Monday, April 23, 2007

Mizzou Spring Football Preview

There will obviously be plenty more said about Mizzou football in 2007, but I figured I should finish off this spring preview series with a quick Mizzou summary.


In 2006, Chase Daniel replaced Brad Smith as Mizzou QB, and for a little while, it felt like everything had changed. Mizzou didn’t slip up against a mid-major team in the non-conference season. Mizzou destroyed a good conference team (Texas Tech) on the road. Heading into an October 26 home matchup with Oklahoma, Mizzou was 7-1 and looking to make a major statement. And then, over the last five games of the year, Mizzou would win once. The more things change...? Sort of.

Despite returning most major offensive and defensive weapons in 2006, and despite finishing 2005 on an emotionally high note—coming back from 21 down to win the Independence Bowl—it was hard for Missouri to find respect in the preseason. They were picked by just about everybody to finish closer to the bottom of the weak Big XII North than the top. Among other publications, the Sporting News picked Mizzou to lose at home to an Ole Miss team that had gone 3-8 the season before (granted, TSN is historically wretched at predictions—they picked Colorado #1 in ’97...and the Buffs finished 5-6—but still...). Say you have a player like Brad Smith, and say most of the country can’t name another player on your team...when that player departs, it’s pretty easy to predict that the bottom of the program will drop out. However, Bill Simmons hasn’t popularized the Ewing Theory for nothing. It turned out that the players who, for four years, deferred to Brad Smith on every major play (for better or worse), could make some plays themselves. In 2006, Mizzou averaged significantly more yards per play (6.0) than in any season of the Brad Smith era (5.3 in ’05, 4.9 in ’04, 5.7 in ’03, 5.3 in ’02).

The Chase Daniel era started with a bang—destroying Mississippi, 34-7, in a statement game, then going on the road to pick off New Mexico, 27-17. Missouri started to get some attention after travelling to Lubbock and nailing the Red Raiders, 38-21. The most impressive part of the Tech game, however, was how good the defense looked. Forcing turnovers, coming up with big sacks...this team appeared to have it all—even a consistent place-kicker! However, the next week Mizzou fumbled three times in the first half against Texas A&M, ran the worst fake field goal ever, and lost, 25-19. They appeared to bounce back the next week, thumping K-State, 41-21, in Columbia; however, that game represented something of a tipping point in the season. Brian Smith broke his hip while David Overstreet was returning a fumble for a TD—the flukiest of fluky plays—and the defense would suffer greatly in his absence.

Teams were able to run on Missouri, and though part of this could be explained by the fact that Mizzou’s opponents were simply better rushing teams, Smith’s absense really hurt. The swagger was gone. OU beat Mizzou pretty easily (26-10), and a couple of deflected interceptions threw the Tigers into a giant hole in Lincoln the next week. Mizzou threatened to come back in the second half, but they eventually fell to the Huskers, 34-20. Mizzou was now 7-3, but losses to ATM, OU, and Nebraska are nothing to sniff at. The first significant setback came in a road loss to a very poor Iowa State team playing their last game for Dan McCarney. I could write a 5,000-word piece about how putrid the officiating was in this game (including 2,000 words about the single worst call ever), but the fact was, Mizzou lost, 21-16 after being up 10-0 after two possessions. They were free-falling, and Kansas—winners of three straight over Missouri—was coming to town. The bandwagon was emptying in a hurry, but Mizzou responded with an encouraging 42-17 destruction of the Jayhawks.

And all I’ll say about the Sun Bowl is, the offense was amazing, the defense made some plays but faltered late, Adam Crossett did not touch the on-side kick, Oregon State got away with a fumble at the Mizzou 1, and a 39-38 loss did nothing to sway my ever-eternal optimism for the next season. Yup, that just about covers it.

Key Returnees

The offense returns almost every single major weapon from 2006, leading to insanely high offensive expectations for 2007. You have to love Chase Daniel’s “If they want to put expectations on us, then bring it on” statement in the B&G post-game, but Mizzou fans who lived through the disappointment of 2004 will likely be taking a wait-and-see attitude. Nevertheless, any team that returns Chase Daniel, Tony Temple, Chase Coffman, Martin Rucker, Will Franklin, Jared Perry, Danario Alexander, and four starting O-linemen will likely put up some ridiculous numbers.

On defense, there are obviously plenty of question marks. However, let’s start with the good news—the Tigers will have easily their best unit of defensive tackles since at least 2004. A healthy Ziggy Hood and Lorenzo Williams should hold up the interior of opposing O-lines, and strong play for them will make life easier for a set of fast but inexperienced LB’s (Brock Christopher is the only returning starter in the LB corps). The biggest question mark on the team will probably be at the DE position—same as pretty much everybody else in the conference. Along with Brian Smith, the Tigers will have to replace Xzavie Jackson, a possible second-day pick in the NFL draft. Likely starters Stryker Sulak and Tommy Chavis still need to distinguish themselves.

If the pass rush is at least competent, the pass defense as whole really could be pretty solid. Darnell Terrell was injured on the sidelines while the defense was getting lit up in the B&G Game, but he will be a pretty strong #1 CB in the fall. Domonique Johnson’s departure left a void at the other starting CB position, likely to be filled by either Hardy Ricks or Castine Bridges. The safety position should be pretty strong, as William Moore, Pig Brown, and Justin Garrett (among others) appear capable of replacing David Overstreet and Brandon Massey. Missouri only gave up 6.0 yards per pass attempt in ’06—best in the conference—and though there has been turnover from ’06 to ’07, let’s just say that I’m much more worried about the pass rush than the play of the secondary.

There is strong continuity in the special teams unit, as kicker Jeff Wolfert, punter Adam Crossett, leading kick returner Earl Goldsmith, and leading punt returner Tommy Saunders all return, though there should be challenges for the latter three positions into the fall.

Spring Developments

Everything you need to know about the Spring is in either Merlin’s B&G Game observations or the links at the bottom of the Merlin post.

Fun With Numbers

By the numbers, here are the five biggest keys to success for MU in 2006:

1. Rushing Attempts
2. Time of Possession
3. Opponents’ 3rd Down Conversions
4. 3rd Down Conversion Ratio
5. First Down Ratio

The offense had some ups and downs last year, and I’m sure there will be at least a few of those in 2007, but looking at this list, it’s pretty obvious how Mizzou games went down—when Mizzou was getting some defensive stops, they were winning. And when they were winning, they were running the ball more. Ball control will be the major issue in 2007. The defense will give up yards, but if they can force opponents to punt occasionally and prevent them from running the ball and eating the clock (in other words, the bend-but-don’t-break defense Mizzou patented in 1998), the offense should more than come through.

I’ll go much further in depth in the predictions department later on, but for now I’ll just say that the schedule is tricky but manageable in 2007. The season starts with a couple of landmines in Illinois (neutral site) and Ole Miss (on the road), but if Mizzou is as good as they’re supposed to be, they’ll be 4-0 when Nebraska comes to town to start the Big XII season. After that, who knows? Getting Nebraska, Tech, and ATM at home (and moving the Kansas game from Lawrence to Kansas City) could be huge. If Gary Pinkel’s team really does have a North title in them, the schedule won’t get in their way.