In assessing the health of various SEC East programs, there is a specific purpose -- as opposed to a random order -- in following Vanderbilt and Kentucky. All three programs sit in the same boat in this sense: They all have to face the possibility that with Dan Mullen at Florida and Butch Jones now gone at Tennessee (he was such a blessing for other SEC East coaches and programs), two slumbering giants will return to relevance and become a lot better.
Like Vanderbilt and Kentucky, Missouri badly needs to make inroads in the SEC East this season, pouncing before Mullen (who is very likely to do well at UF) and Pruitt (a less known and therefore less certain coach, but a man who has a better chance of succeeding simply because he isn't Butch Jones) fully figure out their circumstances and adjust to their surroundings. If forced to compare Missouri to either Vanderbilt or Kentucky, the comparison leans toward VU for one simple reason: Mizzou, like Vanderbilt, has a quarterback who can post big numbers and will be asked to carry the offense in 2018.
If Vanderbilt has Kyle Shurmur, Missouri has Drew Lock, the man who is already picking up steam as a 2019 NFL Draft centerpiece. Lock and Missouri were humiliated and roughed up in a 1-5 start to the 2017 season, but as soon as their quarterback unlocked his considerable talents, the Tigers roared down the stretch to win six games in a row, produce a winning season, and notch a bowl bid. Coach Barry Odom appeared to be in a heap of trouble in October; instead he produced one of the more impressive turnarounds in college football last year. Missouri enters this season with hope instead of hellfire, optimism instead of outrage, coursing through Columbia. CoMo is a much more pleasant place to be after last season's finishing kick, which expunged a lot of the misery from a program which had been adrift in the years since 21st-century program architect Gary Pinkel retired from coaching.
Now, though, Missouri will very likely have to play better than it did in 2017 just to attain the same record it forged a year ago.
Auburn was Missouri's SEC West crossover opponent last year. Alabama is that team this year. Memphis will be a tough non-conference opponent, as will Purdue, which is not a pushover anymore under coach Jeff Brohm and -- in fact -- thumped Mizzou a year ago in the Tigers' back yard. It will be tough for Missouri to raise its ceiling beyond eight wins. Merely retaining the gains it made last season would represent a good result for the program... and that means beating Florida and Tennessee, just as UM did last season. In order for this to happen, Lock must improve instead of regress. Lockup, not lockdown, is the theme for the Mizzou Crew this coming season.
This next point is not meant in any way to diminish what Odom and his team achieved last year, but it merits a comment or two: Missouri's six-game winning streak began last season with non-conference wins over Idaho and Connecticut. When Missouri scheduled UConn, it had a reasonable expectation that the game would be challenging, but the Huskies deteriorated since then. The game was an easy win, and that part isn't something any fan will complain about. However, this season's middle third of games provides no similar "relief period" for Missouri. The October schedule is South Carolina, Alabama, Memphis, and Kentucky. Three of those four games will determine if Missouri goes to a bowl game or not. The bookends will strongly affect where Mizzou finishes in the SEC East.
It has to be said: Don't expect another five- or six-game winning streak this season. The schedule will not allow for it.
If Missouri wants to raise its ceiling and reach nine wins in the regular season, two games are must-wins. (If merely preserving a seven-win season is the goal, these games won't be win-at-all-costs occasions.) Purdue hammered the Tigers in CoMo last season, and Kentucky barely beat UM in a shootout marred by poor officiating which shortchanged Odom's team in the final minute. Reversing the outcomes there -- while then maintaining superiority over Florida and Tennessee -- would give Missouri a path to nine wins. The expected losses: Alabama and Georgia, with one other loss likely to emerge at some point, if only due to attrition.
The SEC East is now ruled by Georgia, but after the Dawgs, six teams are scrambling to gain a higher place in the division. The favorite might be clear in the East, but the whole of the division is not very easy to sift through. You probably wouldn't want to make a bet -- once sports betting becomes legal in your state of residence -- on any non-Florida team being second in the SEC East and/or winning nine games, but given the fluidity of the division in 2018 once you leave Athens, the idea of Missouri going 9-3 in its 12 regular season contests is not absurd.
Sure, it isn't likely -- you wouldn't want to count on it -- but teams 2 through 7 in the East could very realistically create a dynamic in which one team feasts on the others. (The division could just as realistically cannibalize itself, with no non-Georgia team doing any better than 4-4 in the SEC.)
Missouri, fueled by Lock, scored at least 45 points in each of its last six regular season games last year. That's not likely to happen this year... but this reinforces the point about the Tigers needing to be better merely to stay where they are (a 7-win floor for the program with the possibility of a slightly higher ceiling). It is hard to imagine Florida's and Tennessee's defenses being worse than they were last season against Mizzou. Lock could put up 15 to 20 fewer points than he did against UF and UT last season and yet play better games. That seems counterintuitive, but if opposition is more robust, Lock could easily suffer on the stat sheet yet still be lauded as a great leader for this team if he pulls Missouri through tough situations.
Competition changes from season to season. We know this intellectually, but it can still be hard to shake the idea that better, bigger numbers don't necessarily reflect higher quality of play. Missouri's offense was a video game late last season. This year, a harder schedule with fewer "rest stops" in October will require more of Lock -- not statistically, but holistically.
Lock's ability to grow not just as an athlete, but as a presence of calm in tense moments, is what Missouri will likely need more than anything else to reach various targets in 2018.