If the Texas Longhorns’ journey to the Academy Sports + Outdoors Texas Bowl was tumultuous, then the Missouri Tigers’ was as turbulent as the trip across the ocean in Yann Martel’s “Life of Pi.”
Texas started its season 3-3. Missouri, under second year head coach Barry Odom, began with an even worse mark.
“I wouldn’t recommend starting 1-5,” Odom said at Tuesday’s Texas Bowl press luncheon. “That wasn’t really good on everybody.”
But Odom and his Tigers were able to turn it around. After losing to No. 4 Georgia in Athens on October 14, the Tigers rattled off six straight wins. Two came against out-of-conference foes (including one that is dropping to FCS next season), one was against a last place finisher in its division (Arkansas), and three more came against SEC East teams that combined to go 4-20.
Odom joked that what he did to get the team going is information for sale.
“I’m going to sell that, what we changed, for $19.99,” Odom said. “If you call now, you can buy one, get one free. We’ll see how that goes in the offseason.”
On a more serious note, Odom noted that they didn’t change a lot in the program. Rather, they stuck with what they had until they began to break through.
“We’ve got a really good group of kids that were bought in together, that cared about each other, that knew we were doing a lot of things in our program the right way,” Odom said. “We were getting so close to breaking down the wall. We weren’t playing really good on Saturdays. The things that they continued to do, their practice habits were exactly the way we needed them to be. Their preparation was getting close to what it needed to be to put us in position to play successful.”
As in “Life of Pi,” Odom navigated through the worst of the season and began to reshape it into a brighter possibility, but major challenges still remain for Odom and his staff going into the bowl. His former offensive coordinator, Josh Heupel, replaced the departing Scott Frost at the University of Central Florida.
When asked about who is calling plays, Odom joked that any successful play should be credited to him. However, once again returning to a serious note, he mentioned that there really was not a whole lot of change over the course of bowl practices with the departure of his primary playcaller.
Odom did announce Joe Jon Finley, the Tigers’ tight ends coach, would be the playcaller for the Texas Bowl.
“Credit to them, they’ve done a heck of a job of stepping up,” Odom said about his offensive staff. “Everybody’s got a little more on their plate when we have coaching departures. It’s the name of the game. I wouldn’t say we’ll really see any noticeable change in what we’re doing offensively as far as the playcalls go.”
Not only are the Tigers preparing to play Texas, they’re also preparing to play in Texas. The Tigers are officially the home team, and the game is in Houston rather than at Darrell K. Royal – Texas Memorial Stadium in Austin. Still, with the proximity to the Longhorns’ home, and the base of Texas fans that is in Houston, Odom was clear he knew what the landscape in NRG Stadium would look like.
“I know well enough on where we are geographically on how many people are going to be in the stands and what colors they’re going to be wearing,” Odom said. “We’ve talked about that. One thing with our program and with our team and this group of guys, and every team’s different, but we deal with each other because we’ve built such true and trusting relationships. We deal in fact and then honesty. We know where the game is.
“We’re excited to have that opportunity to step in this environment, one of the greatest environments maybe to play the game of football.”
Despite playing the Longhorns in Texas, the team that marches onto the NRG Stadium turf on Wednesday will be different than the one Odom has studied in film. It will be without Thorpe Award finalist DeShon Elliott, other early entrants Connor Williams and Holton Hill (who would have been suspended for this game), transfer Chris Warren, and suspended players Lil’Jordan Humphrey, Toneil Carter, and Garrett Gray.
Malik Jefferson, who has not made an official statement on his future, was not expected to be available for the Longhorns according to Texas head coach Tom Herman.
Despite all these players out or possibly out for the Longhorns, Odom still sees a lot of things that will carry over regardless of personnel. “You stick true to what you see on film,” he said.
“We feel like we’ve done a really good job gameplanning on who we think that they are,” Odom said. “You look at the bowl game, and most of them, you’ve got about 15 opportunities to go through and change some things on either side of the ball. We’ve made some slight adjustments like we do week to week. I’m sure they’ve done the same thing.”
Odom admitted he prepared for both of Texas’ two quarterbacks, Shane Buechele and Sam Ehlinger, and Herman has mentioned repeatedly both are likely to play.
“Anybody that’s playing multiple quarterbacks, you’ve got to prepare, obviously, to see both of them,” Odom said. “I think we will. That’s happened throughout the course of season in our conference that we’ve seen some of that. You also know that your calls don’t vary too much. You’ve just got to be aware of how you call it with which quarterback is in.”
While Texas has a murky quarterback situation, Odom’s is much clearer. Junior Drew Lock leads the nation in touchdown passes and is part of an explosive offense Texas players said reminded them of some of the ones they saw during Big 12 play.
When asked what makes Lock the effective quarterback he is, Odom could only heap praise on the junior.
“He’s got a tremendous football IQ,” Odom said. “He understands what we’re trying to do offensively. He’s got a good grasp on when we get a certain coverage, on where we need to go with the football, or that we check the play that gets us into a run-option that will help us a little bit more. All those things have to do with number one, he’s a tremendous competitor.
“He wants to be great, and there’s not anybody in our building that has outworked him in his preparation in trying to lead this football program to wins.”
Overall, this is a chance for Odom to turn a season that started into disaster into one with a much happier ending, and not just one of his survival.
“We’ve got an opportunity to go play one more game together,” Odom said. “That means the world to me and it means an awful to the 115 guys that we’ve got that make up our (football team) and our athletic program.”