Saturday, June 30, 2007

The Mizzou Exchange: Graham Watson (Part 1)

Just in case you were thinking this had turned into a Portland Trailblazers blog, it’s time for another Mizzou Exchange!

Graham Watson is the Mizzou beat writer for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The one-time Mizzou goalkeeper agreed to take part in the ongoing Mizzou Exchange experiment. In Part 1, we focus on the upcoming Big XII football season. Enjoy!

(You can find previous Exchanges

The Boy: In the last decade or so, you've gone from goalkeeping for Mizzou to covering Mizzou for the state's largest paper. Which one was more fun?

Graham Watson: Well, I can honestly say there was less pressure being the goalkeeper of the Missouri soccer team than the Mizzou beat reporter even though we were No. 12 in the country when I played my junior year. But being a beat reporter has a lot less running (though there has been some on this beat). I like the challenge of covering all the facets of Mizzou sports and even some of the drama that has come along with it. There has yet to be a boring day. It's hard not having fun covering your alma mater. I'd also be lying if I said there weren't times when I miss the simplicity of being a non-revenue sport athlete. Mizzou fans are as demanding of their reporters as they are of their players. That can be trying sometimes, but I appreciate the enthusiasm for the perfection of the school from all angles.
TB: I grew up a Mizzou fan in western Oklahoma (I was born in Columbia, then my parents moved to OK)...meaning I was the only Mizzou fan I knew. I had no idea what to expect when I came up here. I was a bit taken aback by the lingering bitterness here. I mean...I can't really blame anybody--my fifth ever home football game was the '97 MU/Nebraska game...I still have the scars. I just think that, whereas Mizzou fans are just like everybody else's in a lot of ways (every school has its "____ can do no wrong" fans, its "____ can do no right" fans, and its "I'm smarter than everybody else" fans), there's a hunger here that differentiates Mizzou from other schools. Certain schools expect to win in certain sports, and it makes other losses at least slightly easier to take. OSU fans can always fall back on golf and wrestling (and until the last few years, baseball). OU fans have football. Nebraska fans have...well...every female sport. Texas fans have everything, period. Mizzou fans want to win in something, anything.

You saw that hunger a couple of weeks ago when Mizzou lost to Louisville in the Baseball Regionals. Fans who had only jumped on the baseball bandwagon the week before were crushed by the loss and lashed out at anybody they could (mostly Tim Jamieson). Mizzou had choked, blown it, squandered yet another opportunity, and proven once again that "We're Mizzou." I'm all for a little self-pity (I'm great at it...have you seen my "What If...?" posts??), but the anger there had me taken aback.

Moving on to football...I'll ask you the same question I asked Dave Matter: what can we reasonably expect out of Mizzou this coming season? Barring an early loss, Mizzou could actually be favored in 11 of 12 games this year. The schedule is set up perfectly--of the four conference teams they lost to last year, they only have to face one on the road this season. Daniel will have the maximum number of weapons available to him this season (before Franklin, Rucker, probably Temple, and maybe Coffman all depart). Will the offense make up for an inexperienced-but-fast defense?

GW: I understand a lot of what you're saying. It does, at times, seem like this school is cursed when it comes to athletics. I'm originally from California and for much, if not all, of my young life, the world revolved around pro sports. Now, of course, USC is the city's pro sport. I was always a big UCLA fan growing up. Yeah, I saw that Tyus Edney game. And to be honest, at the time, I was elated. But that was then...

On to your question...

I like what the football team can do on offense this year. Chase Daniel is going to assert himself as one of the best quarterbacks in the country. He has a ton of playmakers and an urgency to get things done. With that said, it's going to be on the offense to carry this team, and that might not be enough to win it a conference title. I liken the early looks of this team to Texas Tech a few years ago. You know, when they had the best offense and the worst defense. It got the Red Raiders a bowl game, but they never were a title contender.

If you look at the top offenses from a year ago, the bulk of them were not in the national title picture. I mean, teams such as New Mexico State and Hawaii. Great offenses, great quarterbacks, but incomplete teams.

That's what Mizzou will have to overcome. I am going to be one of the few media folk to like the Tigers over Nebraska for the North. I think Nebraska is going to have a rough non-conference go and possibly enter the Big 12 season 2-2. Also, the Tigers have a more favorable conference schedule. Nebraska is going to have a hard time playing at Mizzou and Texas. And the fact that the Mizzou/Nebraska game is early plays into the hands of the Tigers, who should be undefeated by that point.

Overall, I think 9-3 is likely and 10-2 is possible (with a bowl game waiting in the wings). Could this team win 11 regular season games? I don't think so. I think Oklahoma is a loss, and there is going to be a weekend where the offense can't put up enough points to compensate for the defense, maybe against Texas Tech. But who knows? In 2004, the offense was supposed to be the juggernaut and the defense was suppose to be the weak link. It ended up just opposite. So for scenario like that to happen this year, or even for both sides to be spectacular, would be utterly Mizzou.
TB: It does seem like every Missouri fan and pundit who picked huge things in 2004 is still a bit scarred by that, and they're worried about Missouri being underwhelming once again. I'm trying to ignore 2004 because, despite the same coaching staff, this team couldn't be any more different.

Big things were predicted in 2004 because of Brad Smith and a strong D-line. In 2003, teams were slowly catching on as to how to shut down #16. Pinkel saw this and attempted to make some adjustments in the off-season ( i.e. making Brad more pocket-based), and they just didn't take...either because Pinkel and Yost didn't do it right or because Brad was simply limited in his instincts. Everybody always blames Pinkel for 'changing' Brad, but that misses the point to me. He saw that in '03 teams like Kansas and (to a lesser extent) Colorado were starting to figure out how to slow Brad down, and he knew something proactive needed to happen. He was right, too--every team we played in '04 was ready to stop that QB option play that got Brad about 90% of his yards in '03...seriously, I can't remember it working until the Iowa State game. Of course, he could have added different packages and figured out different ways to get Brad in open space (kind of like what eventually happened in '05), but he wanted Brad to be an NFL quarterback...and Brad wanted Brad to be an NFL quarterback, so their adjustments were made with that in mind.

Of course, they didn't work. Brad thought too much when he stayed in the pocket, and playing like an NFL-style QB just never became instinctive for him. Brad was one of the most unique players in recent history--nobody had more distinctive strengths and debilitating weaknesses in one package. In '05, new adjustments were made with that in mind, and things started looking up again (to an extent...6-5 was still a bit disappointing).

That was a really long way of illustrating that I don't think '04 has anything to do with '07. The offense does not run through one person anymore, and there's no single adjustment that defenses can make to slow things down. Of course, the D-line that was a strength in '04 is possibly the biggest question mark on the team in '07...the defensive end position, at least.

I am curious, though, how much it will affect the defense if the offense is as successful as it could be. At some point, an efficient offense can become too efficient when it starts wearing its own defense down. It doesn't matter that you can score 40 points if your defense is too tired to stop the other team from scoring 40 too. I think Missouri's '07 defense will be at best a squad of playmakers--guys William Moore, Ziggy Hood, Lorenzo Williams, and Sean Weatherspoon might not be amazingly consistent, but when they come up with something, they come up with something huge--but at worst it will be another version of the bend-but-don't-break defenses to which Mizzou fans have become quite accustomed. It will still be better than the typical Texas Tech defense, especially this year's Texas Tech defense, which I'm pretty sure has all of two healthy scholarship defensive tackles. (Missouri, of course, has another advantage over the typical Texas Tech team--they play in the North.)

So here's my next question: acknowledging that the offense will be huge and the defense will be iffy, who is the most important player for Mizzou in '07? In other words, whose performance could potentially make the difference between an 8-4 seaon and 11-1? My initial opinion was Stryker Sulak, then Ziggy Hood...but a case can be made for about 12 different guys.

GW: Are we talking defensive player or any player? Because if it's any player, then Chase Daniel has to be the most important guy on the field.
TB: Yeah, but we know what he's going to bring to the table, just like we know about guys like Franklin, Coffman, and Rucker. My thought was, who's the wildcard? Meaning, if this person ends up taking his game to the next level, it could make a substantial difference. Offensively, my pick is Tony Temple. We know what he can do, but he still has to hold onto the ball. That wasn't a problem in the last two games of the year, when he was absolutely torching Kansas and Oregon State, but that's a pretty small sample size.

Defensively, I waver between Sulak and Hood and maybe Sean Weatherspoon or Van Alexander. You know what you're getting from guys like Lorenzo Williams and Brock Christopher. If one more playmaker emerges from the front 7, the defense really could surprise (I'm really confident in the secondary). But who will that be?

GW: Well, you kinda took a couple of my answers there. I agree that this has to be the year Tony Temple silences his critics. He's bigger than he was a year ago and continues to buy into the program. Now, we have to see whether that translates into something positive on the field. If it does, it could make Missouri a very scary team. I have a feeling Chase isn't going to want to run as much this year (call it a hunch), so that will make the roll of Temple and his backup (perhaps Derrick Washington) even more important.

Defensively, one of Missouri's ends has to prove it's a threat to get to the quarterback. That's it. If Big 12 quarterbacks have time to go through their progressions, they will pick Mizzou's defense apart, no matter how good the secondary might be. And yes, the linebackers are going to have to prove they can play. So much has been made of Van Alexander, but injuries have made him almost irrelevant. In all honesty, the linebacker I think is going to make a difference on this defense is Luke Lambert. I know people want Michael Keck to be this amazing player, but I think Lambert is going to come along first and make the biggest difference in the shortest amount of time.

Overall, it's going to be consistency by these defensive guys. That was something that was missing a year ago. And yes, there was fatigue, but you know what? Get used to it. The defensive players should be training harder in anticipation of playing more. They saw it last year and should learn from it. That comes from the strength and conditioning staff on down to the captains and the younger players. Guys like Lorenzo Williams and ZIggy Hood should be leaders in encouraging the rest of their defensive teammates to train harder than they have in their lives. They will play twice as much as the offensive players, and they should be ready for that physical strain. I think that also plays to the defensive reserves and whether there's enough depth to sustain this defense. I think there is, but it's young, inexperienced depth. Perhaps, getting up big on some of the non-conference opponents can help Mizzou alleviate that inexperience.
TB: I'd actually half-forgotten about Derrick Washington. Between Washington and Gilbert Moye, I'm hoping that one of them can turn into an immediate upgrade at the kick returner position. Earl Goldsmith has decent instincts, but he just doesn't have the speed; for Greg Bracey, vice versa.

I'm thinking Big XII offenses as a whole might have a huge season...I wrote profiles of all the Big XII teams during Spring Football, and I started noticing that almost every team in the conference lost their DE's from last year. First of all, 9 Big XII DE's were drafted in April. Second of all, there was one non-senior on the All-Big XII 1st and 2nd teams. And finally, just look at Phil Steele's All-Big XII DE's (1st-4th teams):

1st: Ian Campbell (KSU) - the only non-senior on the All-Big XII list last year, and the only proven stud at the DE position.
1st: Chris Harrington (ATM) - solid, dependable, relatively unspectacular...and apparently the 2nd-best returning DE.

2nd: Drew Hudgins (CU) - JUCO transfer
2nd: Nathan Peterson (OSU) - talented and explosive, but so injury-prone that he's only started 8 games in three years.

3rd: Jake Ratliff (TT) - uhh...yeah...had 3.5 sacks last year. That's decent for Texas Tech, but not necessarily the Big XII.
3rd: Brian Orakpo (UT) - I'd actually have him on the 2nd-team, but he really hasn't proven a ton either.

4th: Stryker Sulak (MU) - with 12 career starts, he's somehow one of the most experienced DE's in the league.
4th: Barry Turner (NU) - strong freshman year in '05, but did almost nothing last year...kind of like Sulak (though Sulak did more than Turner).

Everybody is going to be trying to piece together a new pass rush. Granted, that will be a bigger issue for the Missouri's of the world than the OU's and Texas's, but it's still an issue for everybody. That can't be a bad thing for Mizzou.

So the top 2 in both the North and South are almost unanimously agreed upon in some order (MU and NU in the North, OU and UT in the South). Who do you see having the best chance to crash the party in each division? Most seem to say KSU in the North and ATM in the South. I'm not sure agree, but I'll let you take the first stab at it. :-)

GW: In the South, I think it's a toss-up between A&M and Oklahoma State. I think there is a lot of talent on both teams. A&M might be the more rounded of the two, but Oklahoma State possess the ability to score quickly and score in bunches. Even with Woods gone from the receiver position, it still return most of its key players from a team that surprised a lot of people a year ago.

In the North, I'd look for Colorado to be an obstacle. The Buffs are going to get beat up in the non-conference (they play Arizona State, Florida State and Miami), but I think they are going to come out a better team for it. Quarterback Cody Hawkins has shown talent and it seems like young quarterbacks tend to thrive in this conference. I think the longer the season goes, the better Colorado will be. Will they challenge for first or second? Maybe, but I think the push will come too late.
TB: You pretty much nailed the teams I was going to choose. In the North, I think Colorado is the wildcard simply because they're going to have so much new blood at so many new positions. That, however, doesn't usually lead to immediate success. I don't think they have a prayer of winning the division, but I definitely think they'll play a considerable role in determining the North champion, as they host both Nebraska and Missouri.

As for the South...have you seen ATM's schedule? It's murderous. They could be a much better team than they were last year and go 8-4. Their conference road games are against Missouri, Oklahoma, Texas Tech, and Nebraska, and they will host an angry Texas team itching for revenge. If they can threaten in the South with that schedule, power to them.

I think Oklahoma State is the sleeper in the South. They have a manageable schedule--they host Tech and Texas and have a super-winnable road game against Baylor, though they do have to travel to Norman, College Station and Lincoln--and the most explosive offense in the conference. Their defense is made up of a lot of playmakers, though they'll be playing with a heavily retooled D-line. They probably don't have enough to threaten OU or UT in the South, but it wouldn't be a complete surprise to me if they did.

(Stay tuned for Part 2 later this week!)