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Jim Sterk will say this conversation is premature.

The Mizzou athletics director has a rule. Barring something catastrophic, he does not decide a coach’s fate in the midst of a season. Sterk is the kind of guy who reads the last page before he shuts the book.

Barry Odom’s fourth season as Tigers head coach has a few pages left. There are three games to be played and a potential bowl appearance up for grabs — if a bowl ban is lifted, that is. A strong finish is possible. It still would not cover up a disappointing season.

The words “job security” and “Odom” were not supposed to meet in the same sentence in 2019. Now that all-too-familiar topic is all people want to discuss. What a deflating trip it’s been.

Odom entered this season with a roster ripe with talent, a graduate transfer quarterback who was recruited by many and the most manageable schedule a member of the SEC could imagine.

This was supposed to be 10-win thriller. Nine at the worst. Even if the bowl ban handed down by the NCAA after its investigation into academic misconduct by a former athletics department tutor was upheld after Mizzou’s appeal, Odom’s fourth season was supposed to represent a breakthrough.

Yet here are the Tigers at 5-4 with three games to go.

They have lost three games to double-digit underdogs since the season kicked off at Wyoming. They have lost three in a row after winning five straight at home. They have lost the benefit of the doubt.

Florida, ranked 12th, comes to town next. The Gators just mashed Vanderbilt, 56-0. The Tigers lost at Vanderbilt, which is now 2-7.

Then comes Tennessee, winners of three in a row. UT’s only loss in its last five came against Alabama. The Vols just beat Kentucky, 17-13. Mizzou lost to UK by 22.

A dysfunctional Arkansas team that already fired its coach waits at the end of line, though that’s a road game for the Tigers, and they have not yet won away from home.

Watching Mizzou limp into Saturday’s predictable thumping at Georgia, it was impossible to ignore what could have been.

Had the Tigers not dissolved against Vanderbilt and Kentucky, the program’s pending appeal of its postseason ban would have been a national story. The college football weekend would have revolved around Alabama-LSU, and Missouri’s fate. Mizzou’s cooperation in the NCAA investigation would have been revisited again, and the NCAA’s overreaching punishment and delay on determining the outcome of the appeal would have been perfect fodder for Sterk’s “Make it Right” campaign.

Losses to Wyoming, Kentucky and Vanderbilt spoiled everything.

Average Joe Public doesn’t care about a team with a single-digit win total missing the Just Another Bowl.

Sterk’s sparring with the NCAA now matters less than his pending review of Odom’s program. He has to answer some hard questions before it’s due.

If not now, when? Sterk has repeated his desire to field a top-25 football team. The Tigers cracked the AP poll once last season and once this season, then lost the very next games to an underdog. Odom is just 22-11 against teams Las Vegas favors his team to beat. He’s 24-23 overall, 12-17 in conference games, 1-8 against Top 25 teams and 0-2 in bowl games.

Odom’s Tigers have never beaten SEC East power Georgia. They’ve never beaten Kentucky, either. For the fourth time in four seasons, Odom’s team has a losing streak of at least three.

The Tigers don’t play well on the road. They don’t play well in the rain. They don’t finish well in close games. They rarely punch above their weight class, and too often get knocked out by a team they appeared to overlook. These are not Top 25 traits.

Where are the leaders in the locker room? The Tigers were dealt a significant blow when linebacker Cale Garrett suffered a season-ending injury. If a true leader has emerged on the field since, he’s been hiding it well.

Quarterback Kelly Bryant is also injured now, but he had become a shell of himself before his hamstring gripped. Tight end Albert Okwuegbunam appeared on the back of a milk carton for weeks. Running back Larry Rountree has fallen down the depth chart. No go-to receiver has emerged. An offensive line that was supposed to be a strength has regressed.

Defensive lineman Jordan Elliott has played well, but penalties have cost him, and he cannot seem to stop some of his teammates’ tendencies to take out their frustrations in late cheap shots, a bad look for a struggling team.

Coaches cannot be on the field. They can cultivate players to be coaches on the field. Odom’s staff lacks these kind of players.

Why are the little things still so hard? The Tigers are giving away an SEC-worst average of 69 penalty yards per game. Only 15 of the 130 FBS teams surrender more. The Tigers have missed seven of 13 field goal attempts and three extra-point attempts. Mizzou pass-catchers have dropped at least 25 passes. Few teams are talented enough to overcome these fixable flaws. Mizzou is not one of them.

Why not now? It’s never ideal to eat a buyout, but that is life in college football, and Odom’s is one of the most manageable around.

This edition of the coaching carousel could be especially competitive, with programs throwing around more money to top candidates than Mizzou can match, which could be a reason for Sterk to pause. Fan support, or lack of it, must also be considered. A renovated stadium that can’t come up with a decent game day atmosphere for a visit from a ranked Florida team is more than a bad sign. It’s bad for business.

Sterk wanted to be an SEC AD. He knows the most important aspect of that job is having the right football coach. Odom’s fourth season was not supposed to make Sterk think long and hard about change. He has to now.

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