Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
COLUMBIA, Mo. -- Sean Weatherspoon stops himself just short of saying that the final results of his last two seasons have been a disappointment.
His Missouri team qualified for two-straight Big 12 championship games, but lost convincingly to Oklahoma in the title game to cap both seasons.
With a rash of key personnel losses, few think the Tigers can claim make history as the first North team to make three straight championship game appearances.
Except maybe Weatherspoon and his teammates, whose cause was boosted when the senior linebacker opted to return after flirting with declaring for the NFL draft.
"When I decided to come back, I did so to help our football team," Weatherspoon said. "We still have a lot of great players, but just didn't put it together the way it should have been. This team has the opportunity to do that and over time, hopefully become a better team."
The Tigers lose offensive standouts like Chase Daniel, Chase Coffman and Jeremy Maclin. And their defensive departures will be sizable too, with Stryker Sulak, Ziggy Hood and William Moore among a group of seven starters who won't be back.
But in a balanced North Division without a clear-cut favorite, Weatherspoon thinks the Tigers will be able to confound observers who are already predicting their demise.
"It's great when you are the underdog," Weatherspoon said. "Everybody had said we'd win the North the past two or three years, but we still haven't gotten over the hump yet. With this team, we're going to surprise some people this year."
If they do, Weatherspoon will be a key reason.
He's become the face of the program as his visage adorns ticket promotions and the Tigers' preseason media guide.
But even after a strong finish that featured a 17-tackle effort that earned him the MVP honors in the Tigers' Alamo Bowl victory over Northwestern, Weatherspoon was projected as a third-round draft choice.
That realization was like a cold slap to Weatherspoon and provided some immediate motivation for his senior season.
"As soon as that happened, (Missouri linebackers) coach (Dave) Steckel called me up," Weatherspoon said. "He told me I could go back and show them what I really have by winning the Butkus and proving something to them."
Weatherspoon has returned with a different attitude. He's still the Tigers' most active and vocal leader heading into their Saturday spring game, but also is attacking other areas to help prepare him for the next level.
The most significant area he must improve is in separating himself from offensive linemen. His inability to "shed blockers" in scout speak is the major weakness that keeps him from comparing with potential first-round linebacker picks like Aaron Curry, Clay Matthews and James Laurinaitis.
"I just need to work harder in the weight room and become more diligent in my film study," Weatherspoon said. "I've got to spend more time in the film room and learn tendencies and stuff like that -- just become more of a student of the game."
Steckel, who has since been hired as the Tigers' defensive coordinator, is glad to have Weatherspoon back.
"Sean is a very, very good football player, but he just needs to take care of the little things," Steckel said. "He's intelligent, smart, fast and really knows our defense. Now, he just had to the little intricacies of the position to take him to the next level."
And an inspired Weatherspoon, with the low draft reports as a stimulus, might have a chance to become one of the nation's elite players.
"Knowing Spoon, that will spur him to great things," Steckel said. "Personally, I think he's close to getting to that level anyway. I was the happiest guy in the world when I heard he was coming back."