While most of the college football preseason attention in the Big 12 has been directed toward the two Oklahoma schools and Texas A&M (for more than one reason), Missouri may be the forgotten fourth team that is likely to have quite a bit to say about what transpires in the new 10-team conference come the first week in December.
The Tigers are picked to finish fourth or fifth in the Big 12 by most all the rating services and the sports pundits. Coach Gary Pinkel's squad enters the season fairly well set, with starters and good talent returning in most every area, except for the most important position on the field: quarterback. Three-year starter Blaine Gabbert opted out of his role at starting quarterback, choosing to try his luck at the next level. The 6-foot-5 native of Ballwin, Mo., was drafted tenth overall in the NFL draft last spring by the Jacksonville Jaguars.
One week before declaring for the NFL draft Gabbert was telling reporters, "People should watch out for us next year because we got a lot of guys coming back."
Missouri has 16 starters returning (nine on offense and seven on defense) and more than 20 seniors on the squad to provide much-needed leadership after the departure of high-profile players such as Gabbert and defensive end Aldon Smith, both of whom were top-10, first-round NFL draft selections. Smith was taken seventh overall by the San Francisco 49ers.
There was great uncertainty coming out of spring practice over who would replace the departed Gabbert. Everyone thought it would be a two-way battle between sophomore James Franklin and redshirt freshman Tyler Gabbert, Blaine's little brother, but that became a moot point when the younger Gabbert made the surprise decision to leave the Missouri program and transfer to another school.
Now with Franklin fixed in the job as the new starting quarterback for the Tigers coming into the 2011 season, the lead concern has become: Will he be able to step in and do the job like his immediate predecessors, Gabbert, Chase Daniel and Brad Smith (all now in the NFL), were able to do before him?
"James was the backup last year behind Blaine Gabbert, and we had a chance to get some playing time. And I think that's really going to be a plus for us," Pinkel said in an interview a few days before the start of fall practice. "People ask me to compare him to Brad Smith. Brad Smith is a leaner-type athlete and probably an extreme athlete, where when you look at James, James has got great movement.
"He's got a good arm. Throws the ball well. He's got a good touch. I think he can extend the play," Pinkel said. "I think he can also do damage with his feet, not only in the passing game but in the running game. We really haven't had that since we had Brad Smith."
A young quarterback matures in his leadership ability, Pinkel says. "I think he's doing fine there," he says of Franklin. "I think he's working hard at that, but the most important thing he can do is play well. The thing with James is, we have nine returning starters around him from a year ago. (That's the) most experienced players I ever had around a new quarterback since I've been a head football coach.
"(Also) the ability to run the football takes pressure off quarterbacks, even in a spread offense like we have, and we have different ways to do that," said the 59-year-old Missouri head coach, who is beginning his tenth season in Columbia.
Pinkel has a strong reputation and has had equally strong results in recruiting and developing NFL-quality quarterbacks during his time at Missouri. He was asked if he coaches them all the same to fit his offensive scheme, or if he and his coached tweak things here and there so the quarterbacks he brings in can thrive individually. "I think you have to adapt," he said. "And that's what we do. I think we can do that within our offense. Dave Yost, our quarterback coach, does an excellent job with that. Finding out, first of all, what that guy (the QB) does best and what you can do to highlight his skills. I think when you do it that way, it lends itself to get a consistent performance."
Pinkel speaks very positively about the new-look ten-team Big 12 Conference, and he likes the change to a balance schedule. "I think it's going to be really good," he said. "We play nine (conference) games in the round robin, every team. A lot of good football teams. A lot of competition - this year, in particular, as you look at the returning starters. I think this year, at least, it's going to be as strong as it's ever been."
Missouri (10-3, 6-2 in the conference a year ago) opens the season at home on Sept. 3 against Miami of Ohio, who the Tigers throttled 51-13 last season.