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Missouri Vanderbilt Football

Missouri head coach Barry Odom watches from the sideline in the first half of an NCAA college football game against Vanderbilt Saturday, Oct. 19, 2019, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

COLUMBIA, Mo. - With their head coach’s seat getting warmer by the week, the division doormats came into homecoming weekend with just two wins. They’d already put their fans through a stomach-churning loss to a team from outside the Power Five and multiple lopsided losses to conference foes.

With their season hanging by a thread, they hosted the nationally ranked leader of their division. The point spread was enormous, but the underdog never blinked. By game’s end, they blindsided their visitors with an outcome nobody saw coming.

As the Illinois players celebrated their 24-23 upset of No. 6 Wisconsin, I mentioned to a few Mizzou folks in the Vanderbilt press box that Barry Odom should read that score to his team before they took the field in Nashville.

It was just a few days earlier when Odom made this very comment about his streaking Tigers: “I wish there was a way you could just roll your helmet out there and win a game because of who you are. But that ain't us.”

No, it sure ain’t.

About three hours after Illinois pulled off the day’s biggest upset, Vanderbilt supplied the runner-up, snapping Mizzou’s five-game winning streak with a methodical 21-14 takedown of the Tigers, a loss that might very well be the Tigers’ worst in 20 years. (More on that soon enough.)

Just a week earlier, this same Vandy team lost to one-win UNLV by 24 points … while the Tigers streamrolled a fifth straight opponent on Faurot Field. Does leaving the comforts of home affect this team that much? Doubtful, because this game unfolded nothing like the Tigers’ season-opening loss at Wyoming, a game the Tigers led 14-0 after just a few minutes, then let slip away on four costly plays that were easy to identify. Red-zone turnovers and a couple missed tackles lost that game for Mizzou.

On Saturday, the Tigers never showed up. Against the SEC’s worst statistical defense, Mizzou’s running game struggled to break the line of scrimmage. Kelly Bryant looked hesitant to throw the ball downfield after some early misconnections. Vandy’s defense got physical early with MU’s playmakers and the Tigers looked like they were playing the rest of the game in quicksand.

Missouri’s defense has played better games, but it was the only reason this game wasn’t a rout. The Tigers stopped Vandy on 9 of 12 third downs and it was Cameron Wilkins’ interception return that set up MU’s second and final touchdown. Otherwise, the Tigers had just two extended drives all day, the second of which ended on Bryant’s ugly interception in the end zone.

Sometimes coaches can see these kinds of games coming a mile away. Here’s the scary part about Saturday’s flat performance. It blindsided Barry Odom, too. Did he see this coming during the week?

“I sure didn't,” he said. “That's maybe even more frustrating because I felt like we had great practices. I felt like we were ready to go. Pregame felt right. And we obviously didn't bring it. For winning football, in a lot of areas, we weren't even close.”

These are the kind of losses that raise red flags and the kind that squander goodwill from a fan base that a week earlier just sold out Memorial Stadium for the first time in five years.

It’s also the kind of loss that builds narratives — or adds to them. Midway through last season the knock on Odom was he couldn’t beat a ranked opponent, that his teams were never good enough to take down the best of the best. Then he beat No. 13 Florida on the road, his first win in eight tries against a nationally ranked foe.

Now the Odom pattern has flipped. The postscript on Saturday followed this line of thinking: Odom’s teams lower their play to the level of their competition. His Tigers are ripe for upsets. Is that true historically? Let’s take a closer look.

Odom is 24-21 as Missouri’s head coach. He’s 22-10 in games the Tigers have been favored to win. As the favored team against Power Five opponents, Odom’s Tigers are 12-8. As favorites in true road games, they’re 5-3. When favored by double digits, they’re 14-2. The Tigers just breezed through five straight games against underdogs. They even covered the spread in four of them. But it’s fair to wonder if the losses also represent a trend.

Let’s go back to Odom’s record in games the Tigers are favored to win: 22-10. That’s a winning percentage of 68.8 percent. Not bad, right? It’s certainly better than his overall winning percentage of 53.3 percent. But it’s not very good compared to the rest of the SEC in his time as Missouri’s head coach. Here is every SEC team’s record and winning percentage as favorites since the start of the 2016 season, Odom’s first year as coach, ranked in order of winning percentage.

1. Alabama: 48-3, 94.1 %

2. Texas A&M: 27-3, 90.0 %

3. Kentucky: 17-2, 89.5 %

4. Georgia: 34-6,  85.0 %

5. Florida: 25-5, 83.3 %

5. South Carolina: 15-3, 83.3 %

7. Vanderbilt: 12-3, 80.0 %

8. Auburn: 27-8, 77.1 %

9. LSU: 30-9, 76.9 %

10. Tennessee: 17-6, 73.9 %

11. Ole Miss: 15-6, 71.4 %

12. Mississippi State: 22-9, 71.0 %

13. Missouri: 22-10, 68.8 %

14. Arkansas: 10-5, 66.7 %

This is by no means a perfect way to measure a program’s success because everything hinges on Las Vegas point spreads, some of which prove to be way off every week. But over a four-year body of work, it’s fair to make some judgments off these percentages.

• Since 2016, Missouri has lost the most games when favored and is the only SEC team to lose multiple games to underdogs every season. In 2016, the Tigers lost to underdogs Middle Tennessee and Kentucky. In 2017, it was South Carolina, Purdue and Texas. Last year, South Carolina, Kentucky and Oklahoma State. This year, obviously, it’s Wyoming and Vanderbilt.

• Since the start of the 2018 season, Missouri and Mississippi State have lost to the most underdogs, five apiece. Auburn, Arkansas and Georgia are next with three each.

• Missouri’s two losses this season are among seven by SEC teams when favored by double-digit points. Other SEC teams with losses to double-digit underdogs: Arkansas (San Jose State), Georgia (South Carolina), South Carolina (North Carolina), Tennessee (Georgia State) and Vanderbilt (UNLV).

• The Wyoming and Vandy losses are Odom’s only two defeats when favored by double digits. Since 2016, Auburn leads the league with four losses to double-digit underdogs, followed by Georgia and LSU with three each.

• Just for comparison’s sake, Gary Pinkel lost eight games in 15 years to double-digit point underdogs: Bowling Green in 2001, Troy in 2004, Kansas in 2004, Iowa State in 2006, Oklahoma State and Kansas in 2008, Baylor in 2009 and Indiana in 2014.

Which leads to an obvious question: Where does the Vandy loss rank among the worst at Mizzou? In the 21 years since I started covering this program, it’s No. 1 based on point spreads.

Of those 10 games since 2001 the Tigers have lost when favored by double-digit margins, the Vandy spread was the largest (21), followed by the Wyoming loss (18) and the 2008 loss to Kansas in Kansas City, when the Tigers were favored by 15 and lost 40-37.

Does that mean the Tigers have already flushed their season down the toilet? Absolutely not. Of the prior 10 losses to big underdogs, take note that three came in seasons in which the Tigers won their division and finished with 10 or more wins overall. The Tigers are double-digit favorites once again Saturday against Kentucky, a team that’s fallen off a cliff from last year’s 10-win season.

STATS THAT MATTER

3.1

That’s how many yards Mizzou running backs averaged on first-down runs. Four of the backs’ six first-down runs in the first half went for 2 yards or fewer. That’s asking a lot out of your passing game when you can’t get a healthy chunk of yards on first down. Only one of those 14 carries went longer than 6 yards. We wrote on Friday that Vandy’s defense had been exposed for a lot of passing yards on first down this year, but the Tigers couldn’t capitalize in those situations, completing 6 of 9 passes on first down for only 49 yards.

The Tigers faced third and 7 or more 11 times and converted just two for first downs. Bryant was sacked twice on those third-and-longs. In the second half, he faced five third-and-longs and didn’t complete a single pass. He ran three times for 23 yards for one first down, threw an incomplete pass and got sacked. That’s brutal efficiency. For the game on those 11 third-down snaps when the Tigers needed 7 yards or more, they picked up only

With this offense if you can’t run early in a series, it’s sure hard to pass late.

“It’s really hard,” center Trystan Colon-Castillo said. “You get those in those situations and basically the whole defense knows it’s pass. The whole stadium knows it’s pass. They’re ready to tee off and get after the quarterback and the offensive line. To not be able to run the ball on first and second down was definitely a big problem for us.

83.1

Not to pile on the quarterback, but that’s Bryant’s third-down passer rating this season when the Tigers need 7 yards or more to move the chains. He’s completing 44.4 percent of his passes in those situations. On similar third-and-7 or more plays last year, Drew Lock completed 63.5 percent of his throws with a rating of 170.5. Twice as efficient.

Overall on third down this year, Bryant’s passer rating is 121.2, 10th place in the SEC. Lock’s third-down rating last year was 147.0, fifth in the league. He was even better in 2017 at 173.9, second-best in the SEC.

PLAYER(S) OF THE GAME

Ke’Shawn Vaughn has had bigger games, but he was the workhorse back Vandy needed with a walk-on first-time starter at quarterback. The Commodores slugged away at Mizzou with 29 carries to Vaughn, a career-high. He finished with only 96 yards (3.3 per carry), but pushed the line of scrimmage forward when Vandy needed it most on the game’s final drive. He also caught four  balls for 80 yards, including a 61-yard screen that went for a touchdown and seemed to get the Dores believing they could win.

Runner-up: Missouri linebacker Nick Bolton blamed himself after the loss, but he was a force all night, finishing with a game-high 15 tackles, including three behind the line of scrimmage. He took zero consolation in his individual performance.

“I just didn’t play well,” he said. “If I would have played better, we would have had a chance in the fourth quarter.”

What could he have done better?

“Just communication-wise, if we had a bust it’s on me,” he said. “I missed a tackle as well. I missed a couple assignments.”

That’s what a leader sounds like after a game like that.

“We’ve got to find a way to get off the field,” he said. “That was my fault. I’ve got to get better.”

LOOKING GOOD

• Wilkins nearly scored on his 42-interception return and also had a sack. He didn’t come off the field and gave the Tigers a solid 1-2 punch up the middle along with Bolton, who continues to play like an All-SEC candidate.

• Defensive tackle Jordan Elliott had two costly offside penalties on Vandy’s final drive, but once again he rented space in the backfield. He had only one tackle for loss but continually disrupted plays up the middle with penetration.

NEEDS SOME WORK

• Mizzou’s penalty situation is reaching crisis mode. A false start or an offsides here or there is fine. But the Tigers were flagged for three personal fouls and three unsportsmanlike conduct penalties. Two of those third-and-long plays were made longer by penalties. That game got chippy at times, but the Tigers are especially good at getting caught yapping to the opponent.

• Tyree Gillespie’s hit on quarterback Mo Hasan was one of the most egregious targeting penalties the Tigers have committed since the penalty was initiated a few years ago. The QB was clearly going into his slide when Gillespie drove the crown of his helmet into Hasan’s head. That hit might have required the shortest replay review by the SEC all season. The NCAA created the rule with that kind of reckless hit in mind, to protect not just the ball-carrier but the tackler, too.

• Tucker McCann is having a nice year as a punter, but his kicking issues have relapsed into 2016 form. He missed two more field goals on Saturday — and it would have been three if Vandy wouldn’t have knocked him down after a short attempt. For the season he’s made 11 of 16 attempts, his lowest percentage since he made 50 percent his freshman year.

• I’ll be interested to hear Tuesday how Derek Dooley diagnoses Bryant’s struggles. Against a three-man rush he’s having to throw into eight-man coverages, but he didn’t seem to have much patience in the pocket Saturday. It’s baffling that he only targeted Okwuegbunam four times the entire game.

TWITTER MAILBAG

As promised, let’s get to some of your questions from Twitter:

@Sirna23: Should Dooley have made more adjustments to the offense for Bryant? Less deep routes?

Vandy has been exposed on long pass plays all season. In this game, Dooley didn’t have a choice a lot of the time. Six times the Tigers faced third and 10 or longer, including third and 15, 17, 19 and 25. Mizzou has capable deep threats at receiver. There’s no reason the Tigers can’t execute some vertical throws. The pass protection has been sound most of the season. Bryant has the arm to complete those throws. Scott, Knox, Nance and Johnson can get downfield and make plays. But for whatever reason Bryant consistently struggled to stretch the field.

@spconcannon: What does Jim Sterk do to hold Odom accountable for losses like this one and to Wyoming? Or is he OK with losses like these?

Of course the AD isn’t OK with losing games like this, but Mizzou’s not at a place where they’re going to fire a coach midseason when they’re a week removed from being ranked. Odom’s teams have a knack for squandering momentum, but they also have a history of bouncing back from these kind of losses. Sterk will evaluate the job Odom has done after the season, like he should. This isn’t a midseason crisis where he has to step in now and make a coaching change. What other way can you hold a coach accountable during the season? He’s not going to shame him publicly.

@MeyerKeaton: Is the source of the problem for Mizzou playing on the road? Or is it just a coincidence Mizzou's only losses are on the road?

I’m going with coincidence. I thought the road factor played into the Wyoming loss to some degree.  It was the first game of the year in a strange place. But you can’t use that excuse at a half-empty Vanderbilt Stadium, where half the crowd was Mizzou fans. There was nothing challenging about the environment in Nashville. Most of Missouri’s team had played there before Saturday. Up until kickoff the only real difference between a home game and a road game is a flight on Friday and a different locker room. Otherwise, the team goes through the exact same routine from getting off the bus at the team hotel on Friday to waking up Saturday, taking a bus to the stadium, to stepping into the locker room. They put the team through the exact same agenda to the minute. Once the game starts, yes, you’re in a different city and generally there are more fans rooting against you (but not in Nashville). But I’m not convinced the location on Saturday explained any of the struggles.

@1struleoftweets: How can a team look so totally different (offense) from one week to the next?  Kelly Bryant was off target, the o line was awful, running game...you know.

The drastic change in performance from one week to the next has to be the thing that keeps coaches up at night more than anything else. But Odom is hardly alone. Short answer: These are college athletes, not robots. One week’s performance doesn’t guarantee a repeat performance the following week. I go into every game expecting to write a great story but sometimes the words just don’t flow one week like they did the previous week.

@TerryThomasson: Not saying he would’ve accepted, but (Missouri) didn’t attempt to sign Les Miles. As an Arsenal fan, I watched them pass on Klopp & Guardiola. It says to the fan base, “mediocrity is ok.” Do you sense any of Sterk &/or the major boosters &/or the fan base are ok w/ mediocrity?

To be fair, Les Miles desperately wanted to coach again after getting fired at LSU and it took him nearly three years for a program to hire him. Many Power 5 schools showed zero interest in him. After Pinkel retired, Mizzou’s regime at the time — not Jim Sterk — had zero interest in Miles, who was still employed at LSU at the time but on shaky ground. He was seen as past his prime and was clearly struggling to get the most out of loads of NFL talent. He refused to update his prehistoric offense and was losing ground in recruiting battles. I understood then and now why he wasn’t on Mizzou’s radar.

To the larger point of your question, of course Mizzou isn’t OK with mediocrity. The administration just spent three years raising money and building a $100 million football facility that is anything but mediocre. Despite being in the red financially the last two years because of sagging ticket sales, MU pushed forward with the facility and has given Odom more money for his staff. At the same time, Mizzou is consistently close to the bottom of the SEC in number of donors and donation dollars. To some degree, you’re only as good as the support you receive.

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