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SB Nation 2009 Big 12 Preview: Missouri

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In conjunction with CBS Sports, the folks at The Ralphie Report are organizing the official SB Nation 2009 Big 12 Conference Preview. What follows is Rock M Nation's "outsider's" look at the 2009 Missouri Tigers, much like you'd find in many preseason magazines across the country.

Offense (returning starters: 5)

In 2009, for only the second time in school history, the Missouri Tigers will have replace their quarterback and top three pass catchers. The familiar cast of characters that pushed Missouri to the summit in the Big 12 North -- field general Chase Daniel, the electric Jeremy Maclin, the reliable Chase Coffman, and the ever steady Tommy Saunders -- are all gone. So too is offensive coordinator Dave Christensen, now the head coach at Wyoming.

But if there's reason for optimism, it's that Missouri appears ready for a new cast of playmakers. Missouri isn't quite at "reload" instead of "rebuild" stage, but the Tigers shouldn't be short of firepower. Sophomore Blaine Gabbert takes the reins of the Tiger offense. Gabbert, a 5-star recruit out of high school, is loaded with the physical skills to make NFL scouts drool, but the onus is on him to prove his rocket arm can be complemented with accuracy and good decision making. By all accounts, he's had a fantastic offseason, but true judgment won't start until the season starts, as everything changes after the first hit and the first interception.

He'll be joined in the backfield by what coach Gary Pinkel has called the best 1-2 punch he's had at tailback in his tenure at Missouri. Junior Derrick Washington returns after a 1,000-yard, 17-touchdown season rushing in 2008 despite playing on a torn meniscus for 13 of Missouri's 14 games. In addition to shouldering some of the early season burden on the ground to help Gabbert along, Washington is one of the best receiving backs in the Big 12. He'll be spelled by sophomore De'Vion Moore, a shifty back who showed his potential on a 55-yard touchdown run against Colorado in 2008. Washington and Moore help form one of the conference's better tailback tandems, and it appears they will be joined by true freshman Kendial Lawrence, who has made a big push for playing time this summer.

Missouri's anchored by an offensive line that appears to be one of the conference's best, as it is showing the fruit of Gary Pinkel's labor on the recruiting trail. Senior Kurtis Gregory will be a third-year starter at guard, a season removed from being named second team All-Big 12. Redshirt sophomore Elvis Fisher and true sophomore Dan Hoch -- who average 6'6", 310 -- should be Missouri's two tackles. Fisher outperformed expectations as a starter in 2008, and Hoch, a former 4-star recruit, became one of the first true freshmen to see playing time on the offensive line for Gary Pinkel. Tim Barnes returns to start at center. In 2008, Barnes had the unenviable task of walking into a position where Missouri had seen only three starters over the previous 12 seasons, but performed extremely well. The main question for most observers on the offensive line is guard Austin Wuebbels, who has been impressive in camp thus far.

The biggest questions are at wide receiver, where Missouri looks extremely deep but less explosive than in previous years. The receiving corps could legitimately run about nine deep. Seniors Jared Perry and Danario Alexander, despite bouts with injury and inconsistency throughout their careers, are expected to be the top two targets. In addition, Gabbert appears to have developed chemistry with sophomore Wes Kemp. Odds are that Missouri has no way of replacing the dual threat of Jeremy Maclin, but should Missouri try, sophomore Jerrell Jackson seems to have worked his way into that role.  At tight end, Andrew Jones has proven to be a valuable target capable of moving the chains, and Michael Egnew's athleticism has many in the program excited.

All in all, Missouri hopes to plug and play with the names that are most likely new to the national scene. The offense falls under the direction of Dave Yost, previously the quarterbacks coach, who had as much a hand in Missouri's recent offenses as the recently departed Christensen.

(Rest of the preview after the jump)

Defense (returning starters: 4)

Gone is former defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus, who presided over a much maligned defensive in 2008. In steps linebackers coach Dave Steckel, who will bring some fire and brimstone and a "keep it simple" philosophy to the position.

On the defensive line, Missouri replaces three starters, two of whom (Evander Hood and Stryker Sulak) were NFL draft picks. The defensive end unit appears to be one of the strongest on the team, as reporters have gushed over the three-pronged end attack of Brian Coulter, Jacquies Smith, and Aldon Smith, with the first two having seen significant time in 2008. Although they'll need to prove their worth against the run, all three are explosive edge rushers who have gotten upfield with consistency and should provide Missouri its best pass rush of the Pinkel era. Missouri's biggest question may be inside, where returning starter Jaron Baston is accompanied by a large question mark at the other defensive tackle spot. The position seems to be an offseason-long battle between Terrell Resonno and Dominique Hamilton to fill the spot vacated by Ziggy Hood.

The Tigers return one of the top linebackers in the country in Sean Weatherspoon. In three seasons, Spoon has accounted for 302 tackles, eight sacks, 18.5 tackles for loss, three interceptions and two touchdowns. Luke Lambert will slide inside to fill the MLB spot vacated by Brock Christopher. The junior has very quietly gone about his business over the last two seasons. Andrew Gachkar is expected to win the final linebacking job. Gachkar, who had a rib removed to break up a blood clot before 2008, could very well determine Missouri's defensive strategy in 2009. In 2008, Missouri often used nickel packages to counter the high flying offenses of the Big 12. This season, Gachkar appears to be fast enough and strong enough in coverage to allow Missouri to remain in its base 4-3 more frequently.

Missouri runs six-deep at cornerback, but after third-year junior starter Carl Gettis at one corner, the other five are locked in a battle for the second spot. Gary Pinkel has praised the group as the most athletic he's had, but after a season where the unit was constantly crucified by national media and many fans, that athleticism needs to result in improved game performance. Missouri faces similar questions at safety, where the Tigers replace NFL draft pick William Moore, a 2007 all-American who was constantly fighting injuries in 2008. Sophomore Kenji Jackson showed great promise at the end of 2008 and appears to have locked down one safety spot. At the other safety spot, many Missouri fans expected senior Hardy Ricks to cede the spot to Jarrell Harrison, but Ricks -- highly regarded as a hitter but somewhat of an unknown quantity in coverage -- has supposedly held up his end of the bargain this spring. More than anything, the defensive backfield needs to shore up the communication issues that plagued them in 2008, resulting in several high profile breakdowns for big plays.

Special Teams

It will be no easy task for Missouri to replace Jeff Wolfert, the diver turned walk-on turned scholarship kicker who exited Mizzou as the most accurate field goal kicker in NCAA history. The job has turned into a battle between Tanner Mills and Grant Ressel for placekicking duties, although Mills appears to have secured the job for kickoffs, a spot where he should be a definite improvement over Wolfert.

Jake Harry returns to punt for Missouri. The punting position was an area of concern for Tiger fans entering 2008, but Harry was solid all season long and perhaps the unsung hero of the Alamo Bowl against Northwestern. Missouri's punting was aided in 2008 when Missouri instituted the rugby punt against Oklahoma State to avoid Dez Bryant and carried it throughout the rest of the season.

Jeremy Maclin single handedly swung momentum in Missouri's favor in games against Illinois and Northwestern with returns for touchdowns, and it's not a stretch to say replacing his ability to change a game on special teams may be impossible. Right now, guesses about who gets the returning jobs are six for a dollar. Names that have floated around include Munir Prince, Jerrell Jackson, Kendial Lawrence, Jared Perry, Rolandis Woodland, De'Vion Moore and Jasper Simmons.

Key losses

-- Offense: QB Chase Daniel, WR Jeremy Maclin, TE Chase Coffman, OL Ryan Madison

-- Defense: DE Stryker Sulak, DT Ziggy Hood, LB Brock Christopher, S William Moore

-- Special Teams: K Jeff Wolfert, KR/PR Jeremy Maclin

Season Forecast

As it has for the last two seasons, Missouri begins its campaign in St. Louis, where they'll meet the Illinois Fighting Illini. Missouri has won all four meetings between the teams this decade, although Illinois will be a far more proven commodity in a game that should be a matchup of UI's proven talent versus MU's unproven potential. After home dates with Bowling Green and Furman, Missouri goes on the road to play what is perhaps the most sneakily dangerous game on the schedule, a nationally-televised Friday night game in Reno against the Nevada Wolf Pack. Missouri destroyed a solid Nevada team, 69-17, in Columbia last season, and the combination of the pressure of Missouri's first true road test and Nevada's potent offense could be very troublesome for a young Tiger team. Anywhere from 4-0 to 2-2 is a possibility for the Tigers to open 2009, with house money probably being played on 3-1.

Missouri opens conference play with probably its most pivotal game of the season when the Nebraska Cornhuskers come to Columbia for a nationally televised Thursday night game. Much like it was supposed to be two years ago, the game could be a statement about the balance of power in the Big 12 North. Win that game, and the Tigers are in play for a third straight North title.

After that, the Tigers figure to be underdogs against the Oklahoma State Cowboys and Texas Longhorns, but should be either favorites or close to a pick 'em in almost every game the rest of the season. Missouri has to travel to face the Kansas State Wildcats and Colorado Buffaloes and faces everyone's upset special -- the Baylor Bears -- in Columbia. Once again, the Tigers end the season in Kansas City against the Kansas Jayhawks, where all bets are off and any predictions don't matter.

Question marks abound for Missouri, which is why prognosticators have the Tigers anywhere from 5-7 and fifth in the North to 10-2 and champions of the North. The truth, which may very well lie in the middle around 8-4, remains to be seen.

Predicted order of finish

Big 12 North
Kansas**
Missouri
Nebraska
Kansas State
Colorado
Iowa State

** Wins three-way tiebreaker on strength of 5-0 North record

Big 12 South
Texas
Oklahoma
Oklahoma State
Texas Tech
Baylor
Texas A&M

 

For more in-depth coverage, refer to our Mizzou Football Preview series:

2009 Mizzou Football Preview Series