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Vanderbilt at Missouri preview: Can Tigers find offensive groove against young 'Dores?

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The numbers say Mizzou handles Vanderbilt easily on Homecoming in Columbia. Can the Tigers find an offensive groove for the first time in about six weeks, or will they again lean on defense and field position to secure a win?

Bill Carter

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Vanderbilt at Missouri

Record AP
Rank
F/+ Rk Off. F/+ Rk
Def. F/+ Rk ST F/+ Rk
Vanderbilt 2-5
115 124 88 29
Missouri 5-2 31 36 98 8 7

F/+ projection: Missouri 41, Vandy -7 (win probability: 98.6%)

Forty-one to minus-seven. That's the kind of score I can get behind. Here's to hoping the offense scores 41, and the defense scores another return touchdown, just so we can say that all came to fruition. At the very least, this gives you an idea for what Vandy is dealing with here. If the Commodores can pull off a string of turnovers and three-and-outs, they could make this a game for a while. They did lose to South Carolina by 14 and Kentucky by 10, after all. But neither South Carolina nor Kentucky have Missouri's defense.

F/+ Win Probability (remaining games)
Vanderbilt (99%, up 1% from last week)
Kentucky (92%, up 19% from last week)
Arkansas (78%, up 18%
from last week)
at Texas A&M (75%, up 48% from last week)
at Tennessee (39%, up 15% from last week)

F/+ has been able to hone in pretty well on quite a few teams this year, but damned if it can't make up its mind about Missouri, which has gone from a plus-19.1% F/+ rating after three weeks (12th) to a plus-8.1% rating after seven (48th), to a plus-13.7% rating after eight (36th).

Meanwhile, Mizzou's future opponents (not including Vandy) are all going through their own series of changes, too. Kentucky got blown out by LSU last week and fell from 59th to 76th. Arkansas got thumped by Georgia for three quarters before catching up in garbage time and fell from 43rd to 50th. And of course, Texas A&M got destroyed so badly by Alabama that the Aggies fell from 36th to 59th. A lot of teams' fortunes don't change that much over the course of a season; Mizzou's change seemingly every week. Let's just buckle up and see what happens, I guess. That is, let's see what happens after a Homecoming win on Saturday.

When Vandy Has The Ball…

NOTE: Below, I'm using IsoPPP instead of PPP, as I have used in the past. For more on IsoPPP, click here. The idea was to create an explosiveness measure that is separated from Success Rate, an efficiency measure. It basically asks, "When a team is successful, how successful are they?" It measures the magnitude of the big plays, and I love it ... but early in the season, a very small number of big plays can skew things pretty dramatically.

ONE MORE NOTE: Keep in mind when you look at these numbers that Success Rate carries more weight than IsoPPP. Before the size of the successful play matters, you have to have successful plays. When I come up with an effective way to incorporate IsoPPP into my overall S&P+ formulas, Success Rate will likely carry 70-85% of the overall weight of the formula. If you can be good at either Success Rate or IsoPPP, you're going to choose Success Rate.

Standard Downs
VU Offense MU Defense Advantage
SD % Run 66.1% (27th)

S&P+ 90.5 (100th) 117.8 (24th) MU big
Success Rate 44.8% (95th) 47.2% (77th) push
IsoPPP 0.60 (125th) 0.67 (33rd) MU big
Rushing Success Rate 45.9% (83rd) 44.2% (49th) MU
Rushing IsoPPP 0.53 (122nd) 0.69 (84th) MU
Passing Success Rate 42.7% (96th) 52.5 (110th) push
Passing IsoPPP 0.75 (110th) 0.64 (6th) MU biiiiig

Despite what was posted on their depth chart earlier this week, it appears that redshirt freshman Johnny McCrary will be starting on Saturday for Vandy. (Depth charts not telling the whole truth? Why I never...) It will be his first career start ... and he'll be Vandy's fourth starting quarterback of the season. In nine games. Impressive.

McCrary was a big four-star get for Vandy in the 2013 class. If Vandy is to pull off a rally in the Derek Mason era (and it's certainly too early to say VU will do no such thing), McCrary could play a huge role. He was listed as a dual-threat quarterback in high school, though he has only one carry for three yards on the season. He did give the offense a nice boost against Charleston Southern two weeks ago, so we'll see what that's worth. (We'll also see if the until-recently-concussed Patton Robinette figures into the game plan at all. Probably not.)

I spoke last week about the unknowns that Florida's Treon Harris brings to the table. The same applies for McCrary, especially if he does bring something of a mobile aspect to the table. There's not really any way for Mizzou to prepare for that. Still ... even if McCrary ends up being the real deal, he's still surrounded by freshmen and sophomores at the skill positions, and he's still going to be protected ("protected") by a pretty porous line on passing downs ... against one of the best passing downs defenses in the country.

Targets & Catches
C.J. Duncan: 21 targets, 14 catches (67%), 267 yards (12.7 per target), 1 TD
Seven Scheu (TE): 17 targets, 10 catches (59%), 95 yards (5.6), 1 TD
Latevius Rayford: 12 targets, 7 catches (58%), 53 yards (4.4)
Trey Wilkins: 6 targets, 0 catches
Kris Kentera: 5 targets, 3 catches (60%), 51 yards (10.2), 1 TD
Ralph Webb (RB): 5 targets, 3 catches (60%), 16 yards (3.2)

Scheu-up-the-seam is something Vandy will probably want to try once or twice. For the most part, though, expect a heavy, unsuccessful dose of running backs Ralph Webb and Dallas Rivers in the run game, and expect a lot of short passing on early downs. That's the most successful tactic in the book for facing Mizzou, and it's something McCrary was doing a decent amount of against Charleston Southern. I don't expect this to work, but it would at least work for a little while.

Passing Downs
VU Offense MU Defense Advantage
PD % Run 27.4% (89th)

S&P+ 61.3 (125th) 165.4 (8th) MU biiiiig
Success Rate 18.9% (128th) 22.8% (16th) MU biiiiig
IsoPPP 1.03 (94th) 0.90 (10th) MU big
Rushing Success Rate 13.8% (126th) 17.5% (14th) MU biiiiig
Rushing IsoPPP 1.16 (53rd) 1.11 (73rd) push
Passing Success Rate 20.8% (127th) 24.8% (21st) MU biiiiig
Passing IsoPPP 1.00 (96th) 0.84 (6th) MU big

Targets & Catches
Latevius Rayford: 18 targets, 8 catches (44%), 87 yards (4.8)
Steven Scheu (TE): 13 targets, 9 catches (69%), 174 yards (13.4)
C.J. Duncan: 13 targets, 6 catches (46%), 55 yards (4.2), 1 TD
Trey Wilkins: 9 targets, 7 catches (78%), 66 yards (7.3)
Chandler Dorrell: 8 targets, 4 catches (50%), 61 yards (7.6)
Ralph Webb (RB): 6 targets, 3 catches (50%), 3 yards (0.5)

No matter the quarterback, Vandy has been dreadful on second- and third-and-long this year. I don't see that changing against Mizzou's defense. Scheu roams free from time to time, but the top two WRs have caught 14 of 31 passing downs targets for 142 yards. That's not good. And it won't get the job done against this defense. McCrary will either be throwing passes short of the chains or running for his life. And hey, he might be athletic enough to find some success doing that at times. But he'll take a lot of hits doing it, too.

When Missouri Has The Ball…

Standard Downs
MU Offense VU Defense Advantage
SD % Run 58.4% (72nd)

S&P+ 108.4 (46th) 106.7 (52nd) push
Success Rate 49.3% (50th) 48.4% (87th) MU
IsoPPP 0.77 (67th) 0.76 (72nd) push
Rushing Success Rate 51.9% (30th) 48.3% (81st) MU big
Rushing IsoPPP 0.58 (103rd) 0.59 (46th) VU big
Passing Success Rate 45.6% (74th) 48.7% (89th) push
Passing IsoPPP 1.06 (26th) 1.01 (108th) MU big

If Missouri can establish its run game, as I assume the Tigers will try to do early on, it's difficult to see this being a game by the third quarter. Intentionally or not, Vandy has been pretty passive on standard downs, struggling to make plays with a young front seven. The Commodores aren't bad on these downs (or any downs), but they're not great either.

The problem for Mizzou is that the run hasn't produced many big plays, and the pass hasn't produced many little plays. Maty Mauk doesn't have great mechanics on the short passes, and for whatever reason Mizzou doesn't employ nearly as many slants and pitch-and-catch passes as I anticipated this year.

Again, though, this is a game for figuring out what works. Vandy is no pushover on defense, but the Commodores have one of the lesser defenses on the remaining schedule, and the D will probably be put in tough spots by the Vandy O. So this is a chance for Mizzou to figure out what it wants to be the rest of the year on offense. I'm hoping for a 65-35 run split on standard downs and a lot more slants and whatnot. (I'm also just hoping for something that works.)

Targets & Catches
Bud Sasser: 32 targets, 27 catches (84%), 319 yards (10.0 per target), 3 TD
Darius White: 18 targets, 9 catches (50%), 135 yards (7.5), 2 TD
Jimmie Hunt: 17 targets, 12 catches (53%), 144 yards (8.5), 4 TD
Marcus Murphy: 13 targets, 9 catches (69%), 84 yards (6.5)
Sean Culkin (TE): 12 targets, 5 catches (42%), 36 yards (3.0), 1 TD

You could do a lot worse than having your top three receivers averaging 8.9 yards per target. The problem is that, for the most part, if the guys aren't open, Mauk's going to start scrambling instead of throwing a tough pass. (Or, as in the case of the UGA game, he'll scramble and then throw a tough pass.) Per-target averages are only good if Mauk can target the guys when he wants/needs to. That's been an issue, though it should be less of one against a young Vandy secondary.

Passing Downs
MU Offense VU Defense Advantage
PD % Run 26.7% (95th)

S&P+ 76.5 (116th) 107.9 (58th) VU big
Success Rate 28.5% (91st) 29.4% (59th) VU
IsoPPP 1.02 (99th) 1.20 (92nd) push
Rushing Success Rate 29.0% (62nd) 23.3% (39th) VU
Rushing IsoPPP 0.78 (115th) 0.92 (38th) VU big
Passing Success Rate 28.2% (96th) 32.0% (67th) VU
Passing IsoPPP 1.11 (74th) 1.29 (102nd) MU

Oy. Mizzou has one of the 15 worst passing downs offenses in the country. As I've said before, I see standard downs as game-plan downs and passing downs as play-maker downs. I was saying that before I saw Missouri play football in 2014, and watching Mauk desperately look (in vain) for help from play-makers has certainly confirmed that.

Targets & Catches
Bud Sasser: 16 targets, 8 catches (50%), 152 yards (9.5 per target), 1 TD
Jimmie Hunt: 15 targets, 7 catches (47%), 85 yards (5.7), 1 TD
Darius White: 10 targets, 8 catches (80%), 104 yards (10.4), 1 TD
Sean Culkin (TE): 8 targets, 3 catches (38%), 53 yards (6.6)
Marcus Murphy: 7 targets, 3 catches (43%), 25 yards (3.6), 1 TD
Russell Hansbrough (RB): 5 targets, 2 catches (40%), -10 yards (-2.0)
Lawrence Lee: 5 targets, 1 catch, 8 yards (1.6)

Vandy isn't great on passing downs, but "not great" is better than "terrible."

Summary

So here are the key factors:

1. Passing downs

For the second straight week, this game contains two pretty awful passing downs offense. Vandy's is one of the few worse than Missouri's, and factoring in Mizzou's passing downs defense, that should mean really good things for the Tigers. Still, if Vandy figures out how to produce a better passing downs success rate than Mizzou, the 'Dores could stick around for a while.

2. Little Things™

We'd all love to see a random offensive explosion, with Mizzou going for 500 yards and 40+ points. It would be pretty foolish to expect that at this point, however. Instead, Mizzou is probably going to have to win games by tilting the field with turnovers and special teams and win games by leaning on opponents on the tilted field and eventually pulling away a bit. (Or the Tigers can just win games with four return scores per game. I'd be fine with that, too.) You are what you are by October 25, and Mizzou is a team that will have to win games with defense, special teams, field position, finishing drives ... little things. If Vandy wins the field position battle and finishes drives better, the 'Dores can pull an upset.

3. Hey, Maty

Missouri's offensive struggles have basically been a perfect circle of failure. Defenses have figured out Maty Mauk's tendencies, so he needs to be able to lean more on his teammates to succeed. Only, the line is a little worse than last year's, and the receiving corps is much worse (as tends to be the case when you lose all three starters). The supporting cast needs a play-making quarterback, and the quarterback needs a play-making supporting cast. From a stat perspective, Mauk has had three of the worst games you'll ever see in the last month. Thanks to the defense, Mizzou went 2-1 in those games, and thanks to the defense, Mizzou could still win three to five of its final five games. But damn, would it be nice to see Mauk actually starting to turn things around a bit. I guess this isn't as much a key factor as item one on a wish list.

I've got it! The key factor here is passer rating. Look at Mauk's and look at Vandy's collective rating. If Vandy's isn't higher, Vandy's probably getting killed.

4. Havoc

I don't like listing things like "turnovers!" as key factors because those are always key factors. But to make up the difference between the two teams, Vandy's defense will need to be not only making stops on Mizzou's stoppable offense, but making plays. Turnovers, tackles for loss, break-ups, etc. If Vandy's Havoc Rate is higher, the 'Dores can pull an upset.

*****

The numbers have seen Missouri's offensive performances and still say the Tigers have a 99 percent chance of winning this game. That might say more about Vandy than about Mizzou, but regardless, this is not Mizzou-Indiana. Anything is possible in college football -- Mizzou already has two low-probability wins and a really low-probability loss -- but Mizzou should win this game handily. Call me crazy, but I'm thinking a 41-(-7) projection might be a bit optimistic. I'll settle for something like 34-13. If Vandy stays closer than that, it could be a good sign that Mizzou is just about done winning games in 2014. If the Tigers do indeed pull away and look good, then honestly, double-digit wins are still on the table.

As I've already written this week, we usually know what we've got by Week 9. It's been a long time since a Mizzou team had this wide an array of realistic possibilities; if nothing else, Saturday will tell us a decent amount about how realistic the positive possibilities are and whether or not Mizzou's fortunes are about to change yet again.