The ghost of Gary Pinkel hovers over Missouri football

Things could certainly be worse for Missouri football. The Tigers could be adrift and bowl-less, floundering in the SEC and getting flattened by the competition.

Matt Zemek,

That’s not where Mizzou actually stands entering the 2023 season, so the Tigers are not in a dark place. Yet, they’re not in a great place, either. They aren’t stumbling in the dark, but they also aren’t basking in the glow of success. They inhabit a world which is partly cloudy – not oppressive but just as certainly not resplendent and glowing.

Missouri football exists in the broad, moderate middle of college football. The Tigers have generally been a six- or seven-win program the past several years. Missouri has won five to seven games in six of the past eight seasons. The program isn’t collapsing, but it isn’t rising, either. It’s good enough to make a bowl game, but little more. People will obviously wonder, “Is Mizzou football meant to be better than this? Is this program capable of rising in the SEC, and can it build its brand one year before Oklahoma (an old Big Eight rival) and Texas (a former Big 12 neighbor) join the Southeastern Conference?”

This is where the ghost of Gary Pinkel enters the picture. Pinkel was hugely successful at Missouri. He came within one win of an appearance in the BCS National Championship Game in the 2007 season. He came within one win of the SEC championship twice. He lifted Missouri to heights not seen since Dan Devine (the same coach who won a national championship with Notre Dame in 1977) took the Tigers to multiple Orange Bowls plus a Sugar Bowl in the 1960s. It’s one thing to win in the 1960s; Gary Pinkel showed Missouri and everyone else that the Tigers could win big in the 21st century. If people say that Missouri can’t be great in the modern era of college football – even in the SEC after leaving the Big 12 – Pinkel proved otherwise.

When Missouri nearly made the BCS title game in the 2007 season, it was easy for a lot of outside observers to say that the Tigers nearly made history only because that 2007 season went completely off the rails. Kansas (!) was the only major Power Five program to finish with fewer than two losses that season. That’s how crazy 2007 was. Missouri benefited to a considerable degree from the chaos.

Yet, if anyone felt that year was an aberration, Pinkel showed it wasn’t with his two consecutive SEC East Division championships in 2013 and 2014 at Mizzou. The Tigers exceeded Florida, Georgia, Steve Spurrier’s South Carolina program, Tennessee, and the rest of the East to make the coveted trip to Atlanta for a date with the SEC West champion. Missouri and Pinkel did that not once, but twice. It’s hard to write that off as a fluke when Pinkel was able to repeat the feat. Yes, Missouri can win at a higher level, but no one in the eight years since Pinkel stepped down has been able to come remotely close. One 8-5 season under Barry Odom in 2018 is the best Mizzou has been able to do.

Now we move to the present moment. Though Florida is struggling to find its footing, the Gators do have a highly-rated recruiting class coming into Gainesville under Billy Napier. Shane Beamer and South Carolina just defeated Tennessee and Clemson late last season to dramatically improve their national profile and announce themselves as a formidable contender in the SEC East. Kentucky didn’t have a great year in 2022, but the Wildcats are rarely an easy out under coach Mark Stoops. Vanderbilt nearly beat Missouri in 2022 and won SEC games at Kentucky and at home versus Florida.

Those are the lesser teams in the East.

Tennessee won a New Year’s Six bowl and rocketed back to national prominence under coach Josh Heupel. The sleeping giant in Knoxville has been awakened, a huge headache for the mid-tier teams in the East. As for Georgia, what else is there to say about the two-time national champions who went back to back last season? Missouri might not be in a bad place. Making a bowl game in a cutthroat conference isn’t the worst possible outcome or situation for an SEC program. Yet, if the Tigers do want to raise their ceiling and get back to the Gary Pinkel standard, they face more obstacles – not fewer – in an SEC East which has raised its game, particularly with the ascendant trajectories in Knoxville with the Vols and in the Palmetto State with the Gamecocks. Missouri, it can reasonably be argued, has to be better than it was in 2022 in terms of raw quality in order to attain the same 6-7 result it posted last season. This is not a context in which reaching the Gary Pinkel standard is going to be especially attainable anytime soon. Coach Eli Drinkwitz needs to do a lot of heavy lifting to truly change the equation attached to his program.

If there is an optimistic case to be made for Missouri football, it is this: First, Florida continues to struggle, especially with Anthony Richardson now in the NFL instead of getting another year of seasoning in Gainesville. The Gators’ highly-ranked recruiting class won’t evolve in time to make an instant difference for Billy Napier.

Second, South Carolina’s late-season surge last year turns out to be more a product of Tennessee’s and Clemson’s limitations than the Gamecocks’ rise to prominence. South Carolina stumbles a few times and does not take the next step on the road to national relevance.

Third, Tennessee is worse with Joe Milton than it was under Hendon Hooker, all while the defense continues to struggle in important moments, as it did against Alabama and South Carolina last year.

Fourth, the problems Kentucky endured in 2022 are not fixed in 2023. If at least three of those four optimistic scenarios become reality, Missouri – which almost beat Georgia last season and showed at times it could compete with the very best – could find that its ceiling is higher than most people probably think.

The ghost of Gary Pinkel will be watching. Gary Pinkel himself will be paying attention as well.

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