BenFred: Before Odom can win big, Tigers must stop hurting themselves

Missouri quarterback Drew Lock marches off the field after a turnover in the fourth quarter on Wednesday, Dec. 27, 2017, during the Texas Bowl at NRG Stadum in Houston, Tx. The Tigers lost 33-16. Photo by Christian Gooden, cgooden@post-dispatch.com

This is the peak of the season for college football’s elite.

For every other team, it’s time for a clear-headed reflection on what went right and wrong.

Truth must be a priority in these evaluations, no matter how uncomfortable. A pulled punch in January can lead to losses come fall.

Missouri coach Barry Odom must ask himself how much more could have gone right for his Tigers if he had reined in some of the wrong.

Some healthy distance from Mizzou’s 33-16 Texas Bowl loss has allowed time for an analytical, unemotional evaluation of Odom’s program as he enters his third season as head coach.

One conclusion jumps out: Odom has not yet proven he can win the big one, and until his team stops its propensity for self-harm, there is not much reason beyond hope to think big wins will come.

The Tigers (7-6) were better than they were last season (4-8), and they accomplished their goal of reaching a bowl game for the first time since 2014. When you have not had a winning season for two years, getting back on the right side of .500 is a step in the right direction. Odom held together a team that could have frayed, and for that he deserves credit.

The Tigers showed they were not as bad as the gruesome first half of their season suggested. They also showed they were not as good as their season-saving, six-game winning streak led us to believe.

During their streak they beat Idaho, Connecticut, Florida, Tennessee, Vanderbilt and Arkansas by a combined score of 308-128. But those six teams averaged four wins. None won more than five games. One (Idaho) was playing its last season as an FBS team. Three (Florida, Tennessee, Arkansas) fired their coach.

The Tigers tend to bristle when you mention their schedule as a key ingredient in their comeback. Of course they do. But they had a chance to disprove this in the Texas Bowl. And we saw how that went.

Mizzou was good enough to be a bowl team, but not good enough to beat one of the six bowl teams it met. Not even a Texas team that took the field without eight of its players, including a few of its best. Getting throttled, then mocked, by the first winning Texas team since the Mack Brown era should not sit well with Mizzou. It would be concerning if it did.

Odom’s record reads 11-14. Two of those wins came against teams that won more games than they lost. Both were in 2016. One was Eastern Michigan. The other was Arkansas, which fired coach Bret Bielema after his back-to-back losses to Missouri became the bookends of a 4-10 slide.

Odom is 0-4 against AP Top-25 teams. He is 0-6 against opponents who either made the final 2016 poll, or appeared in the Week-15 ranking this season. Those six teams beat the Tigers by a combined score of 275-111. The most competitive of the meetings was a 26-11 loss at West Virginia to a 2016 Mountaineers team that finished that year ranked 18th. That was Odom’s first game.

I suppose Purdue could wind up ranked when the final poll comes out, thanks to its win against Arizona in the Foster Farms Bowl. That will not help Odom’s case. The Boilermakers spanked the Tigers by 33 points.

(Reminder: The schedule for Odom’s third season cannot be described as friendly. The Tigers travel to Purdue. A Memphis team that just won 10 games is also on the slate, along with a trip to Alabama.)

Losing to Texas did more than squelch Mizzou’s momentum. It reintroduced familiar issues. Concerning issues.

Senseless penalties marred field position. Fundamental errors, such as poor ball security and a misplaced snap, produced turnovers. A truly bizarre tendency to start games in lackadaisical manner once again cost Mizzou.

As you watched the bowl game, how many times did you feel like you had already witnessed it?

The departure of offensive coordinator Josh Heupel and offensive line coach Glen Elarbee did not force these mistakes. Neither did the Longhorns.

Far too often Odom’s players hurt themselves. And Odom has not yet found an answer in his search to stop it. That has to change.

The Tigers committed 96 penalties this season. Only 11 teams in the nation topped that. Against FBS opponents, Mizzou averaged 7.5 penalties a game. Florida (4-7) and Ole Miss (6-6) were the only two SEC teams with higher averages.

The Tigers’ final turnover margin checked in at minus-eight. That was worst in the SEC. And against winning FBS teams, that margin sank to a stunning mark of minus-14.

It should not go unnoticed that two of the games the Tigers looked most unprepared for this season — a comeback win against FCS Missouri State and the Texas Bowl loss — came after Odom had the most amount of time to prepare his team. That’s on the coach.

Odom has an offensive coordinator to hire. He must figure out if his All-SEC quarterback is returning. He can still make up ground in recruiting before the second signing period.

He has a lot to sell. His team took a small step forward in his second season. A modest extension temporarily pressed pause on negative recruiting related to his job security. If Lock makes the right call and returns for his senior season, this offense is loaded with talent moving forward.

But until Odom finds a way to iron out his team’s tendency to help its opponent, he will have a hard time winning the kind of games that could win over his critics.

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