Photo via Bill Carter.
NOTE: Confused? See the quick glossary at the bottom. And yes, I wrote 95% of this before the events of Wednesday morning.
Miami-OH at Missouri
The last time Missouri began a football season with a sophomore from Texas at starting quarterback was also the last time Missouri began a season against somebody other than Illinois. Miami's Redhawks present an interesting challenge for Mizzou, possessing a strong defensive line that should both test a banged-up Mizzou front five and prepare the Tigers for a rougher go next Friday night. In all, however, Mizzou should win comfortably. The F/+ projections expect something in the neighborhood of a 41-10 Mizzou victory, but if Miami is able to disrupt the flow of James Franklin's offense, then they could present a threat that lingers for a while.
Missouri's covariance ranking suggests that they tended to play pretty well against iffy teams; this is, in part, because they put together one of the nation's best performances in their clinical destruction of Miami (Ohio). The Redhawks were a steady, consistent team, but Missouri was too athletic and made too many big plays early in the game. Here's obviously to hoping that is the case on Saturday as well.
When Miami-OH Has The Ball…
|Success Rt+ Rk||62||19|
|Rushing S&P+ Rk||101||23|
|Passing S&P+ Rk||77||7|
New coach Don Treadwell most recently served as Michigan State offensive coordinator. The Spartans ran a rather straight-forward offense overall, running 60% of the time on standard downs and throwing two-thirds of the time on passing downs. They did not approach the game with much pace, and honestly, that's a strong underdog strategy -- when you do not have a per-play advantage, your best hope is to minimize the number of overall plays and hope you catch a break or two.
Treadwell's primary influence may be in the degree to which Miami attempts to establish the run. They were pass-first last season, and despite a couple of lovely options at quarterback -- Zac Dysert and Austin Boucher -- the most important member of Miami's 2011 offense could be sophomore Erik Finklea, the surprise winner of the running backs competition. Finklea (6-foot-1, 202 pounds) was a strongside linebacker in the spring. He will be running behind an experienced offensive line that returns four starters but ranked just 113th in Adj. Line Yards last year. If this Missouri defensive line lives up to the hype we have heaped upon it, Miami should face quite a high proportion of passing downs, as they won't be running the ball effectively.
|Success Rt+ Rk||86||44|
|Rushing S&P+ Rk||98||111|
|Passing S&P+ Rk||86||22|
When Michigan State passed last year, they were quite aggressive with it. They threw downfield as much as they could get away with it, and while a strong Missouri pass rush could limit this option, if Dysert can get the pass off, sophomore Nick Harwell might have a big day. As a No. 2 to productive possession receiver Armand Robinson, Harwell was both efficient (67% catch rate) and rather explosive (13.6 yards per catch). He was a big-play guy in what was not really a big-play offense, and with Robinson gone, it will be up to Harwell to test the rearranged Missouri secondary.
Unless Harwell goes off, I do not think Miami has enough weapons to break Missouri down. With an experienced line and a big back, this is an offense that could get things together and do some damage down the line in the MAC; but they are breaking in more parts than Missouri is, and it will take a little while.
One thing to note: Missouri was extremely vulnerable to getting gashed by rushes on passing downs, and Treadwell was not against using draw plays -- or, if not draw plays, relatively straight-forward rushes on second-and-long -- at Michigan State. If Mizzou gets a little too crazy with the all-out attack up front, a smaller, third-down back like redshirt freshman Orne Bey (5-foot-8, 177 pounds) could have a little success.
When Missouri Has The Ball…
|SD % Run||52.6%||56.9%|
|Success Rt+ Rk||12||38|
|Rushing S&P+ Rk||20||75|
|Passing S&P+ Rk||44||74|
Miami's quarterbacks made the plays when they needed to, but the Redhawks' defense was what carried them to the MAC title game. They were quite vulnerable to big plays, as a lot of mid-major defenses are, but they were quite efficient on standard downs, and that leverage did them a lot of good. Against a defense that leverages you into passing downs, you die a slow death. You are constantly scrambling to convert third-and-7's, and while you may be able to do it for a while, it is difficult to continue doing it. With their three-touchdown explosion in the first quarter last year, Missouri not only took Miami out of their comfort zone, they obliterated the comfort zone. The longer this game stays close, the more pressure Missouri will feel on second-and-9 and third-and-6.
Perhaps the most telling part of this game will take place when Missouri has first-and-10 opportunities. As 2010 progressed, Mizzou moved from pass-all-the-time to extremely balanced on standard downs. How they attack Miami on first downs will tell us a lot about what they intend to accomplish on offense all season. With James Franklin behind center, will they become an almost run-first attack on standard downs? Will they attempt the same super-efficient passing game?
|SD % Run||29.5%||28.2%|
|Success Rt+ Rk||13||78|
|Rushing S&P+ Rk||6||85|
|Passing S&P+ Rk||29||84|
With a banged-up offensive line that will be missing two projected starters (Elvis Fisher and Travis Ruth), Missouri may have their hands full up front. Miami ranked 20th in Adj. Line Yards and 23rd in Adj. Sack Rate last season, both fantastic rankings for a mid-major, and tackle Austin Brown was one of the primary reasons why they thrived. Brown is undersized (276 pounds) but super-quick; actually, that goes for the entire line, whose projected starters average just 263 pounds across the board. Brown, end Jason Semmes (10.5 TFL/sacks) and middle linebacker Jerrell Wedge (69.5 tackles, 15.0 TFL/sacks) were Miami's primary playmakers last year, and all three return.
As Missouri learned last year, however, if you can get a back past Miami's front seven, he will likely run a long way. Miami's cornerbacks are solid, especially D.J. Brown (2 INT, 13 PBU), but safety play was lacking. That bled over into passing downs, where Miami fell from efficient to mediocre very quickly. Miami opponents were not afraid of passing on the Redhawks, and lord knows David Yost probably won't be either.
In all, this defense is better than what it showed in Columbia last year because, as mentioned above, they got leveraged far out of their comfort zone with the early deficit and had to start taking chances they were unable to take.
1. First-and-10. If Mizzou's offensive line is going to struggle with a solid Miami front seven, here's where it will be most evident. Meanwhile, this will most clearly reveal Miami's general offensive approach and whether it will be successful or not.
2. The Downfield Pass. Don Treadwell had no trouble throwing intermediate and deep passes at Michigan State last year. If he does the same with Miami this year, it will put pressure on Mizzou's retooled secondary to do its job and avoid breakdowns.
3. Turnovers and Special Teams. It is very difficult to win a game in which you are the huge underdog if you don't make difference-making plays either through turnovers or special teams. It is a bit of a cliche, but it is very true. If Mizzou wins the turnover battle and doesn't give up any huge returns or momentum swings via various kicking games, Miami almost cannot win.
Upsets happen when the underdog gets enough breaks -- either ones they created, or ones they were handed by their opponent -- to build a cushion, then holds on for dear life in the fourth quarter. Missouri did not give Miami a chance to breathe last year, scoring their quickest touchdown ever (Carl Gettis' 19-yard fumble recovery eight seconds into the game) and building a 44-3 lead midway through the third quarter. It was their finest performance all season, and it will be hard to replicate.
Both sides feature key, new pieces -- Miami's on the sideline, Missouri's behind center. I am not quite as comfortable as the numbers are in predicting a 30+ point victory, but I do not think Miami has the tools to leverage the game to their liking. We'll say the Redhawks keep it close for 20-25 minutes, then Mizzou pulls away. The numbers say Mizzou 41, Miami 10; I'll go with 31-7.
A Quick Glossary
Covariance: This tells us whether a team tends to play up or down to their level of competition. A higher ranking means a team was more likely to play well against bad teams while struggling (relatively speaking) against good ones. (So in a way, lower rankings are better.) For more, go here.
F/+ Rankings: The official rankings for the college portion of Football Outsiders. They combine my own S&P+ rankings (based on play-by-play data) with Brian Fremeau's drives-based FEI rankings.
Passing Downs: Second-and-7 or more, third-and-5 or more.
PPP: An explosiveness measure derived from determining the point value of every yard line (based on the expected number of points an offense could expect to score from that yard line) and, therefore, every play of a given game.
S&P+: Think of this as an OPS (the "On-Base Plus Slugging" baseball measure) for football. The 'S' stands for success rates, a common Football Outsiders efficiency measure that basically serves as on-base percentage. The 'P' stands for PPP+, an explosiveness measure that stands for EqPts Per Play. The "+" means it has been adjusted for the level of opponent, obviously a key to any good measure in college football. S&P+ is measured for all non-garbage time plays in a given college football game. Plays are counted within the following criteria: when the score is within 28 points in the first quarter, within 24 points in the second quarter, within 21 points in the third quarter, and within 16 points (i.e. two possession) in the fourth quarter. For more about this measure, visit the main S&P+ page at Football Outsiders.
Standard Downs: First downs, second-and-6 or less, third-and-4 or less.
Success Rate: A common Football Outsiders tool used to measure efficiency by determining whether every play of a given game was successful or not. The terms of success in college football: 50 percent of necessary yardage on first down, 70 percent on second down, and 100 percent on third and fourth down.
Schizophrenia: This measures how steady a team's performances are throughout the course of a full season. Teams with a higher ranking tend to be extremely unpredictable from week to week. For more, go here.