The range of reasonably possible results for Mizzou in 2013 is pretty vast. Heading into the second weekend in November, the Tigers could be 3-6 following a loss to Butch Jones' upstart Vols, or they could be 7-2, having taken care of business in non-conference play, beaten Vandy in Nashville, scored a home upset of either Florida or South Carolina, and fended off Tennessee in Columbia. Obviously reality probably lies in between, but in the former scenario, the Kentucky game could potentially represent Gary Pinkel's last stand as Mizzou head coach. And in the latter, a win in Lexington could move the Tigers into the top 15 or higher. (The "if/thens" get pretty wide by the time you're previewing the 10th game of the schedule, huh?)
[New head coach Mark Stoops] has glad-handed and met the community, he has hired a pretty interesting staff that includes veteran offensive coordinator Neal Brown, an old hand at the spread offense, and young D.J. Eliot, Stoops' defensive ends coach at FSU. He has done everything he can to drum up enthusiasm in Lexington, and he has succeeded.
Stoops has passed the first test with flying colors. But the first test is the easiest. Just like a spring game isn't a real game, the real tests begin this fall, and it's probably going to take a while to see Stoops' efforts paying off to any demonstrable degree.
The reason for this is simple: Kentucky fell so, so far behind over the last couple of seasons. Joker Phillips is by all accounts a great guy and Photoshop whiz, but he couldn't keep the Wildcats afloat following Rich Brooks' retirement in 2009. Kentucky held on in Phillips' first season, falling from 7-6 and 53rd in the F/+ rankings to 6-7 and 54th. But the fall was precipitous, first on paper, then in the win column. Kentucky was 5-7 and 86th in 2011, then amid a youth movement sped up by injuries, crumbled to 2-10 and 112th in 2012.
Neal Brown likes to pass. A lot.
With Brown as offensive coordinator in 2012, Texas Tech ran just 39 percent of the time on standard downs, the second-lowest percentage in the country behind Washington State. The Red Raiders ran just 26 percent of the time on passing downs as well, which was 104th. His hire is a fun nod to Kentucky's Air Raid days with head coach Hal Mumme and offensive coordinator Mike Leach (now the head coach of the aforementioned Washington State Cougars), but it will be interesting to see how his play-calling meshes with the talent on hand.
Why? Because most of the talent on hand is at the running back position. Raymond Sanders III is shifty, explosive and a strong receiver out of the backfield. His backfield mates Jonathan George and Dyshawn Mobley also showed more potential than just about anybody at receiver for this team last year. Granted, the receivers were done no favors by their exploding Spinal Tap drummers* at quarterback, but drops were a constant issue, and yards after catch were minimal. Demarco Robinson had a 47-yard catch in the spring game, which is fine, but consider me a skeptic.
A Neal Brown offense has almost no choice but to be pretty efficient, but I don't see much explosiveness here.
The SEC is known for, among other things, ridiculous defensive lines. In terms of Adj. Line Yards, the conference claimed seven of the top 16 spots in the rankings -- Alabama was No. 3, LSU No. 5, Florida No. 7, Missouri No. 9, Ole Miss No. 10, Texas A&M No. 11, Arkansas No. 16.
Kentucky, on the other hand, was awful up front. The Wildcats could rush the passer to a decent degree, but they got pushed around terribly against the run. Their No. 102 ranking in Adj. Line Yards was easily the worst in the SEC and was the sixth-worst among all BCS conference teams (fourth-worst among BCS teams not in the Big East).
Mark Stoops did as much as he could to rectify this deficiency in his first recruiting class. Two of his three four-star signees were defensive linemen, and another two were mid- to high-three stars. Add in a pair of interesting redshirt freshmen, and you've got some potential reinforcements for a line that needed a lot of it. Both starting ends must be replaced, but it is difficult to imagine some combination of newcomer Za'Darius Smith (who had a lovely spring), redshirt freshman Langston Newton and a freshman or two not combining to at least match the six sacks that Collins Ukwu and Taylor Wyndham managed. And while tackles Donte Rumph and Mister Cobble are both wonderfully named and enormous, they could get some help from players like Thomas Chapman.
UK's biggest advantage
The Kentucky offense could end up pretty efficient overall, but UK's biggest improvement could come in the defensive front seven, where a bad line could get plumped up a bit by newcomers and a not-awful linebacking corps (led by Alvin Dupree) is loaded with experience. Mizzou running backs averaged 4.9 yards per carry against Kentucky last year (not great, not awful), and the Tigers' own shaky line failed to take complete advantage of one of Kentucky's bigger weaknesses. This year, that weakness won't be as big; will Mizzou's own improvement offset that?
Mizzou's biggest advantage
Mark Stoops has done some impressive recruiting to date, but in 2013 the personnel won't yet fit the system. In all, that's probably Mizzou's single biggest advantage. Well, that, and there won't be enough pure talent on display just yet either. At this stage in the season, Kentucky could be 4-4 and desperate to scratch out a home win to stay on path to bowl eligibility (beat Mizzou, and all they've got to do is beat Tennessee at home to get there), or the Wildcats could be about 2-6 and turning the team over to the freshmen. Regardless, this will probably be a squad that is more competitive and interesting than it was a year ago, and not quite talented enough for that to matter.
There's no reason to assume Mizzou's going to be so good that it can pull away in any road game, but I do see the Tigers eventually pulling ahead in this one. The efficiency offense will give Mizzou a few troubles for a while, but give me something like Mizzou 31, Kentucky 26. I believe that makes Mizzou 7-3 according to my picks, but I freely admit that 6-4 or so is probably more likely.