We can get a good hint for how the game might play out by watching these factors in the first 15-20 minutes.
1. How does Mizzou cover Broyles?
Possibly the most jarring aspect of last weekend's game was just how much trust Dave Steckel put into the trio of Kevin Rutland, Kip Edwards and Carl Gettis to lock down A&M's big receivers, one-on-one. Edwards is the No. 3 guy, and he was often on an island with A&M's best receiver, Jeff Fuller. Cornerback play allowed Steckel to successfully call blitzes from every possible direction.
Ryan Broyles is not Jeff Fuller. Both in terms of style and overall quality, Broyles is a different animal, and I will be closely watching how Mizzou chooses to defend him. Oklahoma will send Broyles on plenty of longer routes, but they will also throw him the same horizontal passes that we send out to T.J. Moe, Michael Egnew, etc. One-on-one situations might be bad news for Mizzou, both in terms of covering Broyles and making sure that quick sideline passes don't go for 50 yards. Does Mizzou play more zone? Do they double Broyles? Do they go one-on-one until he burns them? We'll find this answer pretty quickly.
2. Who wins the first 15 minutes?
Oklahoma is quite possibly the best team in the country in the first quarter. They have outscored opponents, 73-20, in the opening 15 minutes, and their advanced stats play out in a similar fashion -- they rank second in Offensive Q1 S&P+ and 23rd in Defensive Q1 S&P+. Even in the games that ended up close, they built up a big lead almost every time.
Mizzou, meanwhile, is solid out of the gates (56-10 scoring margin, 15th on offense), but the defense takes a little while to get rolling. Mizzou ranks 60th in Q1 Defensive S&P+, meaning OU's biggest advantage will unfold at the start. If Mizzou is tied or ahead as the second quarter begins, they have dodged a major bullet. Mizzou's defense gets better as the game advances, but "getting better" won't mean as much if they give up two touchdown drives to start the game.
3. How aggressive is David Yost?
When Mizzou is successful offensively, things usually unfold in a certain way -- sideline passes and quick 5-yarders to Michael Egnew do just well enough to get in the defense's head, then Gabbert pump fakes and burns them with deeper routes. It is beautiful when it works. Consider this Mizzou's version of running to set up the pass -- the short stuff sets up the long stuff.
Unfortunately, Oklahoma has been among the best in the country at stopping "the short stuff" in recent years. Instead of giving up five yards on a horizontal pass, they give up one. Instead of allowing the tight end to camp out underneath and drag tacklers for a seven-yard gain, they either break up the pass or stuff it for four yards. It adds up. Mizzou needs as many easy first downs as possible in this game, and their bread-and-butter might not do the trick.
At the same time, Oklahoma has been vulnerable deep, and Blaine Gabbert's touch on intermediate and deep balls just gets better and better. Does Mizzou stick with their bread-and-butter as Plan A, then try something else if it fails? Do they stray from their own comfort zone and take early shots downfield (like they did in 2006, for Greg Bracey's shining moment as a Tiger)? Obviously this is an answer we'll get within the first couple of drives.
4. Who's winning in the trenches?
In five of six games this year (Colorado being the exception), the Missouri offensive line has played very, very well. Against an Oklahoma defensive line that is good, but probably not quite as good as it has been in recent years, they can play a major role in a Mizzou victory. It's quite unlikely that Mizzou will rush for a significant amount of yards, but if they can just average four yards per carry or more, they will significantly help take pressure off of Gabbert and open up more options for David Yost's play-calling.
The same goes for when Mizzou is on defense. I was not nearly as sold on this defensive line as many were heading into 2010, but in the last two games, the line has been an absolute revelation, even without Aldon Smith. They have more talent and depth here than at any point in recent memory, and against an Oklahoma offensive line that is, like the D-line, only good and not spectacular, this could be another battle Mizzou wins.
Early on, we should be able to see who is winning both of these battles. Coaches will make adjustments, and things will unfold as the game progresses, but we will still get a pretty good idea for how Mizzou will fare in the opening handful of possessions.
5. Does Mizzou capitalize on mistakes?
My line all week has been as follows: Oklahoma is just like most of the great Oklahoma teams we're used to seeing, only they will make a couple of extra mistakes in a given game. Blown coverages, turnovers, what have you. If Mizzou is going to win, they must take advantage of these mistakes. (Think of Pig Brown dropping the interception in 2007, Chase Coffman dropping the long sure-to-be-a-TD pass in 2006.) If OU blows a coverage, complete the pass. If OU fumbles the ball, recover it. They have shown just enough lack of focus at times to be beaten, but nobody has taken full advantage yet. This is something that will play out over 60 minutes, obviously, not just in the first 15-20 minutes.