Gary Pinkel and his Missouri Tigers will not sneak up on the SEC this year. But he and his Missouri players will be as competitive as they were last season.
In a year where it appears the schools in the conference are all rebuilding and re-stocking its players, the Tigers will be just as fast - inus a few key players on defense. But the cupboard is not barren in Missouri.
The team has started spring ball and are working on showing the SEC and the college football landscape last season was not a fluke. Here are the five most pressing questions this team and school must answer again, according to Athlonsports.com
Who leads on defense?
Andrew Wilson, Michael Sam, Kony Ealy and E.J. Gaines will go down in Mizzou history as one of the great defensive classes to ever come through Columbia. Replacing their statistical production, especially in the front seven, will be nearly impossible but so too will be replacing their veteran leadership. Guys like nose guard Lucas Vincent and end Markus Golden will need to step up their play this spring to replace the massive voids left by SEC Defensive Player of the Year Sam and potential first round pick Ealy.
Who should make an impact early on?
Kentrell Brothers (70 tackles) and Shane Ray have a chance to step into playmaking roles at linebacker and defensive end, respectively. How Pinkel and defensive coordinator Dave Steckel fill these leadership gaps on defense will be a huge focus this spring for the Tigers.
What happen with the offensive line?
First-team All-SEC left tackle Justin Britt and left guard Max Copeland have expired their eligibility, and Pinkel is left with a large void on the left side of his offensive line. Evan Boehm and Conner McGovern are talented players who have experience and will have to be leaders for this group because replacing Britt at the most important offensive line position won't be easy. That said, Mizzou has plenty of options and this unit shouldn't take a huge step back. Mitch Morse figures to be one of the better blockers at left tackle while others like Anthony Gatti, Ole Miss transfer Mitch Hall and a host of quality newcomers will compete for starting time up front for the Tigers.
Who will run for daylight?
The running backs have talent despite the loss of Henry Josey, and the quarterback position is in good hands despite the loss of James Franklin, so if the offensive line comes together quickly this spring like many expect, then this offense could be as good if not better in 2014.
What about Mauck?
In a league where Johnny Manziel, AJ McCarron, Aaron Murray, James Franklin and Connor Shaw departed, there are some (me included) who think Mauk has a chance to be the best signal caller in the SEC in 2014. And with his collection of elite wide receivers and his track record of elite success — both in the prep ranks and last year in spot duty for Mizzou — there is no reason to think Mauk won't press for All-SEC honors in just his first season.