On September 28, Arkansas State visits Columbia to wrap up the September portion of Mizzou's old-fashioned, "non-conference first, then conference play in October" 2013 schedule. Mizzou should be favored in all four games, but we're talking more like "60-80 percent chance of winning" favorites, not slam-dunks.
ASU has won the last two Sun Belt titles with two different coaches; Hugh Freeze blazed a trail through the conference in his lone year in Jonesboro before heading to Ole Miss, then Gus Malzahn pulled the same act before leaving for Auburn. The Red Wolves are proving that program commitment is just about as important as coaching continuity, but you're still rolling the dice every time you make a new move. Now former Texas (and Boise State) offensive coordinator Bryan Harsin is the head man. ASU has to replace enough pieces that I think they'll briefly cede control of the conference to the Louisiana schools (Lafayette and Monroe), but the Red Wolves will still be pretty salty.
Not only did Malzahn, like Freeze, leave after one year, but quarterback Ryan Aplin, the two-time Sun Belt player of the year, is now also gone. Aplin started more than 40 straight games for the Red Wolves, passed for 10,753 yards, rushed for another 1,756 and helped to account for 98 total touchdowns (67 through the air, 31 on the ground). After interception issues earlier in his career, he was nearly perfect in 2012: 3,342 passing yards, 68 percent completion rate, 24 touchdown passes, four interceptions. In his place is a grab bag of potentially interesting replacements.
ASU heads into 2013 also in need of replacing two of its top three receivers, its most experienced offensive lineman, its best defensive end, three of its top four linebackers and two of its top three defensive backs. The cupboard is far from bare, but one has to assume a setback of some sort is likely.
With UL-Lafayette and ULM returning vastly experienced, interesting squads and Bobby Petrino looming at Western Kentucky, ASU's odds of winning a third straight Sun Belt title aren't great. But the size of the setback -- do they slip to eight or nine wins, or do they stumble to five or six instead? -- will determine the program's trajectory moving forward. The ASU program has so many things right in recent years, and it continues to aim high. In 2013, we'll find out just how strong the bones of the program are.
In players like Rocky Hayes, Tayloer Stockemer and Julian Jones, ASU certainly had some big-play ability last year; but for the most part, this was an efficiency attack. J.D. McKissic and Josh Jarboe combined for 16 targets per game and only 10.4 yards per catch, while primary running backs David Oku and Frankie Jackson averaged just 4.5 yards per carry. ASU's was a Top 50 offense in terms of explosiveness but a Top 20 offense in terms of efficiency. One has to fear that Aplin's departure will hurt the Red Wolves most in that regard.
Oku, Jackson, McKissic and Jones all return, as do six linemen with starting experience -- from a line that was one of the best in the country in short-yardage situations, no less -- but the losses of Stockemer and Jarboe, not to mention the potential loss of Hayes to the defensive side of the ball (he was originally signed as a defensive back and is listed as a defensive back on the 2013 spring roster), will hurt this team's impressive precision.
Chaz Scales was one of the most important pieces of ASU's back-to-back Sun Belt titles. In 2011-12, he picked off three passes, broke up 18 more, and made just 62.0 total tackles. You potentially don't want your corner making too many tackles in a pass-happy league -- it suggests his man caught a lot of passes -- and Scales' ratio of passes defensed to tackles made was stellar. (Those same data points could also suggest he wasn't much for helping on run defense, but ASU's run defense was rock solid, so that's probably not the case.)
The loss of Scales, strong safety Cole Lorigan and end Tim Starson, the team's top pass rusher, could significantly hinder a pass defense that was already a relative weak point on this defense. ASU linebackers combined for just 2.5 sacks in 2012; with the front and back of the defense thinned out a bit, defensive coordinator John Thompson (a holdover from Malzahn's staff and the interim coach during the GoDaddy.com Bowl) might need to blitz quite a bit to help the secondary out.
ASU's biggest advantage
In 2012, ASU's line was quite possibly better than the one Harsin oversaw at Texas last year. The Red Wolves ranked 44th in Adj. Line Yards and 18th in Adj. Sack Rate (with help from quick passing) and return six players with starting experience up front. Obviously we have hope for domination from guys like Kony Ealy and Michael Sam, but there's a pretty good chance that ASU is able to neutralize Mizzou's presence up front. If that happens, then the Red Wolves will have a good chance to get the ball to potential play-makers like David Oku and J.D. McKissic.
Mizzou's biggest advantage
Well, pass defense was an issue for ASU last year, and that was with corner Chaz Scales. Scales is gone, as is the leader of a pretty poor pass rush (Tim Starson). So for the fourth straight week, Mizzou's offense will be facing a pretty poor pass defense. James Franklin and Tiger receivers really have no excuse for getting off to a slow start in September.
I do think ASU takes a bit of a step backwards this year. It won't be a significant one, and I assume the Red Wolves will end up bowl eligible at the end of the season. But of this trio of tricky non-conference games (Toledo, Indiana, ASU), I think I'm most confident in Mizzou's ability to avoid upset in this one. While the defense will get tested throughout non-conference play, the offense will face less resistance, and if the Tigers' play-makers are indeed making plays, they can start 4-0, even if these games are closer than we'd maybe like. For this one, give me Mizzou 34, ASU 16.