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Syracuse at Mizzou: Beyond the box score preview

The numbers have no idea what to do with Missouri at this point. Will they be wrong again?

Bill Carter

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

Missouri at Tennessee

Record AP
F/+ Rk
S&P+ Rk
2012 Off.
S&P+ Rk
2012 Def.
S&P+ Rk
Syracuse 5-5 NR 31 32 23 43
Missouri 5-5 NR 47 45 76 24

So it's come to this, then. In about 30 hours, Mizzou hosts Syracuse with bowl eligibility on the line. If Mizzou wins, the Tigers are likely spending Christmas or New Year's in an exotic location like Birmingham (the BBVA Compass Bowl on January 5), Memphis (the Liberty Bowl on December 31) or, for the fourth time in a decade, Shreveport (the Independence Bowl on December 28). Maybe, if the cards fall just right, you end up in Nashville (the Music City Bowl on December 31).

If the Tigers lose, on the other hand, they will have to win on the road against a Top 10 team next weekend to go bowling. Granted, Mizzou almost did win on the road against Top 10 team two weeks ago. But the odds aren't great that they would do so.

This season has taken a number of odd, mostly negative turns, from James Franklin Injury No. 1, to Offensive Lineman Apocalypse No. 1, to Old Man Football, to James Franklin Injury No. 2, to Dorial Green-Beckham's suspension, to James Franklin Injury No. 3, to Offensive Lineman Apocalypse No. 2, to the monsoon versus Alabama, to the near-miss with Old Man Franklin in Gainesville, to the four-overtime season-saver in Knoxville. At the beginning of the season, I stated very clearly that I thought a 7-5 record would be a decent-sized success. Now, I will say the same thing about 6-6. And it almost goes without saying that, without a win over The 'Cuse, 6-6 probably ain't happening.

In other words, this is the game of the season for Missouri. Just like last week's was. Funny how that works.

When Syracuse Has The Ball…

Standard Downs Passing Downs
SD % Run 58.6%
S&P+ Rk 22 22 31 23
Success Rt+ Rk 31 35 34 24
PPP+ Rk 22 21 35 24
Rushing S&P+ Rk 43 23 57 47
Passing S&P+ Rk 8 22 28 22

Five thoughts:

1. How much of a difference can one man make? We'll find out with Sheldon Richardson's suspension. Ignoring Richardson's absence for a moment, this matchup is pretty straight-forward. The efficiency battle is about even (depending on whether you're talking about standard downs or passing downs), and Mizzou prevents big plays better than Syracuse makes them. Mizzou holds a strong advantage on the ground, and Syracuse holds a decent-sized, but not quite as strong advantage through the air. How much of Mizzou's ground advantage disappears without Richardson?

2. Jerome Smith could be the most important player in this game. As I wrote yesterday, the Syracuse running back has had himself a lovely month, averaging 130 yards per game (6.0 per carry) in the last four games, with backup Prince-Tyson Gulley pitching in another 66 yards (5.3 per carry). If Mizzou can make the Orange one-dimensional, they should win, even though that one dimension (the passing game) is pretty good.

3. Second-most important person after Smith? Dave Steckel. Mizzou's defensive coordinator has been fantastic at making adjustments this season. As I've written before, when an opponent finds something to beat Missouri with in the first quarter, it stops working by the third. It happened in the comeback win over Tennessee, it happened in the comeback win over UCF, it happened against Kentucky ... hell, it happened to an extent against Alabama. The teams that have had late-game offensive success against Missouri (Georgia, specifically), did so with great field position and balance (for Georgia, they scored on two short-field drives, called a perfect screen to Tavarres King, and saw at least a little bit more run success in the fourth quarter). If Syracuse is rendered one-dimensional, that one dimension won't work for four quarters.

4. I am writing this all under the assumption that E.J. Gaines will be playing. Despite Randy Ponder's late-game success in Knoxville in Gaines' absence, my confidence shifts down a gear if Ponder is required to cover Marcus Sales for an entire game. The last we heard, Gaines was wearing a red jersey and barely practicing, but that was early in the week. We have not heard that he is out (yet), so until I'm told otherwise, I assume he plays.

5. Whatchu got, Lucas Vincent? Jimmy Burge will likely start in Sheldon Richardson's absence (it's Senior Day, after all), but Vincent should be featured much more prominently in the tackle rotation. We hoped for a lot out of him this past offseason (we hoped for basically what we've gotten in recent weeks from Matt Hoch), but we haven't necessarily seen him do much (1.5 tackles all year). Vincent, Marvin Foster (2.5 tackles in eight games) and Burge (8.0 tackles, two tackles for loss, one sack, one QB hurry) aren't going to play like Richardson, but they need to at least disappear. If they are visible for bad reasons, Mizzou might not win.

When Missouri Has The Ball…

Standard Downs Passing Downs
SD % Run 56.4%
S&P+ Rk 71 70 49 30
Success Rt+ Rk 74 51 43 30
PPP+ Rk 66 77 48 31
Rushing S&P+ Rk 46 48 54 59
Passing S&P+ Rk 100 71 44 28

Five more thoughts:

1. The matchups are rather similar for both offenses, aren't they? Like Syracuse, Mizzou splits the advantages on standard downs and is mostly at a disadvantage on passing downs. First of all, that makes passing downs enormous. Mizzou was so much better than we could have possibly expected on these downs against Tennessee, actually producing a better success rate on passing downs than standard downs. But this is a strength of the Syracuse D. The Orange are undersized but fast, and they come after you pretty quickly when they are able to pin their ears back. If James Franklin is able to extend plays outside of the pocket like he was last week, this could work to Mizzou's favor. But that's an "if," not a guarantee.

2. The full-season numbers really don't tell you much about Missouri, do they? Not when your quarterback misses parts of four different games for two different injuries. Not when you're working with a different set of linemen every single game. Hell, the only unit that has remained consistent from an injury standpoint (the receiving corps) collectively took the month of October off and looked completely different against Tennessee than it had against, say, Kentucky or Vanderbilt. It's been a weird year. But what the numbers can tell us is how things matchup for Missouri compared to their baseline average. If the average Missouri team shows up, it is at a bit of a disadvantage against Syracuse. If the Missouri of the first half of the Tennessee game shows up, it is at a significant advantage. If the Mizzou offense of the second half and overtime shows up, it is at a significant advantage. Fans of a given school always say a game boils down to how their own team plays. (If we win, it's because we're great; if we lose, it's because we blew it.) But when it comes to the Mizzou offense, it is kinda true. It is almost a victory that, as far as we know, there has only been one injury since last week (Marcus Murphy). Some continuity would be fantastic.

3. Break a big one. Please. Big plays were the best thing Missouri had going for it over the first half of the season. Think of the long touchdowns to Marcus Lucas and L'Damian Washington against Georgia or the long pass to Dorial Green-Beckham against UCF. But the well has run pretty dry of late. Missouri had zero plays of over 25 yards versus Kentucky (the longest: a 21-yard accident to Gahn McGaffie) or Florida. Hell, they only had two against Tennessee (Kendial Lawrence's 77-yard touchdown and a 40-yarder to Bud Sasser). You don't need many to succeed, but it is still a lot to ask of this line and this quarterback (in his current state) to extend drives to eight or more plays without making a mistake. Mizzou needs at least a few easy points in this game.

4. Our friend Sean from Nunes Magician mentioned that Syracuse has struggled with dual-threat quarterbacks, especially ones who can extend plays and "create on the run." So, uh, James, if you wanted to get one more step back by tomorrow evening, that would be fantastic.

5. It would be great to see it all come together at some point in 2012, wouldn't it? With the way Kendial Lawrence was running against Tennessee (in the second half) and Florida (in the first), with the way the long ball was working against Georgia, with the way James Franklin was discovering some passing downs magic against Tennessee, with the way everything began to work in those first two possessions versus Vanderbilt (before Franklin screwed up his knee) ... we've seen everything work at least a little bit. We might never see it all work at the same time this season, but ... if it were to happen, I choose tomorrow. Don't you?

Special Teams

If Marcus Murphy is indeed out, that takes one of Mizzou's biggest advantages off the table. That said, Mizzou's special teams weaknesses have been pared down significantly in the last month, and we've seen players like Jimmie Hunt, T.J. Moe and Russell Hansbrough do perfectly solid things in the return game as well. Toss in the fact that Andrew Baggett is kicking with confidence (and the snaps and holds are actually competent) and Syracuse's special teams unit is somewhere between competent (kicking) and less so (returns, punting), and I think Mizzou holds the edge here regardless of Murphy's absence.


Spread: Mizzou -5.5
F/+ Pick: Syracuse by 2.2

Again, numbers have no idea what to do with a team like Missouri. In the last three weeks, the F/+ picks, relatively accurate overall, have been off by 8.5 points in the Kentucky game, 21.9 points in the Florida game, and 11.3 points in the Tennessee game. Mizzou has outperformed its rating for a while now, by an average of about two touchdowns, and the Tigers will apparently need to do so again tomorrow. But despite new absences (Richardson, Murphy) I feel confident that they will do so. Again, I fully expect this game to be tight for quite a while (barring the "everything comes together" scenario), but I feel good about what this team has overcome to date, and I feel good about Mizzou doing so again in the fourth quarter tomorrow night. Before the Richardson and Murphy news, I was leaning toward 34-24 Mizzou. Now I'll say 34-28. Just get to six wins one way or another, guys.


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%.