Can you do a preview of what you think Missouri's season looks like?
On offense, things begin with returning starter James Franklin. Franklin was questioned when he first came to the No. 1 slot when Blaine Gabbert left early for the NFL. Some thought the son of former Oklahoma star Willie Franklin was “too nice.” He calls reporters “sir” and is very nice, but he’s also a heck of a quarterback and teammates have come to respect his strong character. Franklin can beat you with his arm and his running ability, and showed improvement in his decision-making throughout the season. As Missouri’s had three consecutive starting QBs go onto the NFL (Gabbert, Chase Daniel and Brad Smith) all have come to prominence in their second year as starters, under the guidance of David Yost, one of the finest quarterback coaches in all of college football.
Franklin will have a wealth of riches to throw to this year, led by senior co-captain T.J. Moe. There were already several excellent receivers on the team, but Mizzou adds a dangerous new weapon with the nation’s No. 1 recruit, Dorial Green-Beckham. Although “DGB” is still learning the college game, we saw in preseason scrimmages that he’s downright explosive when he gets the ball in his hands, a big guy who promises to be a major star. Also keep an eye on Eric Waters, the latest of a string of stars at what’s becoming known as “Tight End U.”
The team should also be good in the run game. Although last year’s superstar Henry Josey will probably miss the 2012 season as he recovers from a catastrophic knee injury suffered against Texas last year, the guy who was originally top of the depth chart at the position last year before he got hurt returns in Kendial Lawrence. The senior Lawrence was, to my eyes at least, the most consistent performer throughout preseason camp and I expect an excellent year out of him. For fans looking for another Henry Josey, backup Marcus Murphy has similar speed.
The offensive line has become a concern with injuries dominating the news of preseason. Expected starter Travis Ruth is probably lost for the year, and that’s a big loss. Jack Meiners went down during the final scrimmage, and we should learn today (Monday) his status. But the returning line is strong, highlighted by the unexpected return of senior Elvis Fisher, who was granted a 6th season on a hardship exemption by the NCAA. A freshman All-American in 2008 and two-time All-Big 12 performer, his experience and skill at LT will anchor the line. And the spots opening to injury have been filled ably by walk-on Max Copeland, a long-haired exuberant personality who’s become a fan favorite, and a great rarity in Gary Pinkel’s time at Mizzou, a true freshman who’ll get significant playing time on the offensive line in Evan Boehm.
While Lawrence and Franklin give Mizzou a strong run game, it’s in the air that the Tigers will probably make their mark in the SEC. Few SEC defenses have seen much of the type of “Spread” offense that’s become popular in the Big 12, with three and four-wide sets and a fast-paced no-huddle offense that can pinball to long drives as defenses are still trying to figure out what happened on the last play. And with the addition of Green-Beckham and continued development of Franklin, the passing game could be even more explosive.
On the defensive side, Mizzou is absolutely going to sneak up on the SEC. People looking at just the stats will think Mizzou hasn’t got much of a defense, but those numbers came against a lot of spread and the most spectacular offenses in the nation last year, like Oklahoma State. In reality, this is an outstanding defense.
The line is anchored by tackle Sheldon Richardson, whom I consider an All-American candidate. Matt Hoch alongside has beefed up and is expected to be a very strong player as well. Depth at this position’s a big question mark, and Richardson is probably number one on the list of guys Mizzou cannot afford to lose, with the possible exception of Fisher or any other OL starters.
Defensive End is a major strength, with skill and depth. Two-time all-conference performer Brad Madison returns, but may be beaten out for starter role by a guy named Kony Ehly that I’ve been impressed with since he stepped on campus, I think he’s about to become a big deal. Lucas Vincent’s recovering from injury but is another serious factor here.
The linebacker corps is as good as it gets. I saw Lindy’s ranked Missouri 9th in the SEC at the position. If there are 8 better groups of linebackers in the conference, I’m the Easter Bunny. Will Ebner is like Fisher, a guy who lost his senior year to injury and was granted another by the NCAA, he’s a hitter and a serious leader on the defense. Zavier Gooden is a speed demon who is a big part of the pass defense and stopping the run, and Andrew Wilson does everything well and is a tremendous tackler, a guy who should be on film to show young players how to tackle.
The secondary was considered a liability in past years, but has become a strength. E.J. Gaines may be the team’s top defender, a first team all-conference performer who is a prototype shut-down corner. Kip Edwards is excellent on the other side, although injuries make his status a little questionable. I’m leery of talking about the depth here, I consider it outstanding but I’m biased, as the two young corners providing depth here are, ironically, both from my home town. But I think I’m still correct in saying watch for strong play from Randy Ponder and Xavier Smith…of Edmond, Oklahoma.
Safety also has ability and depth, Kenronte Walker and Braylon Webb are both excellent athletes who can cover and deliver a serious hit, and Ian Simon’s been rapidly climbing the depth chart with his play in camp this fall.
Special teams are a mixed bag. After several years of great reliability at place kicker, this year it’s a question mark as both punter Trey Barrow and freshman Andrew Baggett were inconsistent. Baggett’s got a leg and at the first looked like the answer, but he struggled in the last part of camp. Barrow is a question mark at PK but there’s no question he’s a great punter, a rugby-style guy who gets serious distance and has become expert at the “coffin corner” kicks.
While the kicking side of things has it’s worries, the return game does not. From Marcus Murphy to Ian Simon there are guys who can make big things happen in the return game. Gahn McGaffie whose touchdown on the opening kickoff against Oklahoma two years ago is Tiger history is still part of the mix, and with the fuse that’s lit every time he touches the ball, we may well see Dorial Green-Beckham returning kicks, as well. There are several excellent options here.
The schedule plays out interestingly for Mizzou, with two of their toughest SEC games right off the bat. Following a walk-over in game one, the Tigers welcome Georgia to Memorial Stadium in week two for their SEC kickoff. After a non-conference game against Arizona State, a team Mizzou should have beaten last year and which is not as strong this year, The Tigers then have to travel to South Carolina, quite possibly the most difficult road game of the season.
After a road game at Central Florida, the Tigers have two home games with Vanderbilt and then defending national champ Alabama before the homecoming battle with Kentucky.
The team wraps with three of the last four on the road, with a non-conference home matchup with Syracuse surrounding trips to Florida, Tennessee and Texas A&M, a team Missouri’s had good luck against in recent years.
My Prediction—Missouri will sweep the non-conference slate and should have little trouble with Vandy and Kentucky. The only game I see as an almost-sure loss is Alabama. Which puts a few into the hopper as iffy. I’d say probably wins are A&M and Tennessee (I know some will disagree on that one, losing Rogers moved it for me) and probable loss is Georgia, although the suspensions and it being the first SEC home game will help. That leaves the games at SC and Florid. I’m not crazy about the idea of two starting QBs, and I cannot imagine USC will be as strong as last year, I think MU will split these two. I know it’s a lot better than most observers predict, but I’m picking MU for a 9-3 or 8-4 season and a visit to an SEC tradition, the Chik-Fil-A Peach Bowl.