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December 30, 2009

Powered Up: Gabbert leads the way back

It was the big, huge (6-foot-5 to be exact) elephant in the room prior to the 2009 season.

"A lot of people didn't know how Blaine was going to be this year," Derrick Washington told me recently.

For all the doubters of Missouri football this year-and there was no shortage-there was one major issue. They didn't doubt Missouri football so much as they doubted Blaine Gabbert. The kid had never won at a high level. He had never put up big numbers. He had struck most people as a true leader. As offensive coordinator David Yost said, nobody really knew if he had "it."

Sure, the Tigers lost a lot off their 2008 team. William Moore, Ziggy Hood, Jeremy Maclin, Chase Coffman. On and on. But if Chase Daniel were still the quarterback of this team, I don't think you'd have seen many predictions of fifth in the North or four-win seasons. No, this season, these doubts, were all on Blaine Gabbert.

"Going into Illinois everybody was shaky about what was going to happen," Jerrell Jackson said. " But in our minds, we knew that Blaine could do it."

And do it he did. Gabbert told me he will always think about the three-game losing streak in the middle of the season. That's what quarterbacks do. They're perfectionists. The mistakes hurt far more than the good days are rewarding. But Tiger fans should not lose sight of the fact that there were a whole lot of good days.

Take quick stock of these numbers:

11th in the country in total offense
12th in total passing yards and yards per game
31st in passing efficiency
27th in points responsible for

All these out of a guy that had thrown 13 collegiate passes before the season opener. The numbers get even more impressive when you compare Gabbert to his true peers. Here is where he ranked among freshman or sophomore quarterbacks:

3rd in total offense
3rd in total passing yards
2nd in passing yards per game
8th in passing efficiency
5th in points responsible for

And, oh by the way, Arkansas' Ryan Mallett, the only sophomore ahead of Gabbert in every category, might be going pro after this season.

In other words, what Missouri brings back in 2010 is one of the nation's top returning quarterbacks.

"He's probably in the top three in the Big 12 this year in my opinion," Washington said. "I think next year he's gonna run the table and be the best in the Big 12."

It's not an argument that is all that tough to make. Texas A&M's Jerrod Johnson will be in the discussion. Austen Arnaud, Landry Jones and whoever starts at Texas Tech will be as well. Robert Griffin will be back at Baylor, but he will also be coming off a torn ACL. Gabbert should offer his team as much enthusiasm moving forward as anyone in the league.

Heading into 2006, many questioned how Missouri would replace Brad Smith. The Tigers did so with Chase Daniel, who completed 63.5% of his passes for 3,527 yards, 28 touchdowns and ten interceptions while winning eight games. Gabbert replaced Daniel this season by completing 59.7% of his passes for 3,307 yards with 23 touchdowns and seven picks. He has won eight games with one more to go.

Daniel, of course, made a quantam leap in his second year as a starter. He completed 68.2% of his passes for 4,306 yards, 33 touchdowns and 11 interceptions as a junior. The Tigers won 12 games, were a half away from playing for a national championship and Daniel finished fourth in the Heisman Trophy voting.

I'm not saying the same progress awaits Gabbert. But I'm not saying it doesn't. He will be better. He was better in week ten than week two. He was healthy. Last August, Gabbert was the biggest question mark in Missouri football. Next August, he will be the biggest reason to hope the Tigers are on their way back to national prominence.

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