Staying on top might be even more of a challenge.
The Tigers lost a huge chunk of their team after finishing 12-2 last season, including 7-1 in the SEC. Only nine starters return, including just four on offense.
But new starting quarterback Maty Mauk was confident during Missouri’s appearance at SEC media days Wednesday. In his mind, this is no rebuilding year for the Tigers.
“People can say and do what they want, but we know what we have,” Mauk said. “We have playmakers. We have an offensive line that is healthy coming back. We have a quarterback with experience and we have a defense that — people think we lost Kony (Ealy) and (Michael Sam) — but they obviously haven’t watched Shane (Ray) and Markus Golden and Charles Harris.”
Mauk earned quite a bit of experience last season as a redshirt freshman when starter James Franklin went down with an injury, making four starts and throwing for 1,071 yards, 11 touchdowns and just two interceptions. He also rushed for 229 yards and a touchdown.
Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said he wasn’t surprised Mauk played so well in difficult SEC environments last season and expects rapid improvement this fall. He’ll have three experienced lineman blocking for him, which should help.
“(Mauk’s) a winner. Players know it,” Pinkel said. “He’s a remarkable competitor. They know it. They respect the way he leads because he leads in a very, very positive way.”
There are some questions about who will be Mauk’s primary targets this season in the passing game. The team’s top returning receiver — junior Dorial Green-Beckham — was dismissed from the team in April.
Bud Sasser is the most experienced receiver returning. The 6-foot-2, 210-pound senior caught 26 passes for 361 yards and a touchdown last season.
But even with the question marks, Missouri enters the season with nearly universal respect across the league after they made their impressive run through the Eastern Division. The Tigers lost to Auburn in the SEC championship game.
Pinkel said recruiting has improved and the experience was “tremendously positive.”
“But this is a new year,” Pinkel said. “It’s a great challenge. We want to continue to compete at a high level. That’s our challenge this year as we go into year number three.”