COLUMBIA — Maybe the Missouri Tigers under Barry Odom are the college football equivalent of a chronic scholastic procrastinator.
His teams seem to find themselves in this position — preparing to play a game with the potential to make or break a season — early enough in the season to make one wonder.
The final result of Missouri's contest at 11 a.m. today against West Virginia (ESPN2) almost certainly won't result in the firing of Odom or anyone else on the staff, and with the way the rest of the Southeastern Conference looks, both the East and the Tigers' two West crossovers Mississippi and Arkansas, still project favorably.
"I was talking last week (with) Derek Mason, we were in Nashville last weekend," said ESPN's Marty Smith Friday, in town for SEC Nation in Laura Rutledge's place and comparing Vanderbilt's head coach to Odom. "And just being around him and the type of leader he is, the way he infuses human beings with passion and kindness and effort and all the things that we can control on a daily basis, I love that. But ultimately, man, it's a performance-based business. I feel the same way about Barry, and that's why this is such a big one tomorrow. It's a big one tomorrow."
A loss to the Mountaineers would drive away even more fans than the loss at Wyoming, and while the argument could be made those are bandwagon fans Missouri doesn't need, the fact is attendance, both from season ticket holders and students, is lagging. The Tigers were second-last in the SEC in 2018 in both average attendance and in percent of stadium capacity filled at 51,466 and 72.32 percent, respectively. Vanderbilt brought in nearly half as many average attendees, 28,045, and filled Vanderbilt Stadium to 69.5 percent capacity.
"Obviously that's a tough one last week," former Florida quarterback and current SEC Nation crew member Tim Tebow said Friday. "But everything is in front of this Missouri team. That game can't define them, what has to define them is these upcoming games, starting tomorrow."The loss to Wyoming was a major hit to morale after the program spent all offseason depositing goodwill. The new $98-million south end zone complex will be unveiled to the public today, Kelly Bryant picked Missouri rather than Auburn, nobody transferred out after the postseason ban was announced and the ban itself became a unifying factor in the perversion of justice to the athletic department and fans alike, and the schedule set itself up favorably for the potential of a 10-win season even if the bowl ban is upheld.
None of that has really changed — Missouri expects a response from the NCAA clarifying the Infraction Committee's ruling at any point now — but had the Tigers rolled through the Cowboys and a five-game homestand undefeated, it would have gone a long way to solving attendance issues for a team that plays in a stadium that seats 10,000 fewer fans than it did last year.
Odom's teams have shown they respond well when their backs are against the wall, but that turnaround has occurred in November, well after this year's extended homestand and after the weather has turned.
A strong and turnover-free result today against West Virginia, a team really in Year Zero of a new system the Tigers should be flat-out better than position-by-position, will start to fill in the hole Missouri put itself in starting with the second quarter in Laramie. Otherwise? Fans go back to reaching for the TV guide and remote, rather than their car keys and wallets.
The odds are in their favor: the Vegas line moved from Missouri favored by 10 when it opened to 13.5, and the Tigers are 93-31-4 all-time in home openers and have won 13 in a row.
Missouri is also a more experienced team, and can (and should) lean on that today. West Virginia's starting quarterback Austin Kendall started just one game before the 2019 season, after Kyler Murray sat out Oklahoma's first drive against Baylor, and was 0-for-2 passing with a rush of four yards.
It's the same for the Mountaineers down the offensive depth chart: just three players on that side of the ball have started more than 10 career games: left tackle Colton McKivitz (36), center Josh Sills (23) and running back Kennedy McKoy (13), but last week was Sills' first start at center after he started four games at right guard and 17 at left guard. Missouri has six such players (Bryant, Albert Okwuegbunam, Johnathon Johnson, Yasir Durant, Tre'Vour Wallace-Simms and Trystan Colon-Castillo).
Kendall came close to connecting on a handful of deep shots against James Madison, and inside receiver Tevin Bush is 5-foot-6 but very fast. Co-offensive coordinators Matt Moore and Chad Scott were otherwise conservative with both Kendall's arm and legs in the opener. The Tigers are aware of both, but the Mountaineers will call on them to make plays all the same.
The story is the same as it was last week headed into the game: Missouri has more pure talent and experience, and should win this game. That didn't happen last week, and last week is the only data point on what the 2019 team looks like. Whether or not the Tigers play like last week was an aberration is totally in their hands. They just have to go do it, which is not as easy to do as it is to type or say.