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Mizzou 2009, Part Two: Putting 2008 to bed

Part One: Blaine Gabbert and the Four-Year Precedent - Why establishing expectations is so difficult

It struck me as I was hammering out the K-State preview this week that...well, I haven't actually talked about Missouri much this offseason, in BTBS-ese or English.  In honor of preseason camp's kickoff, why don't we change that, mmkay?

Consider this Part Two of an ongoing Mizzou 2009 series, following rptgwb's Blaine Gabbert post from Tuesday.  Moving forward, we'll take a look at the same types of BTBS projections that we've been making for all the other teams on the 2009 schedule, we'll take an in-depth position-by-position analysis (like you didn't know that was coming), we'll revisit the "Gary Pinkel vs History" series from last December, and...well, we'll do a whole bunch of other things as well.  August is going to be a fun month.

So without further adieu, it's time to put 2008 to bed once and for all.  The games that were lost are still lost, the players that have gone are still gone, and the 2009 season is less than a month (!!!) away.  Over the next couple of days, we'll look back to 2008 to try to understand specifically what might have gone right or wrong and get a read for what it might mean for 2009.  Let's get started!


Record: 10-4 (5-3 in conference, Big 12 North Champions)
S&P+: 241.1 (10th in the country, 3rd in the Big 12)
Scoring Margin: 591-381 (+210)
Conference Scoring Margin: 325-213 (+112)
Wins (S&P+ Ranking in parentheses): #21 Nebraska, #25 Illinois, #36 Nevada, #40 Baylor, #44 Northwestern, #79 Kansas State, #81 Buffalo, #82 Colorado, #104 Iowa State, 1-AA SEMO
Losses: #3 Oklahoma, #5 Texas, #14 Oklahoma State, #20 Kansas

So how exactly does Missouri end up 10th in the S&P+ rankings despite four losses and an overall drop-off in play over the last few games of the season?  Easy answer: they were just that good in their wins.  Despite what amounted to an average performance against OU and below-average performances against Northwestern, Kansas, Baylor, Texas, and Oklahoma State, Mizzou was flat-out untouchable in the other eight games of the season (in close-game circumstances, mind none of those late-game points and yards against Kansas State, Nebraska, Illinois, etc., counted in the totals).  There is no late-season bias in the numbers--the whole season is evaluated equally--so clearly the good times outweighed the bad when it came to Mizzou's "+" performance.

And let's be honest.  The 2008 season didn't play out as Mizzou fans wanted or expected it to, but...well, stuff happens.  Things don't always bounce your way.  A year after becoming basically the only team in the country that didn't lose a game it shouldn't lose in 2007 (LSU lost to Arkansas and Kentucky, Ohio State lost to Illinois, Oklahoma lost to Colorado and Tech, etc.), Mizzou lost two such games in 2008, to Kansas and Oklahoma State. But beyond that, there was another reason Mizzou's title run never took shape: OU and Texas were great again.  Whereas Mizzou made a move in 2007 when Texas was struggling a bit and OU was going through a couple of brainfarts (lord knows they wouldn't have lost a game if they played every game like they played the Big 12 title game), their title hopes really ended before anybody had noticed--they ended when OU and Texas became OU and Texas again.  To win a national title, they had to at least go 1-1 at Texas and in the Big 12 title game.  Texas played just about the most perfect game of the season against Mizzou in Austin, and nobody in the country was beating OU the Saturday of the Big 12 title game.

So really, the disappointment comes down to the two losses to OSU and KU.  Mizzou was out of sync offensively in both games, and the defense had just enough breakdowns to lose the game, but in the end they were one bounce or break from winning either or both games.  Sometimes it just doesn't happen like you want it to.

So before we officially close the door on 2008, let's compare the S&P+ rankings from 2007 and 2008.  It's rather surprising.

S&P+ Offensive Rankings, 2007 vs 2008

  • Close-Game S&P+: 8th in 2007, 11th in 2008
  • Rushing S&P+: 17th in 2007, 27th in 2008
  • Passing S&P+: 7th in 2007, 12th in 2008
  • Standard Downs S&P+: 10th in 2007, 8th in 2008
  • Passing Downs S&P+: 5th in 2007, 21st in 2008

So the rushing game was a bit worse in 2008 than 2007, not necessarily in the way you would expect.  Derrick Washington outproduced Tony Temple (5.9 yards per carry versus 5.6), Jeremy Maclin and Chase Daniel were basically equally effective in both years, and the 2008 backups (Jimmy Jackson, De'Vion Moore) produced more than the 2007 ones (JJ, Marcus Woods, D-Wash).  Basically the only thing that changed was the strength of the run defense Mizzou played against.  The offenses on the schedule improved, as did the pass defenses, but the run defenses did not.

Even more than the 10-place drop in rushing, there was one major drop in 2008: Passing Downs success.  Every time I I've talked about Texas this offseason, I've mentioned their disproportionate Passing Downs success and how it might not be sustainable from one year to another even if the talent of the next year's offense is as good or better.  Missouri's 2007 success wasn't as disproportionate as Texas' in 2008, but it was apparently a little too good, and despite the presence of Jeremy Maclin and Chase Coffman, their success ended up falling as the year progressed, especially after avoiding three-and-outs for the first five games of the season.  The timing just wasn't quite there in Mizzou's losses, and it cost them.

So the offense regressed ever-so-slightly from 2007 to 2008.  The storyline from the offseason was just how infintiely terrible Mizzou's defense was, particularly their pass defense.  Is that what the numbers actually tell us?

S&P+ Defensive Rankings, 2007 vs 2008

  • Close-Game S&P+: 21st in 2007, 20th in 2008
  • Rushing S&P+: 34th in 2007, 14th in 2008
  • Passing S&P+: 17th in 2007, 26th in 2008
  • Standard Downs S&P+: 32nd in 2007, 33rd in 2008
  • Passing Downs S&P+: 22nd in 2007, 32nd in 2008

I realize this is probably kind of hard to accept, but according to national "+" ranking, the Mizzou defense was actually a smidge better in 2008 than 2007.  You read that correctly.  The Mizzou defense was actually better in 2008 than 2007.  So how the hell does that happen?  Haven't we heard all offseason that "Mizzou had the fourth-worst pass defense in the country*?"  Two reasons:

* If I hear that line one more time without the disclaimer that a) nobody played a tougher slate of passing offenses, and b) for over half the year, opponents were getting drubbed by Missouri and therefore throwing a ton of passes on Mizzou's second string, I'm going to lose my mind.  But we'll return to that...well, right now.

  1. The slate of offenses Missouri played in 2008 was so, so much better than the 2007 slate.  According to Passing S&P+, Mizzou played the #1 (Oklahoma), #9 (Texas), #10 (Nebraska), #11 (Oklahoma State), #24 (Illinois), and #25 (Kansas) passing offenses in the country in 2008.  Of COURSE they were going to give up a ton of passing yards.  Yes, there were some breakdowns, particularly against Illinois and Kansas, but in the end, against the six teams listed above, Mizzou fared alright.  They got roasted by Texas and Oklahoma, but so did everybody else, so that doesn't really count against them.  They held Oklahoma State well below their per-game averages.  They held Nebraska very well below their per-game averages.  Kansas was a glitch, and most of Illinois' damage came when Mizzou was up a healthy margin and the game was not considered "close."  As soon as Illinois cut the game back to within a close margin, the Mizzou defense stepped up and made plays again.  Which brings us to...

  2. Junk time was very, very cruel to Missouri's per-game yardage figures.  Missouri blew teams out in eight of 14 games in 2008, meaning their second string was facing the blown-out opponents first- and second-string, and most of the time those opponents were passing the whole time.  But in general, Mizzou's defense took a tumble when the close-game margin (game with 28 points in Q1, 24 in Q2, and 16 in Q3/Q4) was broken.

    Against Illinois, Mizzou gave up 9.1 yards per play (36 for 327) when the game was not "close" and 5.0 (41 for 205) when it was.  Against Kansas State, it was 7.0 per play (39 for 274) when not close, 2.5 (36 for 89) when close.  Against Nebraska, Mizzou's second/third stringers gave up 70 yards in 8 plays on the final drive.  Against K-State, Mizzou's second/third stringers gave up 150 yards in 7 plays in the final two minutes.  Plus, because of Gary Pinkel's obsession with not running up the score (which made the third-quarter fake field goal against Nevada all the more disorienting), Mizzou's second-stringers tend to play very conservatively, handing the other team quite a few fourth-quarter yards (against Buffalo, Nevada, Nebraska, Kansas State, and Iowa State).

Here's the bottom line: for a number of reasons, Mizzou's defense didn't make enough plays in 2008.  William Moore may not have been utilized correctly, members of the secondary didn't communicate well at all at the end of the year and gave up too many big plays to KU and Northwestern, etc.  But the main thing that hurt Mizzou last year was that their defense stayed about the same, while everybody's offense got better.  In 2007, three of Missouri's opponents ranked among the Offensive S&P+ Top 20 (OU #10, OU #10, Kansas #12).  In 2008, that number was five (OU #2, Texas #10, OSU #13, Nebraska #18, Kansas #19).



So that's why the defensive numbers didn't really change from 2007 to 2008.  Here were two other factors that doomed Mizzou's dreams of 12 or 13 (or 14) wins:

  1. In 2007, Mizzou recovered 58.7% of all fumbles that occurred.  In 2008, they recovered 40.6% of them.  That's a rough difference of about seven turnovers that went to Mizzou in 2007 and not in 2008.  Think about what kind of difference that can make.  In 2007, Pig Brown recovered two Eddie McGee fumbles and returned one 99 yards for a touchdown.  In 2008, Chase Daniel ran for 50 yards in the first half against Kansas and was stripped at the end, and KU recovered.  And of course, the "Danario Alexander trips and has a pass bounce off his helmet and into the arms of an OSU defender" play doesn't even count as a fumble.  Mizzou just didn't get the bounces in 2008.

  2. Passing Downs didn't go in Mizzou's favor.  While the offense still did enough to rank 12th overall in Offensive S&P+ (a very good number no matter how you cut it), they improved slightly on Standard Downs and regressed rather significantly on Passing Downs (from 5th to 21st).  On defense, they made enough plays to rank just about the same in Defensive S&P+, but unlike 2007 the plays they didn't make came in big Passing Downs situations (they fell from 22nd to 32nd in that regard).  Passing Downs are volatile--the rankings for Passing Downs appear to change more from year to year than Standard Downs success. 

    For whatever reason--potentially the lack of Martin Rucker on offense, or the misuse of a blitzing William Moore on defense--those pivotal plays didn't work to Mizzou's favor in 2008, and it made certain games (two in particular) close enough that they could be doomed by bad bounces.

What does all this mean for 2009?  Well, let's be honest--not much.  While Missouri still has the second-most proven offensive talent in the North, the second-best defensive tackle in the North, the best linebacker in the conference, and the Carl Gettis Treatment™ (yes, I'm going to blindly pretend that all of the late-season breakdowns were Justin Garrett's fault--sue me), the onslaught of youth means that last year's performance really won't have a lot of bearing on this year's, good or bad.  But if Missouri wanted to recover 60% of all fumbles again in 2009, I wouldn't complain.