Friday, August 31, 2007

Mizzou-Illinois Preview

It is time. Thank God. I am ready for just about anything this year—from a conference title to another crushingly disappointing season. It’s all up for grabs, and I’m just ready to see what happens.

For each game this year, I’ll use the following 11 criteria to evaluate matchups:

MU QB vs Opp Defense (as a whole)
MU RB vs Opp LB
MU WR/TE vs Opp DB
MU OL vs Opp DL
Opp QB vs MU Defense (as a whole)
Opp RB vs MU LB
Opp WR/TE vs MU DB
Opp OL vs MU DL
MU Special Teams vs Opp Special Teams
MU Coaching vs Opp Coaching

I like this more than just comparing O-line to O-line, RB to RB, etc., because team's O-line will never go up against the other team's O-line.

So with that, let’s jump in, shall we?

MU QB vs Illinois Defense

Illinois has some good things going on here, and they frustrated Troy Smith last year, but...yeah, I don’t see Mizzou losing this matchup too much this season. Edge: Mizzou.

MU RB vs Illinois LB

Man oh man, could a healthy, nasty Tony Temple make a difference this year. Temple showed flashes in the first 11 games last year, but he kept dropping the damn ball at inopportune times. His overall fumbles weren’t terribly numerous, but he made ‘em count. However, after fumbling in the first quarter of the Iowa State game (when another score for Mizzou could have pretty much ended the game immediately), something clicked. Temple just DESTROYED Kansas and Oregon State to end the season, setting a Sun Bowl rushing record (before losing six yards on his final carry, that is).

Meanwhile, the LB corps is Illinois’ most proven strength. J Leman, Antonio Steele, and Brit Miller will anchor the defense, and Illinois’ only chance in this game comes from these LB’s (and the DL) slowing Temple down and making Mizzou one-dimensional. Just to challenge Mr. Tony, I’ll say Edge: Illinois.

MU WR/TE vs Illinois DB

I can’t name a single Illinois defensive back, but even if I could, it just wouldn’t matter. Edge: Mizzou.

MU OL vs Illinois DL

You’ve probably read about how much of a freak freshman DE Martez Wilson is...but how often do true freshman defenders do amazing things in their first collegiate game? Even Justin Smith emerged slowly in 1998. Wilson or no Wilson, the Illini have a solid, experienced front unsung strength. Just like Mizzou’s O-line. Edge: Push.

Illinois QB vs MU Defense

‘Upside’ is the easiest thing in the world to overestimate. You see NBA GM’s do it every single year in the draft, and you see college football prognosticators do it almost as much. Juice Williams has “upside.” He “had a great game against _____.” He’s got “such a strong arm.” All true. And he completed 39.5% of his passes, had a 9-9 TD-INT ratio, and was dominated by Northwestern, Iowa, etc. Sure, he’s got upside, and he likely has more weapons to work with this year than he did in his freshman season. But still. Until he verifies the upside, he is only what he’s been. Edge: Mizzou.

Illinois RB vs MU LB

Aside from Tony Temple, the troika of Sean Weatherspoon, Brock Christopher, and Van Alexander could make the biggest difference between Mizzou being a good-but-shaky team and being a great one. We’ve all read how Pinkel thinks Christopher can be a superstar. We’ve all read the raving reports about how hard Weatherspoon hits. We’ve all read how Van Alexander has all the ‘tools’ to be great if he could just stay healthy. But only Christopher has proven anything so far. The other two are in the same ‘upside’ category as Juice Williams. Meanwhile, Rashard Mendenhall is pretty highly-touted himself, and he gets the chance to be the star this year. Both sides have lots of potential so far, but...untill Weatherspoon and Alexander actually deliver, Edge: Illinois.

Illinois WR/TE vs MU DB

It’s hard to make a judgment here since we don’t really know what we’re going to get from the Mizzou secondary. If everyone’s healthy, the tandem of Darnell Terrell, Hardy Ricks, William Moore, and Pig Brown are more than talented and physical enough to take control over a talented-but-super-young Illini WR corps. But Terrell’s only been practicing full-speed for about a week...Ricks less than that. Never mind their injuries...wil their stamina be where it needs to be? Hard to tell. But the banged-up secondary is still more proven than the Illini WR/TE’s, who have tons of potential--none more than Arrelious Benn--but, like Juice Williams and like Mizzou's LB, haven't actually delivered yet. I think I've made it clear where I stand on that. Edge: Mizzou.

Illinois OL vs MU DL

This might actually be a game where Mizzou’s lack of strong pass rushers could benefit them. Juice Williams makes his best plays when he’s flushed out of the pocket by a pass rush and starts improvising. Well...if you can’t get to the QB, you can’t flush him out of the pocket, right? Ri...right?

Anyway, the Illinois O-line is not exactly a dominant force. They return three-fifths of last year’s starters, which isn’t bad...only last year’s starters gave up about 250 sacks. While the OT’s-vs-DE’s matchup could be a push, I think Mizzou has the advantage on the interior. That might not make a huge difference, as I would figure Mendenhall and Williams will both run outside more often than not, but...Edge: Mizzou.

MU Special Teams vs Illinois Special Teams

Mizzou’s special teams unit was bipolar last year. Kicking was better than it’s ever been. Punting was decent. Punt returns (once Tommy Saunders took over) were quite solid. Kickoff returns were horrid. Kick and punt coverage was mediocre at best But pretty much every special teams contributor is back this season, and a few more athletes—the Jeremy Maclins of the world—are in the mix now. I expect special teams for Mizzou to be relatively solid this year (though kicking off from the 30 can’t help what was a shaky kickoff coverage team last year). As for Illinois...they were more or less bad across the board last year. Edge: Mizzou.

MU Coaching vs Illinois Coaching

Opinions vary as to just how good Pinkel and Staff are on gameday...that’s the nice way to put it. But the overall opinion, I think, is still higher than that of Ron Zook. For his strengths (and he does have some), Zook just really hasn’t proven himself on gameday, and Pinkel has at least once or twice, right? Zook has ‘upside’, we’ll say (really, who doesn't at this point?), but all we know for sure is, he’s only definitively proven himself to be a more high-profile John Blake. A recruiter, a player’s coach, a motivator...and not yet a good head coach. Edge: Mizzou.


When Mizzou played Illinois in 2002 and 2003, the underdog overachieved both times. In ’02, Mizzou used the element of surprise (i.e. Brad Smith) to hold the defending Big Ten champs at bay and cruise to a relatively easy win. In 2003, the underdog Illini fought and scratched and kept the game close before falling, 22-15. This is common in a rivalry game. No matter how things look on paper, things will be more even than you think they’ll be. I see the same thing happening here. Zook is not a masterful coach, but he appears to be a good motivator, and UI will be fired up. Zook’s also a good recruiter, and he's got a lot of raw talent to work with here. He’ll have the element of surprise in his favor as guys like Benn take the field for the first time. In other words, Edge: Illinois.


Mizzou has the edge, 7-3-1.

There is absolutely no doubt that Mizzou could lose this game. We could come up with all sorts of scenarios that lead to a Mizzou loss—turnovers, trick plays, bad bounces, coaching brainfarts, Arrelious Benn being better than anybody ever thought, etc.—but the bottom line is, Mizzou shouldn’t lose this game. Too many advantages, and too much to play for. This is a rivalry game—it will become more and more of one when these two teams are playing every season—and we’ve all seen too many MU/KU games (basketball in particular) in which the team that looks better on paper looks lost on the field (or court). Anything can happen. That’s football. But the odds are still that ‘anything’ won’t. Mizzou wins, 30-17.