NOTE: Confused? See the quick glossary at the bottom.
Missouri at Texas A&M
So it's come to this, Mizzou. I don't expect you to win this game. I long ago predicted that Texas A&M would actually be quite strong this year, and they are; only, they have also conjured a Heisman favorite out of whole cloth at quarterback. They're good, and you most likely lost your shot at a bowl game when Alec Lemon came open with under 30 seconds left in the game last week. Sure, you could win -- A&M can be beaten deep, Johnny Manziel can be turned over, and lord knows you've played better in your last two games at Kyle Field than you did in any of your seven at Faurot Field this year. But it's not likely.
That said ... how much fight do you have left? Because I could see this going in two different ways (well, three, including an upset). 1) You put up a solid, competent fight, one befitting of a Top 50 team at the very least, and you fall because A&M is a better team. 2) You leave your fight in Columbia after a gut-wrenching loss, and you're down, 28-0, at the end of the first quarter tomorrow night. I've seen a few comparisons to the 1999 season this week, which really isn't fair, but it probably goes without saying that a seven-loss season that ends in some ridiculous, 66-0 pasting (which isn't unheard of for Mizzou at Texas A&M) will draw a lot more parallels than anybody would prefer. And while I've clearly been (and still am) a staunch Gary Pinkel supporter, his early, lesser teams didn't make a habit of finishing strong when bowl eligibility was either almost, or completely, off the table.
2001: Mizzou is 4-5, in need of two wins for a bowl, and finishes by losing by 21 to a 6-6 Kansas State team and by 48 to a 7-5 Michigan State team.
2002: Mizzou is 5-6, in need of an upset of Kansas State to reach six wins, and loses, 38-0.
2004: Mizzou is 4-5, in need of two wins for a bowl, and falls behind by 28 points to Kansas, at home.
That was a while ago, and thankfully you have to go back that far to find parallels to the type of season Missouri has had this year. But they aren't happy precedents. This team has a chance to change that. Will it?
When A&M Has The Ball…
|Standard Downs||Passing Downs|
|SD % Run||55.1%||37.8%|
|Success Rt+ Rk||15||30||4||29|
|Rushing S&P+ Rk||2||19||1||53|
|Passing S&P+ Rk||28||31||6||19|
Johnny Manziel (6'1, 200, RSFr.) (3,047 passing yards, 68% completion, 21 TD, 7 INT; 1,243 pre-sack rushing yards, 17 TD)
Jameill Showers (6'1, 219, So.) (281 passing yards, 46 rushing yards)
Matt Joeckel (6'4, 234, So.) (42 passing yards, 1 rushing yard)
The stats above tell you pretty much everything you need to know about the offense A&M attempts through Johnny Football. On standard downs, the Aggies are about 50-50 between run and pass, distributing the ball to many interesting weapons in both the backfield and receiving corps. The passing game is good enough to demand attention, and the running game is great.
On passing downs, meanwhile, it's "Hey Johnny, go make a play." A&M runs a lot on passing downs, both by design and by way of Manziel scrambling. And he is good enough at the "run around like a chicken with your head cut off, then find an open receiver" game that A&M is the best passing downs offense in the country. As Gary Pinkel alluded earlier this week, you wonder how it works for him so frequently, but it does. Obviously.
Ben Malena (5'8, 195, Jr.) (706 rushing yards, 6.0 per carry, 6 TDs; 91 receiving yards, 3.8 per target, 1 TD)
Christine Michael (5'11, 220, Sr.) (357 rushing yards, 4.2 per carry, 10 TDs; 36 receiving yards, 5.1 per target)
Trey Williams (5'8, 185, Fr.) (269 rushing yards, 5.2 per carry, 4 TDs; 155 receiving yards, 12.9 per target)
When you share a backfield with Johnny Manziel, you are probably going to occasionally benefit from distracted defenders. And Ben Malena is fast enough to very much take advantage of that. Christine Michael basically pulled a Sheldon Richardson earlier this year, missing some action, then getting testy on Twitter during the game he was missing. But since his comeback, he seems to have settled nicely into a "short-yardage" role, which is a nice luxury considering he, uh, isn't slow. And then you've got Trey Williams, the star of Kevin Sumlin's first recruiting class who doesn't get a ton of touches but is also more than fast and interesting enough to take advantage if the defense isn't ready for the touches he does get.
Three backs, each different in some regard, sharing about 25-30 touches per game. A good offensive coordinator -- and Kliff Kingsbury is clearly a good offensive coordinator -- will take advantage of that.
WR: Mike Evans (6'5, 218, RSFr.) (923 receiving yards, 9.1 per target, 4 TD)
Derel Walker (6'2, 185, Jr.) (50 receiving yards, 10.0 per target)
Nate Askew (6'4, 220, Jr.) (10 receiving yards, 1.3 per target)
Comparatively speaking, the passing game is the weaker piece of A&M's offense, but only comparatively speaking. You've still got a high-volume pair of receivers -- Mike Evans and Ryan Swope combine for almost half of A&M's targets -- with a series of role players, basically. Uzoma Nwachukwu is the sparingly-used deep threat (18.2 yards per catch, four catches for 160 yards last week versus Sam Houston State), the running backs are solid bailout options, and the tight ends will get about one target per game.
It will be interesting to see which receiver E.J. Gaines is assigned to most of the time. Evans is the No. 1, but honestly, Kip Edwards' best moments have come when matched up with bigger receivers (and bigger A&M receivers at that). And perhaps more importantly ... what role does Randy Ponder play? We know that Mizzou will be employing a nickel back for a large portion of the time, and the thought of Ponder matched up with Nwachukwu is terrifying. Ponder is a scrapper and a good tackler, but it is crystal clear that he doesn't have high-end speed. Nwachukwu does.
Mizzou has certainly become rather well-versed in defending the spread through the years, but this receiving corps will still prove a solid test, not to mention some interesting decisions for Dave Steckel.
LG: Jarvis Harrison (6'3, 320, So.) (16 career starts)
Germain Ifedi (6'5, 338, Fr.)
One of the reasons I thought A&M would be good this year, even despite what I thought would be a new, sometimes shaky quarterback, was this line. It's amazing what a fantastic offensive line and solid skill position weapons can do for a young QB, huh? Well this might be the best offensive line in the country outside of Alabama. Not only that, but ... you guessed it ... it has remained completely and totally healthy this year. Every starter has started at least 12 consecutive games, and Matthews, Joeckel and Lewis have all started at least 31 in a row. (Sad group chorus) Must be nice. :-(
(This two-deep is also a reminder of something else entirely: Mizzou lost two offensive line commits before Signing Day in last year's class. One was Simon Goines, who has started every game at tackle for Pac-12 South champion UCLA. The other was Germain Ifedi, who is a chief backup on this squad. Think Mizzou could have used one of those two this year, at this, of all positions?)
Now, as I mentioned up top, you can turn A&M over. They fumble about twice per game, and Manziel will throw a pick every now and then. (Granted, his pick rate is under two percent, which is fantastic for a freshman; but he throws a lot of passes, and one of every 50 or so will get picked off.) If Mizzou can force exactly that -- two fumbles and a pick -- the Tigers will give themselves a chance. But that's pretty much how you have to stop A&M. The Aggies are going to get plenty of yards along the way, especially early in the game, when they are all but unstoppable. Weather the storm, hack at the ball, and hope to get lucky a few times.
And hope your offense can also score at least about 28 points on its own.
When Missouri Has The Ball…
|Standard Downs||Passing Downs|
|SD % Run||56.4%||35.4%|
|Success Rt+ Rk||66||23||25||22|
|Rushing S&P+ Rk||46||18||49||41|
|Passing S&P+ Rk||93||59||27||20|
RUSH: Damontre Moore (6'4, 250, Jr.) (65.5 tackles, 20 TFL, 12.5 sacks, 1 FF, 2 PBU, 7 QBH)
Tyrell Taylor (6'4, 230, So.) (4.0 tackles, 1.5 TFL, 1 sack, 3 QBH)
The good news: A&M very much does not have the best defense Mizzou has faced this year. Of that, there is no doubt.
The bad news: A&M is good in a specific way that has haunted Missouri at times this year: speed rushing. Damontre Moore is fierce. Honestly, the rest of the front seven is only decent in this regard, but Moore alone gives A&M a healthy dose of speed up front. The rest of the line is simply sturdy and solid against the run. Despite Moore, A&M's pass rush ranks just 28th in Adj. Sack Rate ("just" is still pretty good, obviously), but the line ranks ninth in Adj. Line Yards. Mizzou could be alright here, but ... maybe not.
SLB: Sean Porter (6'2, 230, Sr.) (44.0 tackles, 5.5 TFL, 2.5 sacks, 1 INT, 4 PBU, 1 FF, 1 FR, 3 QBH)
Michael Richardson (6'2, 230, Fr.) (6.5 tackles)
MLB: Jonathan Stewart (6'4, 244, Sr.) (52.5 tackles, 1.5 TFL, 1.5 sacks, 4 PBU, 5 QBH)
Justin Bass (6'2, 217, So.) (6.5 tackles, 1 PBU)
A&M starts a freshman up front and two sophomores in the back. But the linebackers provide a lovely anchor of experience, cleaning up messes and getting hands on all sorts of passes. That's basically their role. Because of Moore, A&M doesn't need to blitz an incredible amount, and it shows: the six linebackers above have combined for just 16.5 tackles for loss, about 1.5 per game. But they play their assigned roles perfectly well.
CB: Deshazor Everett (6'0, 181, So.) (30.0 tackles, 3 TFL, 2 INT, 6 PBU)
De'Vante Harris (5'10, 175, Fr.) (21.5 tackles, 2 TFL, 1 INT, 2 PBU)
Floyd Raven, Sr. (6'1, 190, So.) (12.5 tackles, 2.5 TFL, 1 sack, 1 PBU, 1 QBH)
FS: Steven Terrell (5'10, 193, Sr.) (42.5 tackles, 3.5 TFL, 2 INT, 4 PBU, 2 FF)
Toney Hurd, Jr. (5'9, 180, Jr.) (44.5 tackles, 4 TFL, 1 INT, 1 PBU)
The secondary has, at times, been a bit of a weak spot for the Aggies, who have juggled some lineups here and there and have only occasionally found the right balance. Freshman De'Vante Harris has started seven games and is now on the second string, safety Steven Campbell had to quit football with lingering headache issues, et cetera. To me, this is quite easily the weakest piece of A&M's defense. In other words, it would be a very good thing if Mizzou's receiving corps were able to build on recent success. If every piece of the receiving corps is playing well at the same time -- if Marcus Lucas is catching passes over the middle, if L'Damian Washington is finding space on intermediate routes, if T.J. Moe is fielding quick-hitters, if Jimmie Hunt is dancing all around, and if Dorial Green-Beckham is, uh, being the good version of DGB, Mizzou has too many weapons for A&M here, at least if all of these things are also accompanied by a quarterback throwing accurate passes. That's kind of key, huh?
I haven't mentioned it yet, obviously, but we do head into tomorrow with no idea what to expect from the quarterback position. My guess is that James Franklin is healthy enough to play, and that's a good thing, as I still think he is pretty easily the best quarterback Mizzou has at the moment, warts and all. If Corbin Berkstresser starts tomorrow, I honestly don't think Mizzou has much of a chance. And I say that with the obvious (and repeated) disclaimer that I haven't given up on Berkstresser overall. I just don't think he's ready to lead Mizzou to a win in a game like this. I'd be happy for him to prove me wrong.
With the way the Mizzou receiving corps has played in November, and with the way A&M struggles against the pass early on downs (when they can't just sic Damontre Moore at the quarterback), I think this is a potential advantage for Mizzou. It might be the only one, but at least it's one. As long as the quarterback, whoever he is, doesn't get in the way.
K: Taylor Bertolet (5'9, 174, RSFr.) (54-60 PAT, 9-15 FGs <40, 3-6 FGs >40)
P: Ryan Epperson (6'2, 195, Sr.) (34 punts, 43.1 average, 41.2 net)
KR: Trey Williams (5'8, 185, Fr.) (21 KR, 23.5 average)
PR: Dustin Harris (6'0, 175, Sr.) (30 PR, 13.4 average, 1 TD)
A&M ranks just 86th in Special Teams F/+, and it isn't necessarily hard to see why. Dustin Harris is a lovely punt returner, and the punting is solid, but the kick returns haven't been all that dangerous (despite the fact that you will hold your breath every time Trey Williams has the ball in your hands), and the kicking has been rather subpar. Taylor Bertolet is only making 90 percent of his PATs and has been incredibly sporadic outside of about 30 yards. He has a strong enough leg to have made two FGs of more than 50 yards, but he is only 2-for-9 from between 30 and 49 yards.
Spread: A&M -22
F/+ Pick: A&M by 24.4
I assume you have put together the "how Mizzou can win" formula by now, haven't you?
1. Force at least two, preferably three turnovers.
2. Weather an early storm (I will deem any sort of scoreless stop on A&M's first three drives a victory).
3. Dominate with your receivers.
4. Win special teams.
Do those four things, and Mizzou could still end up bowl eligible. But as I have said a few times this year, there is a reason why Mizzou is a hefty underdog in this one. While the Tigers have proven they can do any of those four things, they haven't proven they can do all four things in the same game. And when they do (as against Tennessee), it comes only after a miserable first half. (And I'll say it right now: If Mizzou's first half in College Station resembles the one in Knoxville, Mizzou will be down 38-3 at halftime.)
But again, while I would love a win, what is almost as important to me is simply a positive response. Barring a big upset, this is Missouri's final game of 2012. Do you go out giving me a reason to remain optimistic for 2013? Or do you lay a giant egg and send me down a different road? It honestly might not make a difference -- sometimes an awful performance can plant the seeds for an angry, effective offseason -- but it would feel different, right? Maybe? It will certainly leave a specific flavor on the tongue after the disappointing meal that is the 2012 football season.
A Quick Glossary
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.
Field Position %: The percentage of a team's plays run in their opponent's field position. National average: 43%.
Leverage Rate: A team's ratio of standard downs to passing downs. National average: 68%. Anything over 68% means a team did a good job of avoiding being leveraged into passing downs.
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. National average: 0.32.
S&P: Think of this as an OPS (the "On-Base Plus Slugging" baseball measure) for football. The 'S' stands for success rate. The 'P' stands for PPP, an explosiveness measure that stands for EqPts Per Play. 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. National average: 0.747. Standard downs S&P average: 0.787. Passing downs S&P average: 0.636.
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. National Average: 42%.