Tuesday, May 22, 2007

The Mizzou Exchange: Dave Matter (Part One)

I’m totally ripping off Bill Simmons’ “Curious Guy” bit with this, but a new Mizzou Sanity feature is going to be The Mizzou Exchange, where I (or somebody from the blog) exchange e-mails with somebody at least remotely Mizzou-related. I promise it will be more interesting than it sounds.

First up? Dave Matter, football/softball beat-writer for the
Columbia Tribune. Dave also has a lovely football blog, Behind the Stripes, on the Trib website. This conversation got pretty long, so I've broken it up into two parts. Part Two will post tomorrow.

The Boy: We'll start with something relatively obvious. Gabe Dearmond of PowerMizzou recently made a preliminary 10-2 prediction for Mizzou football in '07. Last year I looked at the schedule and saw 9-3, so I gave Mizzou a 1-game 'get real' penalty and predicted 8-4 (I guess that would make Iowa State the 'get real' penalty). This year? I too see 10-2, so I guess that means I'm going with 9-3. Granted, we're still our months out, but...what are your general thoughts at this point?

DM: I tried to make this point on Chris Gervino's KOMU show the other night, but I'll try to explain it better within my preferred medium.

This time of year, when preseason polls start to mass produce, offense is overrated and defense is underrated. I have no doubt MU will have one of the five most prolific offenses in the country this year. But will that translate into 10 wins if the defense isn't better than average, too? I'm starting to have my doubts.

Consider this: If MU returned a top-10 national defense that only loses a lineman and one defensive back but has question marks all over the offense, I think the general expectations for the 2007 season would be severely different. Fans/media would be alarmed. The stout defense would be overlooked because everyone would be more concerned about who's going to be the leading rusher, receiver, etc. When it comes to making predictions, we (and I mean, all of us, media, fans, bloggers, etc.) don't seem to appreciate a loaded defense as much as we do a loaded offense. And it usually leads to bad predictions. Take Notre Dame last year. The return of Brady Quinn and all those spectacular offensive players hypnotized people into overlooking a seriously flawed defense that hadn't made any significant upgrades. The Domers were a popular top-three pick. What happened? Irish didn't play much defense and were outclassed by Michigan, USC and LSU. On the other hand, there wasn't a lot of hype for teams like Rutgers and Wisconsin even though they returned the bulk of their defense. Those two finished the year ranked No. 4 and 5 in total defense and lost a combined three games.

That being said, or typed, I only see three teams on MU's 2007 schedule that should cause much concern: Oklahoma, Texas A&M and Nebraska. All three play a physical style that Missouri doesn't seem to match for four quarters. The losses MU suffered to those three last year explain why Gary Pinkel has talked so much about the Tigers' needing to get more physical, especially up front.

Also, it'd be unwise to overlook both Illinois and Ole Miss. We fall into the trap of looking only at an opponent's previous season record, which would indicate MU will whip both these teams. But Illinois was competitive against the best of the best in the Big Ten last year. Ole Miss has recruited well, and duh, the game is away from Columbia.

Also to consider, Pinkel has never won in Boulder or Manhattan.

With all of that in mind, I still think MU can outscore most teams. I'm saying 9-3, with losses to OU, A&M and one we won't see coming. I'm still deciding if I'll pick the Tigers to win the North, and I'm leaning toward them over Nebraska. But I didn't leave the spring with a lot of confidence in the defense's ability to get off the field and become spectators of the Chase Daniel Show (like the rest of us are.)
TB: It definitely seems that there are many different forces at work for this team. On one hand, you have the 'they're clichés because they're true' clichés like "Defense wins championships" giving you all sorts of red flags. Looking at the personnel, this team almost shapes up like those Jerry Glanville-era Falcons teams (right down to the all-black jerseys!)...their offense could crush both opposing defenses and their own defense with its efficiency. On the other hand, you look at the schedule and realize that, barring injuries or an unexpected loss, Mizzou really might be favored in 11 of 12 games this season despite the defensive question marks. It's hard to get a grasp on what should be expected when so many factors take your opinion in so many directions.

The defense as a whole is obviously a giant concern, but really, to me it boils down to the defensive end position. Lorenzo Williams and a healthy Ziggy Hood (along with Jaron Baston and Charles Gaines) should be fine at DT; Sean Weatherspoon and a healthy Van Alexander should bring more attitude and speed to the LB position than Marcus Bacon and Deke Harrington did (though the team will obviously miss Bacon and Harrington's experience); the CB's should be strong; the safety combo of William Moore, Pig Brown, and Justin Garrett should be capable of replacing David Overstreet and Brandon Massey's production. Lots of "should's" there, but you get my point. It really comes down to whether some combination of Stryker Sulak, Tommy Chavis, Jaysen Corbett, Tarell Corby, and maybe John Stull can provide a pass rush. That group should be decent against the run, but if Mizzou can't pressure the QB, then the entire unit will obviously suffer.

Speaking of DE's, when I was doing my
spring previews last month, I noticed something quite strange. Almost everybody in the conference lost their top DE's from last year. Missouri, Nebraska, Kansas, Colorado, Iowa State, Texas, Oklahoma, Texas Tech, and Oklahoma State all have to replace their top pass rushers. Combined with the fact that almost every top team (sans Nebraska and Oklahoma) now has an experienced QB running the show, I think we're going to see some unbelievable offensive numbers in the conference this season (led by Missouri, Oklahoma State, and obviously Tech). I might be placing too much importance on just one defensive position, but that discovery was still pretty interesting to me.

DM: I agree that they're should be some real explosive offenses in the league this year. Oklahoma State will be one of those under the radar teams that people will expect to make a push, but again, no D. When the Tigers and Cowboys play in 2008, expect another shootout classic.

What happened to Big 12 defenses? Not too long ago, the Big 12 consistently had three or four of the top defenses in the country. You could count on Oklahoma, Texas and Kansas State, sometimes Nebraska and A&M, having an elite D. That's not the case any more, and I'm not really sure if it's a trend or a coincidence. OU ranked No. 16 nationally, and that was the best D in the league. Next was Texas at 24, then MU at 39. I don't think it's a lack of talent. Texas had three of its defensive backs from last year drafted, two in the first round, but played terribly against the pass last year.

As for MU, even with the questions on defense, I think the Tigers will be favored in every game but the trip to Oklahoma, possibly the home game against A&M. But as long as the defense is shaky, you're vulnerable to one of those games like Iowa State last year where the offense goes into a lull and the pressure is put on the D to make a stop.

I like the tandem of Williams and Hood in the middle, but if you have an injury there, you're in BIG trouble. I never saw much out of the backups all spring.

I think there's great potential at linebacker, but we've said that for years with this team.

Weatherspoon plays with the kind of passion this team doesn't always display on defense, but you still have to tackle.

As for the secondary, I'll miss David Overstreet, one of my favorite personalities I've covered over the years. But anyone that put him on their postseason All-Big 12 ballot last year, and I know of at least one major newspaper in this state that did, should have their voting privileges revoked or at least put on probation. Let's just say I didn't think it was Overstreet's best season. He played on a bum knee most of the year, and it showed when he had to defend the pass. In retrospect, I think he would have made a better outside linebacker than a safety. He was a pretty good tackler in the box but couldn't cover many Big 12 receivers. I think the Tigers will be just fine with Willy Moore and Pig Brown, two athletes that can hit and play the ball.
TB: There's a feast-or-famine quality to William Moore's play. If there's a big defensive play, chances are Moore was involved. However, if there's a massive breakdown, chances are Moore was involved. He's going into his junior season, though, and knowing the progress that both Jason Simpson and David Overstreet made during the sophomore-to-junior jump, I'm pretty confident that Moore will reach a higher level of consistency in '07. That alone could make a significant difference in this defense.

You touched on another point—Mizzou is going to have some serious hitters this year. Granted, it doesn't matter how hard you hit if the hits come after 15-yard gains, but...Moore, Brown, Weatherspoon, and Alexander are all heavier hitters than their predecessors. Plus, guys like Brock Christopher and Darnell Terrell don't shy away from contact either. That could be important considering how much the defense will likely be on the field this season—it won't matter as much that they are losing their legs late in games if the opposing offense is too.

As you can see by now, I'm always able to talk myself into being encouraged by something, even Mizzou's defense. It's a natural talent, really. If/when I need a douse of cold water, though, I look at some numbers.

Something I looked at recently was per-game and per-play averages for Big XII teams—what a normal team would have expected to gain and give up versus teams on the schedule and what Mizzou (and other Big XII teams) actually did gain/give up. Here's what I found.

Against Mizzou's 8 Big XII opponents, a normal Big XII offense could have expected to gain about 135.0 yards on 4.0 yards per carry. Mizzou averaged 112.5 yards on 3.4 yards per carry...about 84% of the normal team. A normal offense could have also expected to gain about 221.7 passing yards per game on 6.8 yards per attempt. Mizzou averaged 273.5 yards per game on 7.6 yards per attempt...about 119% of the normal team. In all, Mizzou (386.0 yards per game, 5.6 yards per play) achived about 102% of what the normal offense would achieve—the 8th-best figure in conference (OSU was #1 at 119.3%). Not bad, but not quite as hot as one would have expected the numbers to be. Of course, the offense peaked in the final two games, and rarely does a team return nine starters (and every major skill position contributor) from a good offense, so I do still expect big things here (especially against the degraded defenses we mentioned), but that keeps things in perspective a bit.

As for the defense? A normal Big XII defense could have expected to give up about 150.3 rushing yards per game on 4.3 yards per carry against Mizzou's Big XII opponents. Missouri gave up 184.1 on 4.5 yards per carry (this figure was skewed tremendously by poor showings against KSU and ISU...Mizzou was right on average in the other 6 games)...about 115% of the normal team. A normal defense could have also expected to give up about 215.7 passing yards per game on 6.9 yards per pass. Mizzou gave up 191.5 yards per game on 6.9 yards per pass...about 95% of the normal team. In all, Mizzou (375.6 yards per game, 5.5 yards per play) allowed about 102% of what a normal defense would allow. This is a small sample size, but a few things stand out to me here—a) the Iowa State game destroyed the overall numbers, b) percentages for the defense got worse across the board after Brian Smith's injury, and c) opponents ran the ball more than normal against Mizzou, likely because the run defense was a bit worse than the pass defense, and more likely because ball control was quite important against the Mizzou offense. The offense may not have achieved that much more than the typical Big XII offense, but the threat of the Mizzou offense made the opposition change its own typical offensive gameplan.

DM: You touched on something there about the "threat" of Missouri's offense affecting the opponent's offensive strategy. I think that's a HUGE factor, and it's something Gary Pinkel talked about a lot this spring. Just look at what good ball-control teams did against the Tigers last year: Oklahoma gashed them with Allen Patrick, one of the most violent runners I've seen in the Big 12 the last few years; A&M used the Lane/Goodson combo to play keep away the second half; Iowa State's fullback turned into John Riggins for a day against the Tigers; and even though Oregon State's back didn't finish with 100 yards, the Beavers controlled the clock throughout the second half tossing short passes to the back and tight end and mixing in occasional runs. The Tigers were lucky to score a lot of points early against Kansas and Kansas State, or their running games would have been able to do the same.

I think the D's ability to toughen up against the run and take teams out of second-and short and third-and-short situations will define the season. I just don't understand why Missouri struggles so much in that area. I'm not big into Xs an Os, but playing a lot of zone D should theoretically free up your defensive backs to help against the run. And it's not for a lack of intensity among the coaching staff. I think it's more about personnel. Finding big, beefy D-linemen that can outmuscle offensive linemen AND run around and make plays is the hardest chore in recruiting. There just aren't a lot of players like Texas' Frank Okam, a guy that doesn't make a lot of tackles but he's so strong and powerful that his mere presence makes the guys around him better. I laugh when valuable pluggers like Okam are left off the all-conference teams while the D-end that racked up 10 meaningless sacks for some hack defense gets voted on.

I think Lorenzo Williams is a very productive college nose tackle and one of the best leaders Missouri has had in the Pinkel era. If he can play bigger than his size and combine with Ziggy Hood to give the D a solid nucleus in the middle, the Tigers can improve in that area. But I'm just not sold on the front four, not yet at least.