When a coach takes over a major-college football program in some turmoil, the honeymoon phase must include some cutting of slack and benefit of doubt.
First-time head coach Barry Odom surely deserved that a year ago when he inherited a University of Missouri team coming off a 5-7 season, the abrupt retirement of Gary Pinkel and fallout from multiple angles of the 2015 player boycott during campus protests of racial harassment.
And, yes, he really does deserve that fundamental sense of being given a chance even after a miserable 31-13 loss to South Carolina on Saturday at Memorial Stadium.
But at least for right now, that feels more like something you hope can work out but can’t expect, more about wishful thinking than unshakable faith in Odom.
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Because if you came here looking forward to seeing demonstrable progress from a year ago, it wasn’t apparent in any meaningful or tangible way.
Instead of just giving us something to work with here, MU self-destructed in every aspect of the game against the Southeastern Conference team it appeared best-equipped to beat this season.
A vaunted offense that scored 72 points a week ago mustered 13 against a Gamecocks team that allowed 28 to North Carolina State in the opener.
Drew Lock, who threw for 521 yards and seven touchdowns the week before, connected on just 14 of 32 passes for 245 yards and offset his touchdown pass with a crucial interception.
It didn’t help that he had at least four passes dropped, including one for a late touchdown.
The highly suspect defense that surrendered 43 points to Missouri State perhaps improved incrementally, but nowhere near enough.
That was all the more evident when Mizzou on Sunday announced defensive coordinator DeMontie Cross had been “relieved” of his job.
And the special teams were an absolute farce, giving up a 97-yard kickoff return for a touchdown that triggered a game-changing 30-second swing, having a field goal blocked and muffing a punt that enabled the touchdown that put it out of reach.
Not to mention numerous penalties and other gaffes that tilted field position.
Tod Palmer, now the former University of Missouri beat writer, and KC Star columnist Vahe Gregorian discuss the Tigers' 31-13 loss Sept. 9, 2017, against South Carolina at Memorial Stadium in Columbia.Tod Palmer The Kansas City Star
So you could see why Odom would slap the podium when he arrived for a postgame news conference marked by him trying to contain his fury and frustration — casting his eyes downward as he absorbed questions, cracking his neck, sighing and just about twitching with anger.
“Bad,” he said with disgust one time.
“Poor,” he said another.
Then it all came together in one little burst when he was asked about the bruised tailbone suffered by tailback Damarea Crockett.
“Mine was bruised, too,” Odom said. “It’s called a (butt)-kicking.”
In testimony to Odom’s admirable candor, he asked a reporter following up on the special teams’ topic “which one do you want me to talk about?”
After going through the list again, he added, “That’s sloppy, that’s focus, that’s coaching, that’s detail, that’s habits.”
Nothing really spoke to the state of the union like that did, and that’s a tough platform to work from when the rest of the SEC schedule plays out like this:
The remaining conference home games are against No. 13 Auburn, No. 22 Florida and No. 25 Tennessee. On the road, the Tigers will play at Kentucky, No. 15 Georgia, Vanderbilt and Arkansas.
Yes, Kentucky struggled Saturday to beat Eastern Kentucky 27-16, but the Wildcats beat MU 35-21 last year in Columbia.
And as of Saturday night there’s nothing that suggests the Tigers are better off than they were a year ago (4-8 and 2-6 in the SEC) even as they try to look ahead.
It looks different from inside the locker room, of course. And it should, because that’s ultimately the only place where this can get changed.
“I don’t necessarily think this performance (was) do or die on us going to a bowl game or even being a contender at the end of the year for the (SEC) East,” Lock said.
But for those of us outside, if you care to sift for any conciliatory or optimistic points in all this, it’s true that MU didn’t look outclassed physically …
That is, other than by returner/receiver Deebo Samuel, to whom Tucker McCann inexplicably kicked off directly in the middle of the field to allow Samuel to uncork the return that reversed the momentum of a game Missouri was leading 10-0.
Seconds later, he scored the go-ahead touchdown set up by Lock’s ill-considered late sideline throw that was picked off at the MU 25.
Shazam, it was 14-10 South Carolina and the Tigers never really recovered.
Simply don’t make the egregious mistake of kicking to Samuel, who went 97 yards for a TD on the opening kickoff a week before, and the entire script of the game unfolds differently one way or another.
Just the same …
“It’s not ever going to go exactly how you script it, and it’s not ever going to go exactly how you want it,” Odom said. “You’ve got to be mentally tough to win in this league. We’ve got to keep working on that.”
Mental toughness means discipline, which is a funny factor here.
Mizzou didn’t demonstrate a lot of that on Saturday, but it’s also the sort of thing that seems fixable if Odom can reach his team the right way.
That work started anew in the locker room after the game, when Odom said he told the team, “This won’t, this can’t, define us. Or it can. Believe in each other. Lock arms.”
There’s plenty of time to get better, but MU has won just three of its last 17 SEC games now and can’t afford much more of this trend.
So as much as Mizzou fans want Odom to succeed, doubts themselves are creeping up against the benefit of doubt — something that can only change with some semblance of progress soon.
University of Missouri senior defensive end Marcell Frazier ended a three-month media blackout and spoke with reporters after Missouri's 31–13 loss against South Carolina at Memorial Stadium in Columbia on Saturday Sept. 9, 2017.Tod Palmer The Kansas City Star