As Missouri football’s win-loss records have progressed every year since Barry Odom took over, the Tigers have stayed oddly consistent in the patterns of their wins on the schedule.
There’s some good and some bad. Missouri has, for starters, won nine straight games in the month of November, good for a 10-2 record under Odom. Finishing the season strong has been the program’s forte.
Starting strong hasn’t come quite so easily.
Missouri’s Southeastern Conference schedule begins at 3 p.m. Saturday at Memorial Stadium. Entering the home clash with South Carolina, there is cause for alarm — the Tigers have not won an SEC opener since 2014.
The final season of Gary Pinkel’s coaching tenure, when Missouri lost 21-13 to Kentucky, was the beginning of that unfavorable streak. Since then, the Tigers have lost a memorable 28-27 heartbreaker to Georgia in the 2016 SEC opener; to South Carolina, 31-13, in 2017; and again to Georgia, 43-29, last season.
Missouri has found ways to improve after those losses every year, getting better game-to-game throughout SEC play and better season-to-season. But the nonconference scheduling before those SEC openers may factor into what shows up on paper as a lack of preparation for teams like Georgia, South Carolina and Kentucky.
Between 2015 and 2019, Missouri has played 12 total games before its SEC openers, going a combined 10-2 in those games and outscoring opponents 464-227. The Tigers are scoring more than twice as much as their nonconference opponents before losing to SEC teams.
That might be because only three of those 12 games have been against Power Five conference teams (West Virginia twice and Purdue once). The other nine have been against five Group of Five (smaller conference) teams and four Football Championship Subdivision (even smaller) teams.
The week that Missouri played Southeast Missouri State, an FCS team, Odom said there are reasons for and against scheduling such games and left it at that.
So the Redhawks (1-2) are the Tigers’ most recent opponent entering this pivotal matchup with the Gamecocks. South Carolina’s most recent opponent? Alabama.
In 2017, when Missouri lost to South Carolina in its SEC curtain-raiser, the Tigers’ most recent game was, again, against an FCS team (Missouri State). The Gamecocks had just played and beaten North Carolina State, a Power Five team that went on to finish 9-4 overall and 6-2 against a tough ACC schedule.
Given all that, it would make sense that the difficulty of previous opponents might have been a factor in past slow starts to conference play, especially considering how much Missouri seems to improve once it has a couple of SEC games under its belt. The team went from 0-4 to 4-4 in the SEC in 2017, then did the exact same thing in 2018.
The Tigers’ challenge this year is to figure out how to win in the SEC before they’re 0-4. Or before they’re 0-1, for that matter.