Technically, unless you are fighting for a national title or conference title (and it's probably safe to say that Missouri, in fact, is not), there is no such thing as a must-win game in September. Too many things change -- teams get better, teams get worse, coaching rumors start, guys get hurt, guys come back from injury, et cetera. Missouri could lose to UCF, Vanderbilt and Alabama, then rip off a five-game win streak to end the season. We have no idea. That said ... wow, does this feel like a must-win game.
Really, we haven't learned as much about this Missouri team as we feel we have; the lineup has changed weekly (it's still changing -- Zaviar Gooden is out, and Elvis Fisher is expected back soon), and all we really know is that the Tigers haven't been good enough to stick with a Top 10 team for 60 minutes. Mizzou has beaten an Arizona State team that is most likely better than UCF, and it could pretty easily handle the Knights tomorrow. But right now, style points don't matter at all. Look as bad as you could possibly want as long as you bring home the win because on Sunday morning the narrative for the rest of the season will be set: either Mizzou is starting to recover and pull things together, or Gary Pinkel's Tigers are in a free fall. (It doesn't matter how true that narrative will be; it will be the narrative nonetheless.)
Will Mizzou win? Honestly, I like the matchups. There are a lot of factors we do not yet know about -- How is James Franklin's shoulder this week? How long is his leash? Et cetera -- but Mizzou can win this game in the trenches, and its skill position players could make Franklin's (or, technically, Corbin Berkstresser's) a lot easier this time around. Or, you know, the free fall could begin. We'll see soon enough.
Central Florida Through Three Games
|Close %||84.1%||STANDARD DOWNS|
|Field Position %||53.8%||36.5%||Success Rate||47.3%||49.7%|
|Close Success Rate||44.4%||43.1%||Success Rate||34.6%||31.6%|
|Close Success Rate||44.1%||53.7%||Turnover Pts||28.9||43.4|
|Close PPP||0.35||0.29||Turnover Pts Margin||+14.5||-14.5|
|Line Yards/carry||2.96||2.87||Q1 S&P||0.751||0.635|
|Close Success Rate||44.7%||31.0%|
|Close PPP||0.42||0.19||1st Down S&P||0.814||0.695|
|Close S&P||0.866||0.504||2nd Down S&P||0.760||0.751|
|SD/PD Sack Rate||1.8% / 3.5%||6.6% / 3.9%||3rd Down S&P||0.989||0.603|
|Projected Pt. Margin: UCF +34.2 | Actual Pt. Margin: UCF +40|
UCF is not as good as South Carolina -- I assume you'd be hard-pressed to find a UCF fan who disagrees with that -- but the Knights will attempt to manage this game just like the Gamecocks did: by running the ball on early downs and by winning the field position game. Over half of UCF's plays have taken place in opposition territory, while barely a third of opponents' plays have come on UCF's side of the 50. The Knights run 62 percent of the time on standard downs (43rd in the country), average 40.1 net yards per punt (they are 27th in Net Punting -- Mizzou is 103rd after the Ace Sanders Experience) and field a very dangerous punt returner in J.J. Worton (16.0 yards per return).
The Knights are, however, a little more volatile than South Carolina in that they a) let it fly on passing downs (25.5% run rate, 97th in the country) and b) make a lot of mistakes. UCF is averaging two turnovers per game, and while that has not necessarily cost them yet -- they have forced eight turnovers of their own -- it could. In terms of run-pass ratios, UCF is actually a lot like the Oklahoma team of a couple of years ago: attempt balance (or even slight run-heavy tendencies) on standard downs and go all in on the pass on passing downs. That doesn't do your quarterback's stat line any favors, but thus far Blake Bortles has survived: 66.7 percent completion rate, seven touchdowns, five interceptions, reasonable sack rate. Mizzou can probably control the line of scrimmage and do some damage to UCF's run game (they better, at least), but they better also maintain a certain level of quality in the secondary because the Knights will absolutely go for the first down on second- and third-and-long. They do not do a lot of dumping off to shorter options on passing downs (standard downs are another story), so we'll see how well Mizzou DBs respond to last week's struggles.
And yeah, Mizzou punting could be terrifying once again. So let's see if we can avoid having to do that much.
Even last week, when Mizzou didn't exactly hold many matchup advantages, the Mizzou defensive line more than held its own versus the S.C. offensive line. Marcus Lattimore averaged just 4.0 yards per carry, and the line was still playing well later in the game, when it really had no reason to. Sheldon Richardson was making plays both in the backfield and 20 yards downfield, and the rest of the line more than held its own. The Tigers should be able to make life rather difficult for both UCF running backs and Bortles.
What could decide this game, however, is the opposite battle. Mizzou's line indeed showed some improvement in terms of run blocking (pass blocking is still up for debate, I think) against a Top 10 defensive line and could be ready for a strong performance against a UCF line that is the weakest part of the defense. We have talked a lot about the quarterback situation, but the bottom line is this: a strong line performance can cure most ills. If Kendial Lawrence and company have room to run, David Yost has proven he has no problem going run-heavy at times. If the running game is working, then the Quarterback Of Choice (probably James Franklin) will have easier throws to make and will face less pressure while making them. And if both the run and pass are working better, then Mizzou won't punt as much. Synergy!
I still felt the line was a little overwhelmed last week, but it certainly showed improvement over the prior week, and if it does so again, Mizzou could put itself in position to not only win, but win semi-comfortably.
Efficiency Is Important...
...because big plays might be hard to come by. As you see above, UCF's defensive success rates are only okay and nothing spectacular. They are, however, excellent at preventing big plays. They force you to attempt as many plays as possible to score, and they are comfortable in their ability to eventually force a mistake: they are, after all, averaging nearly three takeaways per game. This is rather scary considering Mizzou has struggled to maintain drives. Mistakes have gotten in the way (think of dropped pitches, sacks, penalties, etc.), and the Tigers have had to rely mostly on big plays to score points.
Mizzou has scored 19 times this season -- four have come on defense or special teams, 10 have come on drives of six plays or less, and only seven have come on drives of 50 yards or more. If UCF can for Mizzou to start drives on its own end of the field and maintain an 8-, 10- or 12-play drive to score, Mizzou might not score very much.
UCF Targets And Catches
|Player||Targets||Catches||Catch%||Target%||Rec. Yds.||Yds. Per
|J.J. Worton (WR)||18||12||66.7%||21.7%||190||10.6|
|Rannell Hall (WR)||13||11||84.6%||15.7%||197||15.2|
|Quincy McDuffie (WR)||13||9||69.2%||15.7%||104||8.0|
|Jeff Godfrey (WR)||9||7||77.8%||10.8%||56||6.2|
|Storm Johnson (RB)||7||5||71.4%||8.4%||20||2.9|
|Billy Giovanetti (FB)||5||4||80.0%||6.0%||33||6.6|
|Dontravius Floyd (HB)||4||2||50.0%||4.8%||16||4.0|
|Brynn Harvey (RB)||3||3||100.0%||3.6%||26||8.7|
|Josh Reese (WR)||3||1||33.3%||3.6%||11||3.7|
|Breshad Perriman (WR)||3||1||33.3%||3.6%||8||2.7|
|Rob Calabrese (WR)||2||2||100.0%||2.4%||20||10.0|
|Chris Martin (TE)||1||1||100.0%||1.2%||5||5.0|
|Latavius Murray (RB)||1||1||100.0%||1.2%||3||3.0|
|Justin Tukes (TE)||1||1||100.0%||1.2%||1||1.0|
As I mentioned yesterday, UCF spreads the ball around a decent amount. Eleven different Knights are averaging at least one target per game (10 have at least three targets, and running back Latavius Murray has only played one game), but the focus is still on three specific receivers. Worton, Hall and McDuffie account for 53 percent of UCF's targets, and Worton and Hall in particular are serious big-play threats. Even if you assume E.J. Gaines bounces back after a poor performance last week, the pressure will be on other Mizzou defensive backs -- Kip Edwards, Randy Ponder, et cetera -- to play at a very high level.
The depth here concerns me quite a bit. Even if you believe that Mizzou will hold down UCF's passing game, Mizzou will also have to get some serious pressure on Bortles on passing downs to do the secondary some serious favors. Mizzou's secondary isn't incredibly deep, and UCF will attempt to milk this potential advantage for all it is worth. Barring some gameplan changes (and let's be honest: if you're UCF and you're watching film of last week's MU-SC game, you're probably tossing in a few more short passes and dump-offs), Mizzou could have a chance to pin its ears back and go after Bortles; if they succeed, then perhaps Mizzou wins pretty easily. If they don't, UCF could post a pretty hefty point total.
Spread: UCF -2.5
F/+ Pick: UCF by 8.7
This is an obvious over-simplification, but ... either Mizzou's strengths win this game or Mizzou's weaknesses doom them. That is not intended to be a slight at UCF (the general "it's all about our team and not about yours" fan sentiment), but the bottom line is, UCF is strong enough in certain areas to take advantage of potential Mizzou weaknesses, and the Knights are pretty weak in areas for which MIzzou might be able to take advantage. If the run game is working, if Mizzou is staying in second- and third-and-comfortable situations, and if the MU defensive line takes full advantage of an only decent UCF offensive line, then Mizzou will most likely move to 3-2. But if UCF is converting on passing downs, dominating the field position battle, and forcing Mizzou's special teams (specifically, the punting game) to play a prevalent role, then it will be very, very difficult for the Tigers to win this game.
Honestly, I'm optimistic. Maybe it's just because I'm anti-social by nature, and my emotions tend to trend opposite of everybody else's, but I think Mizzou will win this game in the trenches, get pressure on Bortles, and make enough plays to overcome both the inevitable mistakes and the inevitable strong plays from a solid UCF team. It is very easy to see how Mizzou might lose this game -- I outlined it above -- but I don't think it happens.
(And if UCF runs some odd trick play where Tyler Gabbert ends up throwing a touchdown pass, I'm turning the game off. That will be about the clearest possible sign that the 2012 season was not designed for Mizzou fans' enjoyment.)
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%.