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Arkansas at Missouri preview: First team to 21 wins

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Arkansas is burly, mean, and hot. For that matter, so is Missouri. Time to go bash some rocks together and see if the Tigers can win the SEC East again.

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Arkansas at Missouri

Record CFP
Rank
F/+ Rk Off. F/+ Rk
Def. F/+ Rk ST F/+ Rk
Arkansas 6-5
22 22 16 94
Missouri 9-2 17 33 62 15 31

F/+ projection: Arkansas 20, Missouri 16 (MIzzou win probability: 38.5%)

Rivalries form from familiarity (and the animus that comes with it) and big moments. There's nothing you can do to rush the former -- it just takes some time. But the first "moment" for Mizzou and Arkansas as football rivals has turned out to be a huge one. Arkansas is one of the hottest teams in the country, and Missouri needs one more win to lock down its second straight division title.

About seven weeks ago, this didn't seem like it was going to be much of an occasion. Missouri was 4-2 after suffering back-to-back home losses to Indiana and Georgia. Arkansas was 3-3, having blown huge opportunities against both Texas A&M and Alabama, and the Hogs were about to get their own doors blown off by Georgia. (To their credit, they responded in the second half against UGA better than Missouri did and ended up only losing by 13.)

Now, things have changed. Arkansas hasn't given up a point since November 1, and Missouri hasn't lost since Georgia went back to Athens. It's going to be a lovely day in Columbia, the dorms are going to be open, Gary Pinkel is urging Mizzou fans to Pack the Zou ... this is a huge event, the biggest home game since this very weekend last year.

I don't want to overstate the importance of a division title, but it's difficult to understate it, too. Yes, the SEC East stinks. Yes, Mizzou would be a rather significant underdog next week in Atlanta, and the odds of the Tigers moving to 0-4 in conference championship games would be pretty high. Of course. And while we're at it, yes, Missouri would basically just keep right on recruiting the way it has always recruited and not suddenly start reeling in 13 four-stars per class. (We do what we do, etc.)

Still, you can't win the conference if you don't play in the conference title game. And while quirks in conference balance (i.e. most of the good teams being in one division or the other) have certainly emerged before, a second would give Missouri as many division titles as Arkansas and as many as South Carolina, Mississippi State, Ole Miss, Kentucky, and Texas A&M combined. Big conference trophies are better than little division trophies, but this is still a big deal from a symbolism standpoint.

It's felt like Missouri has been playing with house money for a while now. Two games ago, I said it felt great knowing that, despite offensive issues for much of the season, the floor was 7-6. Now it's 9-4. Not every year can be a blessed experience from start to finish like 2013, but years like this are the legacy builders, the ones that give us tidbits like "Mizzou's won at least nine games in five of eight seasons." But house money or not, there are much bigger prizes than a 9-4 record remaining on the schedule.

With my national football hat on, I've talked a lot about Florida State this year -- how the Seminoles aren't nearly as good as they were last year, how they've been lucky to remain undefeated, etc. But I've also said that with every escape act, with every game they don't lose, they have a chance to find their form, hit fifth gear, and achieve some incredibly lofty goals, kind of like Auburn did last year. Missouri's been in a similar boat. For all of the justifiable talk about the poor offense and a less-than-amazing schedule, the Tigers' ability to simply win in October and November kept the East title (and therefore the SEC title) on the table. Over the last two weeks, their form has improved, and the results have continued. Keep not losing, and you keep giving yourself the opportunity to do something amazing.

The identities of these teams align and diverge in interesting ways. Let's take a look at the matchups.

When Arkansas 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
UA Offense MU Defense Advantage
SD % Run 73.0% (15th)

S&P+ 118.8 (26th) 120.4 (13th) push
Success Rate 50.0% (37th) 44.0% (41st) push
IsoPPP 0.75 (70th) 0.67 (29th) MU
Rushing Success Rate 51.9% (31st) 41.0% (22nd) push
Rushing IsoPPP 0.72 (40th) 0.64 (61st) UA
Passing Success Rate 44.9% (83rd) 48.3% (92nd) push
Passing IsoPPP 0.87 (82nd) 0.70 (7th) MU big

As I wrote yesterday, Arkansas is what you think it is on standard downs. The Hogs run and run -- Jonathan Williams, then Alex Collins, then Williams, then Collins, etc. -- and while they're not Wisconsin-good at it, they're good enough at it that they can move the chains and keep doing it.

Targets & Catches
Keon Hatcher: 32 targets, 18 catches (56%), 284 yards (8.9 per target), 4 TD
Hunter Henry (TE): 27 targets, 16 catches (59%), 167 yards (6.2), 1 TD
A.J. Derby (TE): 18 targets, 10 catches (56%), 140 yards (7.8), 2 TD
Demetrius Wilson: 12 targets, 6 catches (50%), 57 yards (4.8)
Jared Cornelius: 10 targets, 7 catches (70%), 110 yards (11.0), 2 TD
Cody Hollister: 9 targets, 6 catches (67%), 60 yards (6.7), 1 TD
Jonathan Williams (RB): 9 targets, 7 catches (78%), 13 yards (1.4)
Drew Morgan: 8 targets, 6 catches (75%), 125 yards (15.6), 1 TD

The Hogs don't utilize any sort of deep play action as much as I would have suspected; Keon Hatcher has had his moments (15.8 yards per catch on standard downs), but even including him and Jared Cornelius (15.7), the top seven targets on these downs are averaging a pretty ho-hum 11.9 yards per catch. Brandon Allen is just as likely to throw quickly to a tight end off of play action.

Really, Arkansas' overall big-play capability isn't amazing, but again, it doesn't need to be. It serves their purposes just fine to chew up about 12 yards every two to three plays, keep you on the field for a long time, and wear you down for the fourth quarter. Big plays are great, but so is efficiency, and Arkansas is certainly solid in that department. And that might be just as well -- Mizzou doesn't give up many big plays anyway.

Passing Downs
UA Offense MU Defense Advantage
PD % Run 30.5% (76th)

S&P+ 141.7 (11th) 149.1 (8th) push
Success Rate 35.8% (22nd) 22.1% (7th) push
IsoPPP 1.15 (65th) 0.99 (21st) MU
Rushing Success Rate 27.6% (68th) 21.2% (25th) MU
Rushing IsoPPP 1.73 (5th) 0.88 (16th) push
Passing Success Rate 39.4% (13th) 22.5% (7th) push
Passing IsoPPP 0.98 (104th) 1.03 (42nd) MU big

Targets & Catches
Keon Hatcher: 34 targets, 18 catches (53%), 209 yards (6.2)
Hunter Henry (TE): 22 targets, 16 catches (73%), 280 yards (12.7), 1 TD
Demetrius Wilson: 17 targets, 7 catches (41%), 93 yards (5.5)
A.J. Derby (TE): 16 targets, 12 catches (75%), 163 yards (10.2), 1 TD
Jared Cornelius: 14 targets, 6 catches (43%), 73 yards (5.2)
Cody Hollister: 12 targets, 7 catches (58%), 77 yards (6.4)

From yesterday's piece:

[T]here seems to be a bit of a compromise at work between Bret Bielema and offensive coordinator Jim Chaney. Chaney's previous job was as Derek Dooley's coordinator at Tennessee, calling passing downs heave after passing downs heave for Tyler Bray, Cordarrelle Patterson, and Justin Hunter. While the Hogs are as run-heavy as you would imagine when they're on schedule, they run just 30.5 percent of the time, 76th in the country, on passing downs. This isn't a "forfeit when you fall behind schedule" offense. Chaney asks Brandon Allen to make plays, and Allen has made just enough for the offense to be successful. [...]

[On passing downs,] tight ends Hunter Henry and A.J. Derby have caught 28 of 38 passes for 443 yards (11.7). They are a unique weapon, and if you remember the occasional success Vanderbilt had in extending drives with the tight end, that's reason for pause.

Derby, a converted quarterback, is also dealing with an injury, and it might be telling that he wasn't listed on the depth chart above. (Brandon Allen, on the other hand, was.) Bielema told media that there's a chance he still plays. We'll see. If he does, there's a chance he moves back to quarterback if Allen isn't available.

Either way they still have Henry. I feel confident that a quickly improving set of Missouri cornerbacks can handle Hatcher, Wilson, etc., but the presence of the tight end is unique. And Chaney is creative in the way he gets the tight end out of bunched formations. They'll catch you napping if you nap.

Thus far, I'm betting Brandon Allen indeed plays. Derby is still a question mark, but the matchups are unique regardless. And while the Hogs don't break off big plays with the pass, they're quite efficient with it, which forces defenses to mind all of the weapons ... which opens up running lanes. One advantage builds off of another.

Missouri's linebackers are going to have to play their best game of the season on Friday. They're going to be asked to both guard tight ends well at one point or another -- Mizzou will utilize a nickel back whenever it can, but one has to assume Dave Steckel will do far less of that just given the size and skill set of Arkansas' skill positions -- and wrap up Collins and Williams repeatedly. They've shown enough this season that we can be relatively optimistic in their ability to do that, but this will be a stiff test.

When Missouri Has The Ball…

Standard Downs
MU Offense UA Defense Advantage
SD % Run 60.1% (55th)

S&P+ 102.3 (63rd) 122.6 (11th) UA big
Success Rate 46.9% (63rd) 47.8% (84th) MU
IsoPPP 0.75 (74th) 0.70 (41st) UA
Rushing Success Rate 49.7% (41st) 43.4% (40th) push
Rushing IsoPPP 0.64 (78th) 0.50 (7th) UA big
Passing Success Rate 42.8% (100th) 54.1% (122nd) MU
Passing IsoPPP 0.94 (55th) 0.93 (85th) MU

Arkansas' defense is funny to analyze. The Hogs are inefficient but give up no big plays on standard downs, suggesting a bend-don't-break style; on passing downs, they dial up the aggression, and it usually works ... but when it doesn't, the big plays are enormous.

Missouri has leaned more and more on the run as the season has progressed, but the Tigers still want to pass quite a bit, and passing might be the best way for them to move the ball. I was encouraged by both the volume and accuracy of Maty Mauk's shorter passes against Tennessee. Like Missouri, Arkansas will give you shorter routes on standard downs, but Arkansas also suffers a few more glitches in the secondary than Missouri. Mizzou's receiving corps isn't loaded with tackle breakers, but this is still a semi-encouraging matchup. Missouri's pass has been woefully inefficient, but you see in the Passing Success Rate row above, MU still holds an advantage here. Not so much on the ground.

Targets & Catches
Bud Sasser: 62 targets, 38 catches (61%), 467 yards (7.5), 5 TD
Darius White: 24 targets, 15 catches (63%), 178 yards (7.4), 3 TD
Jimmie Hunt: 24 targets, 14 catches (58%), 205 yards (8.5), 4 TD
Marcus Murphy (RB): 18 targets, 13 catches (72%), 102 yards (5.7)
Sean Culkin (TE): 18 targets, 8 catches (44%), 64 yards (3.6), 1 TD
Russell Hansbrough (RB): 8 targets, 5 catches (63%), 56 yards (5.2)

The second bye week seemed to put all the life back into the legs of Darius White and Jimmie Hunt. With those two and Bud Sasser all completely healthy, Missouri still doesn't have an amazing receiving corps, but it is one of increasing competence. If all three of them play well and give Mauk some play-making help, Missouri can score enough to win.

Watch the losses, though. From yesterday's defensive preview:

Remember Havoc Rate, everybody's NEW HOT HIP FOOTBALL MEASURE? It combines tackles for loss, forced fumbles, interceptions, and pass breakups and divides it by a team's total plays. (I track it each week on the second table at this page.) Mizzou's defensive line ranks second among all lines in this category, and the Tigers rank 20th overall.

Arkansas ranks 10th. The front seven as a whole ranks sixth. The Hogs aren't incredibly active in the back, but they get after you up front. Darius Philon and Trey Flowers have combined for 23 TFLs, 7.5 sacks, five breakups, and 13 hurries (the rest of the team: 12 hurries). Taiwan Johnson adds some quickness as an undersized nose guard, and the other ends are a grab bag of general competence. [...]

The front seven is infinitely more disruptive and competent than it was last year, and a big reason for that is Martrell Spaight. Spaight was a three-star JUCO transfer who didn't do much of anything in his first year in Fayetteville, but he has erupted this fall. He is both a tackling machine (he has 81.0 tackles, and all other listed linebackers have 88.5) and a play-maker, making eight stops behind the line and still defensing four passes. (Brooks Ellis is also strong, obviously.)

Missouri was able to survive Maty Mauk scrambling around and Marcus Murphy running horizontally better than I expected last week, thanks in part to improved play on the offensive line. But Arkansas has some quick defenders in the front seven, and it is imperative that the Tigers avoid too many disruptive losses, especially if the false-start problems continue.

Passing Downs
MU Offense UA Defense Advantage
PD % Run 38.3% (29th)

S&P+ 98.4 (73rd) 133.9 (13th) UA big
Success Rate 31.3% (63rd) 27.6% (37th) UA
IsoPPP 1.12 (76th) 1.38 (123rd) MU
Rushing Success Rate 29.9% (54th) 26.0% (60th) push
Rushing IsoPPP 1.01 (83rd) 1.26 (93rd) push
Passing Success Rate 32.1% (66th) 28.3% (34th) UA
Passing IsoPPP 1.18 (57th) 1.42 (121st) MU big

Missouri's passing downs success rate against Tennessee was subpar, but there were just enough big plays involved to earn Mizzou the win. In theory, you could see a similar recipe against Arkansas. The Hogs have an aggressive, efficient passing downs defense, but the big plays they allow are bigger than almost anybody else's. If the blocking holds up, and Maty Mauk can get the ball deep to White, Hunt, or Sasser, good things may happen at least once or twice. And if we're picturing this as a "first to 21 points wins" kind of game, they may only need to happen once or twice.

Targets & Catches
Bud Sasser: 31 targets, 18 catches (58%), 304 yards (9.8), 4 TD
Jimmie Hunt: 26 targets, 15 catches (58%), 263 yards (10.1), 2 TD
Marcus Murphy (RB): 15 targets, 8 catches (53%), 56 yards (3.7), 1 TD
Sean Culkin (TE): 14 targets, 7 catches (50%), 79 yards (5.6)
Darius White: 12 targets, 9 catches (75%), 125 yards (10.4), 1 TD
Russell Hansbrough (RB): 10 targets, 5 catches (50%), 4 yards (0.4)

Sasser, Hunt, and White have combined to catch 61 percent of passes for 16.5 yards per catch on passing downs. That's very good. As we know, Maty Mauk probably isn't going to throw the ball unless he sees you're open, which results in some sacks and (mostly) throwaways, but these guys have come up big at times. In the final home game for all three, it would be huge if they came up big again.

Summary

So here are the key factors:

1. Passing downs efficiency

This game begins when an offense falls behind schedule.

Arkansas is efficient but not explosive on passing downs, and the Razorbacks render you inefficient but explosive on such downs on defense. If Mizzou's own PD success rate is higher -- it shouldn't be, but it's not out of the realm of possibility -- it's probably going to be difficult for the Hogs to win, especially if a couple of Missouri's successes go for long gains.

Key Stat: Passing downs success rate

2. HAVOC

Both Arkansas and Missouri play active, exciting defense, and both rank really high in the Havoc Rate measure mentioned above. These offenses aren't the most explosive in the world, and big defensive plays might be as or more important. So let's track those.

Key Stats: Havoc rate

3. Little Things™

This was the biggest thing in the world for Missouri until two weeks ago, when it became nothing but a hindrance. And hey, if Mizzou wins the first two items on this list, maybe the Tigers can overcome field position and drive-finishing disadvantages once again. But I wouldn't advise it. Arkansas already wants to lean on you; tilting the field in the Hogs' favor only gives them a better chance of making you collapse.

Field Position Finishing Drives
Avg. FP
(Off)
Avg. FP
(Def)
MARGIN
Pts. Per
Scoring Opp.
(Off)
Pts. Per
Scoring Opp
(Def)
MARGIN
Arkansas 31.7 (33rd) 28.5 (41st) +3.2 (34th) 4.6 (42nd) 3.7 (18th) +1.0 (12th)
Missouri 30.2 (66th) 29.4 (61st) +0.8 (65th) 4.8 (35th) 4.0 (39th) +0.7 (27th)

Key stats: points per scoring opportunity and average starting field position.

Along those same lines...

4. My goodness, special teams

Mizzou managed to win last week with one of the worst special teams performances we'll ever see. Let's not try that again.

Key Stat: The basics (place-kicking, net kicking/punting averages).

*****

Two weeks ago, I mentioned that Missouri was going to have to win three straight games that were, on paper, virtual tossups. The Tigers are 2-for-2. Now comes the third. Arkansas is burly and mean and smoking hot. But they can be beaten, and Missouri has the tools to do the deed. This game will be hard-hitting and painful; here's to the Tigers winning it and heading to Atlanta next week.