him; worst case scenario, he starts 2020 on a semi-hot seat.
But still, eyebrows are to be raised about a win-loss regression during the one season when a Clemson transfer was at quarterback and a down Ole Miss team at home was the cross-divisional matchup. Especially when that would be MU’s first regression under Odom. It seems like that’s where Missouri is headed right now, given the mysterious off-field issues.
Odom went into Gainesville last season and beat a top-15 Florida team when it seemed as if Missouri couldn’t get a big win. Navigating this underwhelming stretch with the upcoming schedule might be his greatest challenge yet as the head coach at Missouri. The context shows he’s usually up for the challenge.
Supervising editor is Michael Knisley.