BenFred: Title-game thriller a preview of Mizzou’s daunting 2018 schedule

January 9, 2018 GMT

Go ahead and circle it: Saturday, October 13.

The Missouri football team’s first date with Alabama since the 2014 SEC championship is now a clash with the defending national champs.

And here’s the thing.

You can’t say for sure that this road trip to Tuscaloosa will be toughest game on Barry Odom’s plate in 2018.

That’s no knock on Bama. The Crimson Tide just won its fifth title in nine years under college coaching legend Nick Saban. And Alabama did it after yanking starting quarterback Jalen Hurts at halftime, and inserting true freshman Tua Tagovailoa, who became The Man the second he threw a game-winning pass in overtime to fellow freshman DeVonta Smith. Yes, Alabama’s leading passer (Tagovailoa), receiver (Smith) and rusher (Najee Harris) in the national championship win were all freshmen. Mercy.

Alabama won, but we learned a lot about Georgia, didn’t we? Second-year Bulldogs coach Kirby Smart took his old boss to overtime and made him pull out what was perhaps the most onion-y (think Bill Raftery) in-game coaching decision of Saban’s career before the Bulldogs lost in overtime.

“We’re not going anywhere,” Smart said after the 26-23 overtime loss, and there is no reason do doubt him. The fumbling, bumbling SEC East has found its top dog. It comes to CoMo on September 22, three weeks before the Tigers head to Alabama.

In between, the Tigers face South Carolina. On the road. In Will Muschamp’s second season in the other Columbia, the Gamecocks grabbed nine wins and beat Michigan in the Outback Bowl. Their only losses once the calendar turned to October came to Clemson and Georgia. Not bad.

Kentucky was a bowl team for the second consecutive year. Vanderbilt is the only SEC team on the Tigers’ 2018 schedule that had a losing season and kept its coach. Former Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen will win at Florida. Former Saban coordinator Jeremy Pruitt will try to replicate Smart’s magic at Tennessee, and you get the sense he will either be wildly successful or a massive failure; at Tennessee there is no in between. Former SMU coach Chad Morris’ offense has SEC West rival Arkansas dreaming big.

Also on the docket for Mizzou in 2018:

Wyoming: The Cowboys finished the season 8-3 after a convincing bowl win against Central Michigan. The good news for Mizzou is draft darling quarterback Josh Allen has declared for the NFL draft.

Purdue: Losing to the Boilermakers 35-3 last season taught the Tigers everything they need to know about what Jeff Brohm has rolling at Purdue. This time, the Tigers have to go to West Lafayette, Ind. Purdue finished the season 7-6 after win against Arizona in the Foster Farms Bowl, and ended the season on a three-game winning streak that included wins against Iowa, Indiana and the Wildcats.

Memphis: Odom’s old team finished 10-3. And it could have been a 12-win season. The other Tigers came oh-so-close to knocking off undefeated Central Florida (62-55 double-overtime loss) in the American Athletic Conference title game. Then they lost to Iowa State 21-20 in the Liberty Bowl.

It does not diminish the Tigers’ season-defining, six-game win streak to note that the schedule helped it happen. As we look forward, there does not appear to be much relief scheduled for Odom’s third season.

The only real cupcake is the season opener against FCS opponent Austin Peay.

The Governors, by the way, snapped a 29-game losing streak in 2017. Then they finished 8-4. Then head coach Will Healy was named FCS national coach of the year.

Even the cupcake has muscles.