Returning Starters: 12: Offense (5), Defense (5), kicker, punter
Key departures: TE Michael Egnew (second on the Tigers in receptions and yards, Miami Dolphins 3rd round pick), SS Kenji Jackson (Led team in interceptions, fourth in tackles), DT Dominique Hamilton (First-team Big 12 tackle, Oakland Raiders undrafted free agent), RG Austin Wuebbels (Denver Broncos undrafted free agent), DE Jacquies Smith (team-leading 5.0 sacks, Miami Dolphins undrafted free agent), WR Wes Kemp (Five touchdowns on 29 receptions), OT Dan Hoch (New Orleans Saints undrafted free agent)
Player to watch offense: Quarterback James Franklin - While the Tigers immerse themselves into the treacherous SEC, they do so at least knowing they have a multi-talented signal caller to lead the way. Well, at least they hope so anyways. Franklin, a duel-threat quarterback who accumulated 3,846 total yards -- more than any other returning player in the conference -- and 36 total touchdowns, must return from surgery this spring after he tore his labrum in his right shoulder early in camp. The junior had a breakout campaign in 2011, running a dynamic read-option and leading the Tigers' spread offense. Despite losing Egnew, Franklin has a deep pool of wide outs to target, including former Rivals.com No. 1 recruit Dorial Green-Beckham. With Georgia, Arizona State and South Carolina all on the early season slate, Missouri needs Franklin to be healthy so that its season doesn't sink before its SEC run even starts. Redshirt freshman Corbin Berkstresser took the majority of the snaps this spring and would start should Franklin be unable to play early.
Player to watch defense: Defensive end Brad Madison - The senior pass rusher was second on the Tigers in sacks in 2011 with 4.5, but the end played the entire year with a torn labrum. Madison has struggled with injuries over his career -- he sprained his knee this spring following shoulder surgery -- but in 2010 he was an All-Big 12 performer after leading the Tigers in quarterback takedowns (8.0). As Missouri's only returning starter on the defensive line, the Tigers desperately need Madison to regain his productivity and kick-start their average pass rushing front.
2012 Outlook: Consistently competitive; Missouri isn't going to win the SEC East in its inaugural season in the conference, but it will have a real impact on who does capture the Eastern crown. The Tigers have won at least eight games for six straight seasons, but to continue the streak in 2012 they must overcome a rash of injuries and a brutal schedule. Franklin and Madison are not the only key Tigers who spent most of the spring on the training table; Thousand-yard rusher Henry Josey (nine touchdowns too) is likely to miss the year after tearing his knee against Texas last season; Starting defensive tackle Marvin Foster tore his ACL this spring; Eric Waters was expected to replace Egnew but he tore his MCL during camp too. Truly, the list goes on. The loss of Foster really hurts, as depth at tackle was already limited and Foster was expected to slide in with Sheldon Richardson and replace Hamilton's run-stuffing production. While the Tigers have a multitude of skilled receivers and backs, their introduction to the SEC may depend on how well their undersized fronts hold up. Missouri's offensive line returns three starters, but the majority of linemen are less than 300 pounds. Defensively, the Tigers just don't have the girth up the middle that the elite teams in the conference possess. Missouri will pester teams all season and should be bowl eligible by year's end, but it will have to pull a few upsets to finish with a winning record in 2012.
Level of Difficultly for the Gators (*based on ranking schedule 1-12, one being the hardest): 8 … Although Missouri finished 2011 on a flurry -- four straight wins including a rout of North Carolina in the Independence Bowl -- 2012's final month looks to be much harder to replicate, starting with a road date against Florida on Nov. 3. The Tigers were just 1-4 away from Memorial Stadium last year, and in November they have three conference road games (Florida, Tennessee and Texas A&M). The Swamp will be the most raucous SEC environment Missouri plays in all season, and its game against UF will be its first conference road game in six weeks. According to Phil Steele, the two teams have a very brief history, and in the only meeting the Tigers dropped the Gators 20-18 in the 1965 Sugar Bowl. Florida will have faced Georgia in Jacksonville the week before, but hangover or not, the Gators will still be solid favorites against Mizzou.
Gators' chances of winning: 68%