Phil Steele has written the "Phil Steele College Football Preview" for 24 years. This year's preview is 352 pages, which includes two-page spreads on all 129 teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision, four preseason All-American teams, nine different Power Rankings and predictions on the order-of-finish for all 10 FBS conferences. Steele correctly predicted all four teams — and all three results — in last year's College Football Playoff.
The Tribune's Garrick Hodge and Daniel Jones spoke with Steele over the phone Tuesday to talk about Missouri's long- and short-term place in the Southeastern Conference, Drew Lock's senior season and the SEC team most likely to crash an SEC Championship Game between overwhelming division favorites Alabama and Georgia. Their conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: There’s been a lot of talk going into this year about what makes a successful season for Mizzou. Last year there was a pretty easily identifiable goal and that was make it to a bowl game, something they haven’t done in a couple years. Now they’ve hit that milestone. For Missouri in the SEC, now that they’ve been there for couple years and have had a chance to feel it out, what do you feel like is a successful season for Mizzou in the SEC or a reasonable expectation for them in the league going forward?
I think for Missouri to really count it as a successful season, they would have to be second or at least third in the East. Contend in the big games. Play with the big boys, like Georgia. There are some games — you look at the schedule this year, Missouri figures to be a ‘dog (underdog) maybe in four SEC games, and maybe those are the only four games they’ll be a ‘dog in all year, or possibly the Purdue game after what Purdue did in Columbia. I think second or third in the East would make for a successful season for Missouri this year, but I’ll tell you this — there’s been years where Missouri has far exceeded my expectations.
Q: New offensive coordinator, new pro-style offense for Drew Lock. You’ve been pretty high on him, have him as the fifth-rated quarterback in the nation. What do you think this pro-style offense is going to do for Drew Lock this year?
You know, the good thing is he’s sort of a student of the game. He’s a leader of the team. I think he’ll pick up the offense pretty quickly. I don’t know that he’s going to put up the same passing stats that he has — the 44 touchdown passes last year, almost 4,000 yards passing — but I think he’ll pick up the offense pretty well and do well with it.
Q: How does that affect his draft stock? … How does a lower output statistically compare to getting more NFL concepts in his senior season?
As long as it’s not drastically lower — let’s say he drops to 3,200 yards passing and 35 touchdowns in the new offense — I think it would be a huge positive for him. When I do talk to NFL scouts, and I talk to a bunch of them and NFL guys like Gil Brandt, Mel Kiper, Todd McShay, Phil Savage, those type of people, everybody talks about the fact that you pretty much discount your Washington State quarterbacks, your Texas Tech quarterbacks and guys who don’t take a snap from center. In fact, for some it was a surprise that Baker Mayfield got drafted No. 1 overall after not being in that offense. I think that’s more the exception rather than the rule. There is a big discount that’s applied when you only take snaps out of the shotgun in college.
Q: The local consensus here, I think, on Barry Odom is indifferent — I should say, from a fan’s perspective. From a national perspective, what’s your opinion on the job he’s done for the last two years?
The thing that impressed me about last year was the 1-5 start, then you saw the press conference where he said, “We’re going to be fine, I think we’re going to do well, we’re going to come out well.” You’re thinking, yeah, whatever. Then to go and win and actually get the team to win six straight games and get to a bowl game, I thought was huge. I have to tell you, midseason, I was wondering, what the heck is going on? Why is he having press conferences like this? When the season was over, it was like, “Hm. This guy did a pretty good job.”
Q: A lot of experts project Alabama to play Georgia in the SEC Championship Game… but if there’s going to be an SEC team most likely to disrupt that, which team do you think that would be?
It’s going to surprise you a little, because I picked them third in the East, and that’s South Carolina. Quarterback-wise, Jake Bentley’s back. He’s now a junior. Rico Dowdle last year was their top running back and he went out — he got four starts, he was injured. Then their playmaker, Deebo Samuel: kick returner, punt returner, wide receiver, their go-to-guy, he went out after three starts. So without their top-two playmakers a good portion of the year, they struggled a little offensively. Defensively, they looked good. When I talked to Coach (Will) Muschamp this year, I like what I see out of the defense. All three units come out pretty good. Then you look at when they play Georgia. They play in the second game of the season. The thing about Georgia is they’re not as experienced as last year. Last year they had 10 returning starters on defense, they had (Nick) Chubb and (Sony) Michel in the backfield. They were actually No. 13 in my experience chart. This year they’re No. 80 in my experience chart. While they rank in my top units in all eight position categories, this will be the first road game for a fairly young team. South Carolina is a veteran team at home. They’re going to go come into that one confident, especially after playing Georgia tough in the last two years. They were down by seven in the fourth quarter in both games. If somebody’s going to knock off Georgia in the East, I think it’s going to be South Carolina in that game. Then South Carolina could still afford to lose a game in the SEC as the season went on and still win the East. As far as Alabama goes, I think they’re going to be a double-digit favorite in every game this year, so I’m not calling for them to lose.
Q: Last year you had Missouri as the 71st-toughest schedule in the nation, and now they’re up to the 27th-toughest. Do you think a lot of that comes from their non-conference this year? (In 2017, the Tigers’ non-conference opponents were Missouri State, Purdue, Idaho and Connecticut. In 2018, Missouri will play Tennessee-Martin, Purdue, Wyoming and Memphis.)
Yes. That is precisely it. You look at Purdue, Purdue was a bowl team last year — playing them on the road is tough. I think also drawing Alabama out of the West makes it a pretty tough test. Where they play the teams is tough, as well. Having to play Florida on the road, Tennessee on the road, is tough. Five fairly tough road games this year. The schedule is not easy for Missouri.
Q: Who would you say is the best player in the SEC this year, in terms of their talent level and what they bring to the field?
It’s tough to pick just one, but if I had to pick one out, let’s go with AJ Brown of Ole Miss. I think he’s a difference-maker at the receiving corps. He’s going to have himself a big year at Ole Miss. It’s not one of the marquee teams, but if you’re looking for a guy that to me stands out as a Biletnikoff (Award) finalist, it would probably be him. But there are so many good players. I could pick a second-team or a third-team SEC guy and he could eventually be there. It’s loaded with NFL players throughout.
Q: Who would you say was the best player in the SEC last season?
I’m gonna have to go with… you guys ask some tough (questions). I’m going to go with Devin White out of LSU. I thought he had a heck of a year from the linebacker position and he averaged 133 tackles for the season.
Q: Two quick questions for you… we want you to set an over/under for wins for Missouri and Kansas this season.
For Missouri this year, I’m going to have to put it at eight. I think eight’s a legitimate number for them. I would have them be an underdog home against Georgia, at South Carolina, at Alabama and at Florida. I think Florida is going to be a much-improved team this year, but I could see Missouri favored in all the rest of their games. Kansas, wow. I’m going to have to say for Kansas — last year wasn’t their number 1½ for Kansas at the beginning of the year? I’m going to put it at two for Kansas.