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Ben Frederickson is a sports columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. You can follow him on Twitter (Ben_Fred), Instagram (benfredpd) and Facebook (BenFredPD).

Missouri Spring Football

Missouri quarterback Kelly Bryant runs the ball during the April 13 spring game at Faurot Field. (AP Photo/L.G. Patterson)

Jim Sterk felt a sense of satisfaction this week as the Missouri athletics director made his most recent tour of Memorial Stadium’s south end zone renovation.

His football coach, Barry Odom, is winning big recruiting battles. The Tigers are popping up in preseason top-25 polls. On Monday, SEC media days will be introduced to Mizzou graduate transfer quarterback Kelly Bryant, the player who has helped unite and energize a program. And the stage for what could display a special season, a refreshed stadium that has won over recruits and will impress fans, is going to be ready for its debut.

Follow each of these story lines long enough, though, and they eventually encounter a cloud of anxiety and unknown.

Mizzou is attempting to keep its appeal of an NCAA postseason ban on a separate track from the preseason hype.

But when an answer from the NCAA eventually works its way through a painfully slow system, there will be either celebration or a punch to the gut.

There’s just no way around it.

The Tigers’ upcoming season is a rare one across the college football landscape.

Odom’s fourth team could be his best for a combination of reasons that include Bryant’s decision to come to CoMo, the talent that returns around the quarterback, and a schedule that is one of the most appealing you will find in the gauntlet that is the SEC.

Mizzou’s assignment of Arkansas and Ole Miss as SEC West opponents is a gift, considering the Alabamas and LSUs of the world. Meanwhile the SEC East remains Georgia, then everyone else. Room to climb. The Tigers have five consecutive home games after their season opener at Wyoming. They make warm-weather Florida come to Faurot Field on Nov. 16. And they get the benefit of a bye week before facing the Bulldogs in Athens, Ga.

Mizzou could be 8-0 entering their game against UGA. These Tigers, on paper, could win double-digit games for the first time since 2014. That’s before a bowl game that may or may not come.

There’s the hang-up again.

The most exciting part of every college football season is the ability for a team to write its own ending. The Tigers have an anvil hanging over theirs.

Sterk is confident in Mizzou’s appeal, which has been sent in to the NCAA. He is under the NCAA-mandated gag order, but offered that the in-person meeting with the appeals committee is slated for the “near future.” He has reasons to believe the Tigers could know their fate between the end of August and the end of September. The season starts at Wyoming on Aug. 31.

“I think we have done everything we can,” Sterk said. “We will be able to present a case that is compelling, not only for Missouri but for the membership and the NCAA overall.”

Sterk remains adamant that this appeal ruling by the NCAA could become an important chapter in the organization’s history when it comes to enforcement and self-policing. The corruption in college basketball scandal seems to have solidified a new stance from schools when it comes to NCAA trouble. Instead of cleaning their own house, schools are locking the doors, lawyering up and daring the NCAA to get inside.

Mizzou took the opposite approach. It corrected — and reported — the problem when it became known that a now-former part-time tutor was completing coursework for student athletes. It turned itself in. And still Mizzou was handed in late January a multi-sport penalty that included vacated wins, scholarship reductions, recruiting penalties and the postseason ban. If the self-policing approach the NCAA encourages results in such a heavy hand, won’t that approach be taken less often? The answer is yes.

“It’s really important to the future of the NCAA and the membership,” Sterk said. “We have a lot of people watching this case. I can’t tell where it’s going to go afterwards, depending on their decision. But if most of our penalties are not overturned, I could see this being a pivotal case in the future of the NCAA.”

Back on the football track, the Tigers are doing their best to ignore the anvil. They’re doing an impressive job.

Odom kept his team together after the NCAA sanctions opened a window for players with one year of eligibility remaining, Bryant included, to transfer out and play immediately elsewhere. The arrival of TCU transfer Shawn Robinson and freshman Connor Bazelak have made the post-Bryant picture sunnier.

Meanwhile Odom has gained impressive momentum with Missouri’s talented prospects, specifically ones in St. Louis. Just this week, he received a verbal commitment from Trinity Catholic lineman Jalen St. John for his 2020 class, a player recruited heavily by SEC schools. Seven of Odom’s 13 commitments in the 2020 class call the St. Louis area home. Odom’s on a roll in The Lou.

“We are in a good place,” Sterk said. “We are going to have a great season, no matter what. That’s the attitude that the players have taken, that the coaches have taken. The Missouri fans are going to be witnessing a fun season. I can’t guarantee every win, but we are going to compete, and it’s going to be fun.”

Even more so if the anvil disappears instead of drops.


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