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March 8, 2011

With Nebraska gone, is Missouri's time now?

The Missouri Tigers just have a problem with timing.

For example, after losing to Oklahoma in the '07 and '08 Big 12 championship games, the Tigers finally beat OU last season. Alas, it wasn't in the conference title game. That 36-27 victory over the Sooners was followed by a 31-17 loss to Nebraska, which ended up representing the North Division in the final (for now, at least) Big 12 championship game.

Nebraska won't be in the Big 12 next season, so the Tigers won't have to clear that obstacle. There's another timing issue.

Oklahoma still looms as the team to beat for the Big 12 championship. With a bevy of proven starters returning, Missouri should be a threat to the Sooners -- if the Tigers' quarterback situation stabilizes this spring.

Missouri is without Blaine Gabbert, who passed for more than 3,000 yards in consecutive seasons, then left early for the NFL draft. And this isn't a good time for the Tigers to be starting over with a new quarterback.

Here's a look at Mizzou as it gets ready to open spring practice.

James Franklin will try to win the starting quarterback job in the spring.
Coach: Gary Pinkel
Last season: 10-3 overall, 6-2 in the Big 12 North. Lost 27-24 to Iowa in the Insight Bowl.
Spring dates: March 8-April 16.
(minimum seven starts last season)
Offense (9): TE Michael Egnew, T Elvis Fisher, T Dan Hoch, WR Jerrell Jackson, WR Wes Kemp, WR T.J. Moe, TB De'Vion Moore, G Jayson Palmgren, G Austin Wuebbels.
Defense (6): LB Will Ebner, LB Zaviar Gooden, NT Dominique Hamilton, SS Kenji Jackson, E Jacquies Smith, T Terrell Resonno.
Special teams (1): K Grant Ressel.
Positions of strength

Missouri was productive offensively in '10 and four full-time starters return along the line. Last season, the Tigers gave up 22 sacks on 512 pass plays. That's one sack for every 23.3 attempts. Not bad. Defensive end also is in good shape despite Aldon Smith's decision to declare for the NFL draft. The Tigers have good depth there, and Jacquies Smith earned All-Big 12 recognition last season for posting 10 tackles for loss, including 5.5 sacks. K Grant Ressel should be one of the best in the nation at his position.

Help is needed

The Tigers need to upgrade their run defense in general and the defensive tackle position in particular. Missouri was vulnerable in the middle after NT Dominique Hamilton broke his ankle midway through the season. In the second half of the season, the Tigers allowed an average of 198.5 rushing yards and allowed four players to have their highest rushing output of the season. Hamilton's availability in spring drills will be limited at best. Blaine Gabbert's decision to enter the NFL draft leaves a huge question at quarterback. The secondary needs three new starters.

Guys to watch

CB Kip Edwards: Missouri needs to replace both starting corners, and Edwards should fill one of the vacancies. He showed good coverage skills last season, when he had an interception and broke up six passes.

QBs James Franklin and Tyler Gabbert: Both came to Missouri last year as four-star prospects. Franklin is a dual threat who backed up Blaine Gabbert last season and was 11-of-14 passing for 106 yards. Tyler Gabbert has a quick release and good pocket presence. This should be one of the more interesting quarterback competitions in the country.

WR Marcus Lucas: He arrived last year as a highly regarded four-star prospect with good speed and great size (6 feet 5/205 pounds). As a freshman, he caught three passes for 23 yards, but he could develop into the big-play threat the Tigers lacked last season.

The pressure is on

WR Rolandis Woodland: He showed promise during his redshirt season two years ago, but it hasn't transferred onto the field. Woodland has managed just five catches in back-to-back seasons and still hasn't scored a touchdown. The Tigers return three starting receivers and have a couple of young, rising prospects. Woodland needs to distinguish himself this spring so he won't be forgotten this fall.

The buzz

Missouri has had a nice run of quarterbacks, from Brad Smith to Chase Daniel to Blaine Gabbert. In fact, in each of the past five seasons, the Tigers' starting quarterback has passed for more than 3,000 yards and Missouri has posted at least eight wins. Obviously, the quarterback competition between Franklin and Tyler Gabbert is the main point of interest in Columbia this spring. Will the offense have to change much with a new, inexperienced quarterback taking over? The Tigers have become one of the top programs in the Big 12. They will need strong quarterback play to stay there.

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.

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