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Mizzou at Baylor: Beyond The Box Score Preview

NOTE: Confused? See the quick glossary at the bottom. It feels really weird having to hate Hot Tub Griffin III for a week.

Missouri at Baylor

Record AP
F/+ Rk
S&P+ Rk
2011 Off.
F/+ Rk
2011 Def.
F/+ Rk
Missouri 4-4 NR 28 34 24 46 14
Baylor 4-3 NR 40 22 13 97 11

We probably generalize too much in this regard -- I know I do -- but it is impossible not to get caught up comparing coaches to coaches based on a tiny sample of results. Mike Gundy owns Gary Pinkel. Gary Pinkel owned Mike Leach. Gary Pinkel owns Mike Sherman. Mark Mangino owned Gary Pinkel, then Pinkel owned Mangino. Of course, with the same sample size, we could also say that Mizzou owns the SEC, so this is probably indeed a fruitless exercise.

This is good, as when it comes to Gary Pinkel versus Art Briles, the advantage has gone one specific direction. Pinkel and Briles have faced off twice since Briles took the Baylor job. In 2008, a strong, superior, ten-win Mizzou team needed Baylor's Jordan Lake to drop an interception (one that would have probably been taken back for a touchdown) just so Jeff Wolfert could take (and make) the game-winning field goal in the final minutes and escape, 31-28. In 2009, a Baylor squad lacking an injured Robert Griffin III came to Columbia and still passed for approximately 1,143 yards in a 40-32 Baylor win. Baylor is not incredibly deep, and they can be pushed around a bit on the interior, but they dominated Missouri in 2009 with speed on the edges; in 2011, they have even more speed.

The matchup advantages might go in both directions, but Mizzou does have one thing on its side: momentum. Not necessarily their own -- in terms of opponent-adjusted Adj. Points, their Adj. Scoring Margin for their past five games has been all over the place: +17.1, +1.6, +19.9, +0.1, +13.5 -- but Baylor's.

I like to say that improvement (or regression) tends not to be linear -- it is more likely to come in the form of two steps forward and one step back. That said ... Baylor's trend this year has been pretty damn linear. Their offense has gone from other-worldly to merely good, and their defense has trended from average to awful. If this continues, Mizzou is in great shape to move to 5-4 and continue what they hope is a late-season surge. But if Good Baylor shows up (to the extent that the Good Baylor that existed in September is still available), then this is a dogfight.

To the matchups!

When Baylor Has The Ball…

We'll start with the semi-terrifying aspect of this matchup. Baylor's defense may have plenty of weaknesses, and the offense may not be quite as sharp as it was in the first month of the season, but the Bears still have some significant matchup advantages. Two, actually: Robert Griffin III and Kendall Wright.

Standard Downs
SD % Run 57.6% 56.2%
S&P+ Rk 10 45
Success Rt+ Rk 14 63
PPP+ Rk 12 38
Rushing S&P+ Rk 31 31
Passing S&P+ Rk 8 66

On its face, it appears that Baylor holds a rather significant advantage on standard downs. And to some degree, that's true, simply because they're a top ten offense in this regard -- they hold an advantage on just about everybody. They pass slightly more than the 60% average, and they do it incredibly well. Kendall Wright sees almost 40% of Robert Griffin's passes on these downs, and he is ridiculously efficient. Of the 63 passes targeting him on standard downs, he has caught 49 of them (77.8% catch rate) for 624 yards (9.9 per target). We have all been incredibly impressed with E.J. Gaines' growth in recent weeks -- the job he did against Texas A&M's Jeff Fuller last week was of an all-conference caliber -- but Wright is a completely different type of weapon. He is as fast as any primary receiver in the conference, and Gaines will find it quite a bit more difficult to press him and play physically.

Passing Downs
PD % Run 33.6% 29.9%
S&P+ Rk 4 10
Success Rt+ Rk 2 11
PPP+ Rk 8 9
Rushing S&P+ Rk 19 12
Passing S&P+ Rk 4 15

If Gaines can even partially neutralize Wright, Mizzou survives to take on the next test -- guarding everybody else. With Randy Ponder's emergence, Mizzou has a rather strong set of No. 2-4 corners in Ponder, Kip Edwards and Trey Hobson (and they showed quite a bit of confidence in safety Braylon Webb, using him to cover A&M's Uzoma Nwachukwu last week), but they will have to be on their game to cover three explosive weapons in Tevin Reese (63% catch rate on standard downs, 10.1 yards per target), Lanear Sampson (77%, 10.2) and Terrance Williams (86%, 14.9). This is an explosive unit, one that gets away with high efficiency, too, thanks to Griffin's accuracy.

If Mizzou has hope for stopping this unit and actually forcing an occasional passing down, it comes because of one simple thing: they're improving rapidly on standard downs. Just three weeks ago, Mizzou ranked 78th in Def. Standard Downs S&P+; now, as you see above, they rank 45th.

Baylor beats you with the pass, but they keep you honest with the run. Terrance Ganaway averages 18 carries and 92 yards per game, and about ten times per game, Griffin will take off just to remind you that he can. He is a passer first, but if the passing game is getting corralled, he has no problem using his legs. He rushed 24 times for 107 yards against Iowa State a month ago.

Because, in part, of Griffin's legs, Baylor goes from excellent to amazing on passing downs. He can either buy time until a receiver comes open, take off if you turn your back, or make quick reads if you blitz. And he has an amazing passing downs weapon in Wright, who has caught 17 of 21 passes thrown at him in these downs and gained 259 yards. That is a per-target average of 12.3, which would be elite on standard downs and is just unbelievable on passing downs. Double him? Then Williams (73% catch rate, 11.9 yards per target), Sampson (60%, 7.2) or Reese (89%, 12.6) will do the job just fine. Texas A&M's offense is also outstanding on passing downs, and Mizzou handled that just fine, but Baylor creates entirely different matchups. Mizzou has been outstanding all year on passing downs, and this will be their stiffest test yet.

When Missouri Has The Ball…

For as scary as Baylor has been on offense this year, they have been scary-bad on defense, especially over the last few games. They are semi-efficient, but when they allow a big play, it is usually a really big play, especially on standard downs. That suggests that they want to be aggressive but are only occasionally good at it. As with A&M last week, they are better against the run than the pass, which once again leads to curiosity about the best gameplan. Mizzou torched a good A&M run defense on the ground, and they could very well do the same in Waco, but it has to be a bit tempting to put the ball in the air.

Standard Downs
SD % Run 66.7% 59.2%
S&P+ Rk 13 84
Success Rt+ Rk 11 37
PPP+ Rk 16 99
Rushing S&P+ Rk 17 67
Passing S&P+ Rk 10 95

Looking at the personnel, this makes sense, of course. Baylor isn't amazingly experienced anywhere -- they start just three seniors -- but of their top six defensive backs, two are juniors (safeties Mike Hicks and Chance Casey) and four are sophomores (nickel back Ahmad Dixon, safety Sam Hall and corners K.J. Morton and Joe Williams). There is playmaking ability here, by all means (Casey has six PBU, Hicks two picks, Dixon 2.5 tackles for loss, Morton four PBU, Williams five PBU), but if they aren't making plays, they're allowing them.

Passing Downs
PD % Run 35.3% 29.9%
S&P+ Rk 23 71
Success Rt+ Rk 65 62
PPP+ Rk 13 72
Rushing S&P+ Rk 29 51
Passing S&P+ Rk 32 70

Baylor is not amazing against the run, but that really isn't the line's fault -- the Bears rank 11th in Adj. Line Yards. Their front four is balanced, experienced (both tackles are seniors) and interesting; five players have at least four tackles for loss (ends Gary Mason, Jr., Terrance Lloyd and Tevin Elliott, tackles Nicolas Jean-Baptiste and Tracy Robertson), but only one (Mason) has more than four. If you get past the line, however, good things start to happen. Senior middle linebacker Elliot Coffey has made plenty of tackles (20 solo, 28 assisted) but hasn't done much with them (2.5 TFL), and primary weakside backers Rodney Chadwick and Brady Trahan have combined for just one tackle for loss and four PBUs. Baylor spends a good amount of time in the nickel, and that evidently does no favors to either the linebackers or the pass defense in general. New defensive coordinator Phil Bennett (Bill Snyder's former D.C.) looked like he was doing some intriguing things with this unit in September, but the D has spent the last few weeks looking a lot like last year's.

Mizzou's overall advantages wane a bit on passing downs, both because a) they're passing downs (offenses aren't supposed to have an advantage there) and b) Baylor's defense ranks a bit better (and Mizzou a bit worse). They clearly want to put as much speed as possible onto the field and make things happen; the main problem is simply that they don't have enough true weapons ... and Big 12 offenses tend to have quite a few.

In general, it would surprise me if Mizzou didn't have quite a bit of success on the ground; but I would expect a few stuffs in the meantime. The Baylor line really is solid against the run, but Henry Josey should get past the line enough times to boost his string of 100-yard games to six in seven games. The key will be what happens when the Bears attack. If they force some turnovers, they will hold a significant advantage with the way their offense moves the ball. If Mizzou plays poised and efficient football, however, they should not only be able to score, too, but dictate the pace of the game and play Keep Away.

Special Teams

Believe it or not, even without Grant Ressel, it appears Mizzou holds a decent-sized advantage in terms of special teams. Baylor kicker Aaron Jones has made just one of his last five field goal attempts, and punter Spencer Roth has averaged just 38.6 yards per kick and ranks 118th in the country in Net Punting. Baylor ranks 66th in Opp. Kick Returns and 72nd in Kick Returns of their own. Despite the wealth of athletes in the receiving corps, none are evidently amazing at returning kicks. Darius Jones, Antwan Goodley and running back Jarred Salubi have split 24 kick returns between the three of them; Goodley's 23.4-yard average is the best of the bunch. On punt returns, Levi Norwood averages a decent 9.4 yards per return, with a long of 31.

The Verdict

Man oh man, could this one go either way. Both teams have significant matchup advantages -- Baylor has Griffin, a deep receiving corps and a solid defensive line; Mizzou has an improving, bordering-on-great run game, a solid overall offense and a defense that might be able to corral the Bears on passing downs. The official F/+ picks (to be posted soon) have Baylor taking this one by 6.4 points, but that is not in any way adjusted for momentum. September Baylor would have absolutely taken down September Mizzou. But now it's November. Mizzou has won two of three and ranks 18th in terms recent play; Baylor has lost three of four but does still rank 29th.

What could be most interesting about this game is the simple fact that no lead of any kind will be safe. Baylor played horribly with the lead against teams like TCU and Kansas State, but they are relentless and will keep charging on offense. Meanwhile, Mizzou has been both susceptible to second-quarter droughts and prone to incredible fourth-quarter surges. No matter the score, keep watching. These two teams play with high pace and resiliency, and they will put on a fun show, even if "fun" in this case means "stressful" for the fanbases involved.




A Quick Glossary

F/+ Rankings: The official rankings for the college portion of Football Outsiders. They combine my own S&P+ rankings (based on play-by-play data) with Brian Fremeau's drives-based FEI rankings.

Passing Downs: Second-and-7 or more, third-and-5 or more.

PPP: An explosiveness measure derived from determining the point value of every yard line (based on the expected number of points an offense could expect to score from that yard line) and, therefore, every play of a given game.

S&P+: Think of this as an OPS (the "On-Base Plus Slugging" baseball measure) for football. The 'S' stands for success rates, a common Football Outsiders efficiency measure that basically serves as on-base percentage. The 'P' stands for PPP+, an explosiveness measure that stands for EqPts Per Play. The "+" means it has been adjusted for the level of opponent, obviously a key to any good measure in college football. S&P+ is measured for all non-garbage time plays in a given college football game. Plays are counted within the following criteria: when the score is within 28 points in the first quarter, within 24 points in the second quarter, within 21 points in the third quarter, and within 16 points (i.e. two possession) in the fourth quarter. For more about this measure, visit the main S&P+ page at Football Outsiders.

Standard Downs: First downs, second-and-6 or less, third-and-4 or less.

Success Rate: A common Football Outsiders tool used to measure efficiency by determining whether every play of a given game was successful or not. The terms of success in college football: 50 percent of necessary yardage on first down, 70 percent on second down, and 100 percent on third and fourth down.