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2016 season preview: Missouri Tigers

A new era begins in Missouri football with head coach Barry Odom taking over the program after Gary Pinkel, the program’s winningest head coach, retired. What’s in store for the Tigers this season? We take a look by continuing our weeklong series of SEC team previews with a glance at Mizzou:

Key question heading into Week 1: How much improvement can be expected of the Tigers’ offense? The Tigers were dismal last season, averaging a meager 13.5 points per game (126th nationally). And entering this season, there are still numerous unanswered questions because of the sheer number of new or unproven players. The offensive line will be full of new faces. Key pass-catchers like J’Mon Moore, Nate Brown (though Brown will miss the early part of the season with an injury) and tight end Sean Culkin are back but the leading returning receiver is Moore, who had only 29 catches. Ish Witter is back at running back, but has to improve on his team-high 518 rushing yards. And Drew Lock, who was thrown into the fire as a true freshman at quarterback, must show that he’s learned from the rough-and-tumble debut season he had behind center. Newcomers such as Chris Black (receiver), Alex Ross (running back) and Tyler Howell (left tackle) are among those who will be counted upon to help lift the offense.

Most important player: Lock. A lot of offensive issues can be solved by strong quarterback play and the Tigers have to hope Lock can bring that. It was hard to expect much from him after being thrown into the lineup abruptly following a Maty Mauk suspension last season and the numbers bare out how tough it was (49 percent completion rate, four touchdowns to eight interceptions, five yards per pass attempt). His supporting cast has to help him but if he can make some great throws and create some big plays, it’ll help the Tigers get on the scoreboard. The addition of a former college quarterback, Josh Heupel, as the Tigers' offensive coordinator could benefit Lock in the confidence department.

Breakout player: Terry Beckner Jr. He was the nation’s No. 2 overall recruit in the 2015 class for a reason, because he’s immensely gifted. He had a solid debut season for Mizzou, appearing in 10 games, starting five and compiling 8.5 tackles for loss, three sacks, a pass breakup and a fumble recovery. A knee injury cut his season short in mid-November. This season, he’ll probably see even more field time after the Tigers lost two defensive linemen to dismissal before training camp (Walter Brady and Harold Brantley).

Star watch: Charles Harris is already a legitimate star for this team, an All-SEC caliber defensive lineman and the team's best defensive player. He was a second-team All-SEC choice last season and if he increases his 18.5 tackles for loss and seven sacks, he could be headed for a first-team selection this postseason. Others who could wind up as All-SEC players this season include cornerback Aarion Penton, who had a team-high eight pass breakups last season, and linebacker Michael Scherer, the second on the team in tackles last season (90) behind tackling machine Kentrell Brothers.

Make-or-break stretch: The quartet of games spanning mid-September to mid-October will be a telling one for the Tigers. Three of the four games from Sept. 17-Oct. 15 are games against preseason ranked SEC teams. It starts with Mizzou hosting Georgia on Sept. 17, followed by a home game vs. FCS Delaware State, then the Tigers go to LSU on Oct. 1 followed by a road trip to Florida two weeks later.

Best-case scenario: If the defense is as good or better than it was last year and the offense takes a big step forward -- offensive line comes together, Lock takes a big leap, skill position players produce significantly more -- this team will go back to a bowl and perhaps approach eight wins, a solid start to the Odom era. It’s hard to ask for much more than that because the schedule is tough with road games at LSU, Florida and Tennessee. If they’re to have a chance to win eight, the Tigers need to win the season opener at West Virginia.

Worst-case scenario: If the offense can’t come together and experiences a repeat of 2015 production, another losing season might be in the cards. The Tigers were tied for last in the SEC East a season ago and they can’t climb out of the cellar until they put more points on the board.