It may not have been an unexpected development, but coach Gary Pinkel's belief in what it takes to win in college football was reaffirmed during his team's first season in the SEC back in 2012.
"The SEC is what I thought it was going to be. It's a line of scrimmage league," he said at the 2013 SEC Media Days. "Offensively, defensive line, I don't care what skill positions you have, you got to be good up front. I knew that going in… The really good teams are best up front. [That's] the difference in the SEC."
For those who doubt the coach's assertion, a simple comparison between the 2012 and 2013 Missouri Tigers should quell any uncertainties.
In 2012, the o-line was so badly ravaged by injuries that the five projected starters made just 23 of the possible 60 starts at their designated positions. The constant shuffling of personnel prevented the front five from ever developing any sort of chemistry and played a significant role in the team's 5-7 finish, which was low-lighted by its 356.4 yards of total offense per game and 29 sacks allowed (206 yards lost).
A year later, the Tigers managed to evade the injury bug and kept their entire offensive line in tact for all but two games. The results? A 12-2 finish, 490.7 yards of total offense per game and just 27 total sacks (159 yards lost). As a unit, Mizzou's offensive line ranked 13th in opportunity rate (percentage of carries in which the offensive line produces at least five yards of rushing for the runner) at 45.5 percent and boasted a stuff rate of just 15.9 percent (runs where runner is tackled at or behind the line of scrimmage). Having a new offensive coordinator in Josh Henson and his fresh approach (tightened the gaps along the front line and utilized the tight end as an extra blocker) certainly helped, but the value of the continuity developed amongst the five offensive linemen cannot be overstated.
2013 will be the season folks remember as the one that represented a significant step forward for the Mizzou football team, but that should not discount the importance of the disaster that was 2012. For as bad and as frustrating as that season was, it allowed some of the younger linemen—namely Evan Boehm and Mitch Morse—to get involved with the offense earlier than expected. That year, Boehm, a true freshman, and Morse, a redshirt sophomore, gained some much needed and extremely beneficial experience.
"Our offensive line—all inexperienced players, [who] got that great experience [in 2012]—I certainly expect to be better," Pinkel said ahead of the 2013 season. "I think if we stay healthy, we'll stack up… I think we can be very competitive."
2012 was the year for Boehm and Morse, 2013 was the year for Mitch McGovern and Anthony Gatti.
Despite how bad things may look on paper with the departures of Justin Britt and Max Copeland, four of Mizzou's five (projected) starters along the front line have previous starting experience, which should soften (if not completely negate) any drop off due to personnel changes.
Boehm, a 6-foot-3, 315-pound junior out of Lee's Summit, Mo., is the most experienced of the group, having started in all 26 games of his collegiate career. After spending the entirety of his freshman season at left guard, the highly-touted recruit was moved to center prior to the start of the 2013 campaign. Despite never having played the position before, the third team preseason All-SEC selection has developed into an all-conference caliber center.
"Just being able to have the trust of coach Pinkel, putting me into the center position even though I've never played that position before, you could see the trust factor was there," he explained. "Last year, I was earning that new position, so I was a little unconfident, a little unsure about some things. Going into this year, I just have to go out there with confidence and work and be more physical than I was last year."
Flanking Boehm at the two tackle positions are Morse and McGovern. Both players started in every game last season, but enter this season at different positions. Morse, who has started in 25 of his last 26 games, is being moved from right to left tackle (he was moved from center to the outside entering 2013), while McGovern is being shifted from guard to tackle on the right side.
Reorganizing the tackles created space at guard for Mitch Hall (73) and Gatti, Mizzou's two most inexperienced linemen.
A 2012 transfer from Ole Miss, Hall opens camp as the starting right guard. He played in 13 of 14 games in 2013, but logged the majority of his time on special teams.
His counterpart, Gatti, was moved to guard during last season. Known primarily for his run-blocking abilities, he stepped in for the injured Copeland last season against Indiana and Arkansas State. The redshirt senior appeared to be ready to compete with him for the starting job, but turf toe derailed his season and kept him behind Copeland on the depth chart.
"You've got Mitch Morse, Connor McGovern—who started last year—and me that are really going to anchor down the offensive line this year," Boehm said at SEC Media Days. "You have Anthony Gatti who is a redshirt senior that's been around the program for a while [and] you have Mitch Hall, who is a transfer from Ole Miss that sat out a year, but has had a couple years to learn the program, step in at the two guard spots. They've done a great job this offseason and the spring of learning the offense, everything to do and how we do it on the offensive line."
Considering the situation at receiver, it will be interesting to see how Pinkel and Hill utilize tight end Sean Culkin in the offense. As was mentioned earlier, Hill likes to utilize the tight end as an extra blocker, but given Culkin's background as a receiver and the potential deficiencies at that position, he may be forced to alter his approach.
That being said, Pinkel raved about the sophomore's improved blocking abilities following the Black and Gold game.
"His blocking has improved tremendously and he has really great hands," Pinkel said. "He has a block on one of his hands because he has a cast on because he broke it. He is catching the ball pretty well with a cast on. The good news is that cast is going to come off and he is still doing a lot of good things."
Next: Scouting the Special Teams
An overview of our entire 2014 Mizzou football preview can be found here.
Brian Haenchen is a three-sport columnist for InsideSTL. You can follow him on Twitter: @Brian_Haenchen.