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Kentucky at Missouri: Beyond the box score preview

The Mizzou defense should be able to slow down a one-dimensional Kentucky attack, but Mizzou's offensive success will determine whether this is an easy Mizzou win or yet another tight battle.

Bill Carter

NOTE: Confused? See the quick glossary at the bottom.

Kentucky at Missouri

Record AP
F/+ Rk
S&P+ Rk
2012 Off.
S&P+ Rk
2012 Def.
S&P+ Rk
Kentucky 1-7 LOL 98 53 51 55
Missouri 3-4 NO 64 39 66 23

Let's put it as bluntly as possible: Even with Corbin Berkstresser at quarterback for Missouri instead of James Franklin, this is probably the single most winnable game remaining on the schedule. I feel I've almost made too many excuses for this team at times (though one man's "excuses" are another man's "legitimate, forgivable reasons for underachieving"), but unless 17 more Mizzou starters get hurt (which, the way this season has gone, isn't completely out of the realm of possibility), there is no excuse for losing to Kentucky at home. None. The Wildcats certainly have some interesting traits to offer -- big offensive line, active front seven, big receivers, interesting (and rather unintentional) variety at quarterback -- but Missouri's offense is as good as or better than Kentucky's defense, and Missouri's defense is much, much better than Kentucky's offense. Just win. It doesn't have to look good. Just be 4-4 tomorrow night.

When Kentucky Has The Ball…

Standard Downs Passing Downs
SD % Run 52.1%
S&P+ Rk 58 15 44 42
Success Rt+ Rk 87 19 41 46
PPP+ Rk 37 16 48 42
Rushing S&P+ Rk 27 12 25 81
Passing S&P+ Rk 92 22 56 29

As we discussed yesterday, Kentucky is a bit of a different team depending on who is healthy enough to play the quarterback position. With Maxwell Smith (out for the season) or Patrick Towles (might or might not play), the Wildcats are rather pass-heavy. With Jalen Whitlow (most recent starter) or Morgan Newton (bad enough that he has lost the starter job to three different guys in the last year), the quarterback will run a bit more. That is doubly true with Whitlow. But yeah, don't take the above run-pass percentages too seriously.

Kentucky's run game really isn't too bad, as you see above. Aside from the Alabama game, Mizzou has stood up well to solid ground attacks (South Carolina, Georgia, UCF), but without much of a passing game to speak of, UK will attempt quite a few draws and, especially with Whitlow, stick with the run quite a bit on second-and-long. Attacking on passing downs, Mizzou has been a bit vulnerable to the run. If that is the case tomorrow, Kentucky will exploit it as many times as possible.

Mizzou should by all means be able to keep the Kentucky passing game in check. One should beware of the jump-ball type of passes that Vandy used with big Chris Boyd a couple of times, but on a down-to-down basis, this is probably the worst passing game Mizzou has faced since SE Louisiana.

In all, Mizzou should be able to exploit Kentucky's biggest weaknesses (inefficiency, passing game), but in the one category above in which Mizzou ranks worse than 50th (rushing on passing downs), Kentucky could be pretty proficient. Bottom line, though: If Mizzou doesn't do the Wildcats any favors (turnovers, big returns on special teams) and Kentucky starts most of its drive on its side of the 50, Kentucky shouldn't score more than about 17 points.

When Missouri Has The Ball…

Standard Downs Passing Downs
SD % Run 54.7%
S&P+ Rk 60 56 31 55
Success Rt+ Rk 86 91 47 73
PPP+ Rk 38 40 14 47
Rushing S&P+ Rk 58 75 99 51
Passing S&P+ Rk 62 45 10 61

So here's where the game will be determined. If Mizzou's offense plays well, and plays with any sort of consistency whatsoever, the Tigers should win comfortably. If Corbin Berkstresser responds well to two weeks of preparation as The Man (Temporarily), if the line can get a little healthier (the return of Mitch Morse would be lovely), and if chosen Mizzou receivers (whoever they may be) can catch catchable passes, this shouldn't be much of a game. If, if, if.

Mizzou's offensive numbers are only so useful considering how drastically the personnel has changed from game to game, but if we take these averages to mean something, we can pretty much see an even battle on standard downs (Mizzou has a slight advantage on the ground, Kentucky has a slight advantage through the air) and the potential for Mizzou to find some success throwing the ball on passing downs, especially considering Berkstresser is at quarterback.

With James Franklin, Mizzou is slightly above average on standard downs and downright poor on passing downs. With Berkstresser, Mizzou is poor on standard downs but above average on passing downs. And in the redzone, despite the line, Mizzou is average with Franklin and a horror show with Berkstresser. (Berk's redzone numbers are skewed, however, by the brief and horrible performance versus Alabama. Mizzou ran all of three plays in Bama's red zone, and they went for 1 yard, 1 yard and -8 yards, good for a 33.3 Redzone S&P+. But the numbers were almost as bad against Vandy, too.)

Again, this isn't going to happen, and there are perfectly fine reasons for that. But ... that disparity is ... wow. Given the every-down choice between Franklin and Berkstresser, however, you basically have to go with Franklin, and for one very simple reason: even though Mizzou might be worse on passing downs with QB No. 1, they face fewer passing downs. Passing downs are invitations for disaster, even if you are decent at converting them. Plus, with better continuity on the line, Mizzou might want to start running more ... and Franklin leads the better run offense.

For one reason or another, Mizzou has struggled to steal any yardage running the ball on passing downs this year, and that probably isn't going to change with Berkstresser behind center. But even if Mizzou is predictable on passing downs, Kentucky's pass rush isn't amazing, and the Wildcat secondary is awfully young. Of course, that requires Mizzou receivers to catch the ball and Berkstresser to throw as many easy passes as possible.

If Mizzou is going to make it to six wins, this one has to -- has to -- get rectified. One way you do that is by playing different receivers. (You know who I'm going to advocate for here -- DGB, Jimmie Hunt, DGB, Jimmie Hunt, DGB and Jimmie Hunt -- but I don't care who plays as long as they catch catchable passes.)

Another way you do that is by throwing easier, more catchable passes in general. Mizzou has abandoned the screen game, and there has been almost no quick passing. I don't completely understand this; even if a quick pass is stopped for no gain, how is that different than an incomplete pass downfield, of which Berkstresser has thrown many in the last two weeks? But via flares, screens, swings, sidelines, slants, camp-outs, etc., Mizzou simply has to be giving its rotating quarterback and less-than-confident receivers easier opportunities to make plays. As we have seen this year, both with our eyes and the stats above, the Tiger offense has been completely lacking in this regard, and to say the least, it is not helping the cause.

We'll see what tweaks David Yost and company have employed in the extra prep time.

Special Teams

Patience will be a virtue in this game. Kentucky can flip the field with punter Landon Foster but haven't shown too much return game prowess thus far. If Foster is indeed giving Mizzou some iffy field position, the Tigers will need to avoid pressing the issue a bit. Trust the defense to make more stops than Kentucky's, and don't commit an awful turnover near your own goal line.

In all, basically because of Marcus Murphy, Mizzou has a chance to win the special teams battle. That would be a lovely change.


Spread: Mizzou -13.5
F/+ Pick: Mizzou by 14.5

Honestly, the more I think about it, the less I see this unfolding as a 14-point win for Mizzou. If the offense finds an early rhythm, a 24-28 point win could be in the works. An Arkansas team lacking a bit in confidence (at least, compared to the beginning of the season) pummeled Kentucky by 42 two weeks ago, after all. But if the offensive mistakes continue, this is not a team built to blow out anybody. If Kentucky can stay close enough that the Wildcats don't have to pass much, and if Mizzou is consistently falling into 2nd-and-10's and 3rd-and-8's, this will be a pretty even game. I'm confident that the former will unfold, and Mizzou will win by a score in the neighborhood of 34-10 or something. But ... would you be surprised if yet another game came down to the wire?


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.

Field Position %: The percentage of a team's plays run in their opponent's field position. National average: 43%.

Leverage Rate: A team's ratio of standard downs to passing downs. National average: 68%. Anything over 68% means a team did a good job of avoiding being leveraged into passing downs.

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. National average: 0.32.

S&P: Think of this as an OPS (the "On-Base Plus Slugging" baseball measure) for football. The 'S' stands for success rate. The 'P' stands for PPP, an explosiveness measure that stands for EqPts Per Play. 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. National average: 0.747. Standard downs S&P average: 0.787. Passing downs S&P average: 0.636.

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. National Average: 42%.