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The 2015 Citrus Bowl preview: Trench play and disasters will tell the tale

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Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

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Minnesota vs. Missouri

Record CFP
Rank
F/+ Rk Off. F/+ Rk
Def. F/+ Rk ST F/+ Rk
Minnesota 8-4 25 35 44 42 9
Missouri 10-3 16 31 52 21 45

F/+ projection: Missouri 19, Minnesota 18 (win probability: 58%)

Minnesota is easy to prepare for and hard to beat. The Gophers know exactly what they are, and they don't feel the need to stray from that very often. If you play really well, you can indeed beat them; Illinois did, after all. And TCU whipped 'em. But you will play the game on their terms, and if you make mistakes, you will die by them.

Or, to put this another way, Missouri makes more good plays than Minnesota and makes more bad plays. We'll find out which one matters more.

When Minnesota 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
UM Offense MU Defense Advantage
SD % Run 78.6% (7th)

S&P+ 109.3 (42nd) 116.4 (22nd) push
Success Rate 46.2% (76th) 45.2% (54th) MU
IsoPPP 0.82 (41st) 0.69 (31st) push
Rushing Success Rate 47.4% (60th) 42.5% (32nd) MU
Rushing IsoPPP 0.75 (31st) 0.64 (57th) UM
Passing Success Rate 41.8% (103rd) 49.1% (97th) push
Passing IsoPPP 1.10 (22nd) 0.75 (14th) push

Again, Minnesota runs. And runs and runs and runs. A 79 percent run rate on standard downs is higher than Boston College's, Auburn's, LSU's, Arkansas', Wisconsin's, et cetera. Hell, it's almost higher than Air Force's. Quarterback Mitch Leidner will put in just enough carries to keep you honest, and Berkley Edwards, Donnell Kirkwood, and Rodrick Williams Jr. will spell David Cobb from time to time. And hey, about 10 times in a given game, Leidner is going to throw a play-action pass. Four to five of them may work.

Targets & Catches
Maxx Williams (TE): 31 targets, 17 catches (55%), 281 yards (9.1 per target), 6 TD
Isaac Fruechte (WR): 18 targets, 8 catches (44%), 145 yards (8.1), 1 TD
K.J. Maye (WR): 13 targets, 4 catches (31%), 81 yards (6.2), 1 TD
Donovahn Jones (WR): 13 targets, 6 catches (46%), 167 yards (12.9), 1 TD
Drew Wolitarsky (WR): 9 targets, 6 catches (67%), 36 yards (4.0)
David Cobb (RB): 6 targets, 5 catches (83%), 61 yards (10.2)
Miles Thomas (FB): 6 targets, 4 catches (67%), 26 yards (4.3)

But you and they both know that Cobb is coming at you a lot. And you will beat Minnesota if you can keep him in the two- to four-yard range instead of four to six.

Passing Downs
UM Offense MU Defense Advantage
PD % Run 43.9% (12th)

S&P+ 104.5 (55th) 143.2 (10th) MU
Success Rate 32.3% (49th) 24.3% (11th) MU
IsoPPP 0.96 (113th) 0.98 (14th) MU big
Rushing Success Rate 32.2% (32nd) 21.7% (30th) push
Rushing IsoPPP 1.00 (87th) 0.99 (35th) MU big
Passing Success Rate 32.4% (68th) 25.4% (14th) MU big
Passing IsoPPP 0.93 (113th) 0.98 (27th) MU big

Targets & Catches
Maxx Williams (TE): 23 targets, 12 catches (52%), 190 yards (8.3), 1 TD
K.J. Maye (WR): 21 targets, 9 catches (43%), 142 yards (6.8)
Isaac Fruechte (WR): 15 targets, 7 catches (47%), 133 yards (8.9)
Donovahn Jones (WR): 13 targets, 5 catches (39%), 86 yards (6.6), 1 TD
Drew Wolitarsky (WR): 9 targets, 4 catches (44%), 70 yards (7.8)
David Cobb (RB): 9 targets, 7 catches (78%), 68 yards (7.6)

For every nine passing downs, Minnesota will attempt passes on five of them. And about one of those will result in a sack. But as you see here, Minnesota's rushing success rate on second- and third-and-long is pretty good. They will use the run to make sure you don't get too comfortable rushing the passer. And they're also going for efficiency over explosiveness when they do pass. They probably aren't breaking a big one here.

Of the four matchups listed here -- Minnesota on standard downs and passing downs, Mizzou on standard downs and passing downs -- this one has the biggest margin of defensive advantage. Minnesota is in no way a big-play threat here, and Markus Golden, Shane Ray and company should completely destroy whatever constitutes a pocket for Leidner. If Minnesota can simply avoid disaster here, that's a win. If Minnesota actually has a decent amount of passing downs success, that's a huge win.

When Missouri Has The Ball…

Standard Downs
MU Offense UM Defense Advantage
SD % Run 58.8% (65th)

S&P+ 102.0 (66th) 110.6 (32nd) UM
Success Rate 45.9% (78th) 45.6% (59th) push
IsoPPP 0.72 (91st) 0.69 (30th) UM big
Rushing Success Rate 49.1% (45th) 47.0% (73rd) MU
Rushing IsoPPP 0.60 (104th) 0.64 (56th) UM
Passing Success Rate 41.4% (104th) 43.4% (36th) UM big
Passing IsoPPP 0.91 (67th) 0.77 (17th) UM big

Of course, Minnesota's defense has almost as many advantages as Missouri's. Mizzou wants balance on standard downs but has spent a good portion of the season only ATTEMPTING balance, not actually succeeding at it. The passing game has run hot, cold, warm, and chilly this year, and Minnesota is one of the best in the country at minding the pass on standard downs.

Mizzou could have success running the ball, though, and that should be one of the biggest factors in the game. Minnesota's run efficiency isn't very good, and aisde from the Alabama game, Mizzou was wonderfully efficient on the ground down the stretch. Against Texas A&M, Tennessee, and Arkansas -- two good run defenses and one awful one -- Mizzou had a 53.9 percent run success rate on standard downs; a full-season 53.9 percent average would rank 14th in the country. And again, two of those three games were against run fronts better than Minnesota's.

So yeah, probably an important thing there.

Targets & Catches
Bud Sasser (WR): 75 targets, 47 catches (63%), 545 yards (7.3 per target), 6 TD
Darius White (WR): 31 targets, 18 catches (58%), 219 yards (7.1), 3 TD
Jimmie Hunt (WR): 30 targets, 18 catches (60%), 243 yards (8.1), 5 TD
Sean Culkin (TE): 25 targets, 10 catches (40%), 73 yards (2.9), 1 TD
Marcus Murphy (RB/WR): 23 targets, 16 catches (70%), 120 yards (5.2)
Russell Hansbrough (RB): 8 targets, 5 catches (63%), 56 yards

Missouri is still going to throw, though. And Maty Mauk isn't going to miss Jimmie Hunt as much on standard downs as passing downs. Despite missing a good chunk of the season, Darius White was his No. 2 on these downs.

Passing Downs
MU Offense UM Defense Advantage
PD % Run 37.6% (33rd)

S&P+ 105.3 (53rd) 113.4 (40th) push
Success Rate 31.9% (54th) 30.8% (70th) push
IsoPPP 1.10 (80th) 1.00 (17th) UM big
Rushing Success Rate 28.6% (61st) 30.6% (89th) MU
Rushing IsoPPP 1.03 (79th) 0.80 (8th) UM big
Passing Success Rate 33.9% (54th) 30.9% (61st) push
Passing IsoPPP 1.14 (71st) 1.11 (62nd) push

Mizzou's passing downs success rate has been incredibly ... diverse? Unique? Unpredictable? What's the nice way of saying "maddeningly inconsistent"? The Tigers were at 38% or higher six times, including a 47.6% success rate against Vandy, 47.8% against Indiana, and 41.4% against Arkansas. They were also at 29% or lower seven times -- 26.7% against Kentucky, 26.1% against Alabama, 25.0% against Florida ... 10.7% against South Carolina, and 9.1% against Georgia. Against UGA, SC, and UF, Mizzou was an amazing 7-for-51 (13.7%) on passing downs.

Since the Vandy game, the Tigers have been pretty good again. But here's where Hunt might be missed.

Targets & Catches
Bud Sasser (WR): 40 targets, 23 catches (58%), 384 yards (9.6), 4 TD
Jimmie Hunt (WR): 37 targets, 22 catches (60%), 455 yards (12.3), 2 TD
Sean Culkin (TE): 18 targets, 9 catches (50%), 100 yards (5.6)
Marcus Murphy (RB/WR): 18 targets, 10 catches (56%), 76 yards (4.2), 1 TD
Darius White (WR): 16 targets, 11 catches (69%), 155 yards (9.7), 1 TD
Russell Hansbrough (RB): 12 targets, 6 catches (50%), 2 yards (0.2)

Down the stretch, Mauk was looking at Hunt, then Sasser, then scrambling. Without Hunt, and with Sasser covered by one of many pretty good corners, I do think we're going to see a lot of Scramblin' Maty in this game. That's sometimes good and often bad. It will result in a low completion percentage, but Mizzou can live with that if he's able to connect with someone -- Sasser, White, Nate Brown, anybody -- a few times.

Summary

So here are the key factors:

1. Standard downs rushing

It's all Minnesota wants to do, and it might be all Mizzou can do well. Whoever is rushing for five or six yards on first down is probably winning, period.

Key Stats: Standard downs rushing success rate, line yards per carry

2. Havoc and disaster

Mizzou's defensive line is one of the most destructive in college football, and Minnesota's secondary gets hands on lots of passes. The offenses will have to move the ball a bit, obviously, but avoiding disaster is equally important. If one defense is creating field-flipping, havoc-related turnovers or big sacks, that team is probably going to win.

Key Stat: Turnover margin, Havoc Rate

3. Little Things™

Field Position Finishing Drives
Avg. FP
(Off)
Avg. FP
(Def)
MARGIN
Pts. Per
Scoring Opp.
(Off)
Pts. Per
Scoring Opp
(Def)
MARGIN
Minnesota 33.5 (11th) 27.1 (15th) +6.4 (8th) 4.5 (66th) 4.3 (62nd) +0.2 (59th)
Missouri 29.1 (90th) 29.8 (70th) -0.7 (81st) 4.7 (42nd) 4.1 (44th) +0.6 (34th)

When Mizzou was getting its sea legs in October, these were incredibly important stats. Then Missouri got better down-for-down in November and got much worse at the little things. Christian Brinser's punts began to stray, and Andrew Baggett's kickoffs stopped reaching the end zone.

Minesota is a fantastic field position team; Missouri doesn't have to win the field position battle, but if the Tigers can keep things close in that regard, that might be enough. Meanwhile, in a game that will be played at a slow pace, with closer to 10 possessions than 20, finishing scoring opportunities in the end zone will be of obvious, grave importance. And Mizzou might have the advantage there.

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

4. Special teams

Let's make this its own category, even though special teams will play a huge role in field position. Minnesota has a top-10 special teams unit despite iffy place-kicking. Again, Missouri might not have to build an advantage here; the Tigers just need to prevent the Gophers from doing the same.

Key Stat: The basics -- punting, kicking, returns, etc.

*****

Minnesota is not as good as Alabama or Arkansas, Mizzou's last two opponents. The Gophers are a little better, and a lot more stable, than Tennessee or Texas A&M. In theory, the fact that Mizzou went 3-1 against those teams suggests the Tigers should expect to win here. But the Gophers will kill you with your own mistakes, and Missouri is more than happy to make some. A stable, high-quality Mizzou team wins this game. Will the less-stable, more scattershot team we saw most of the year do the same?

I feel pretty good about this one -- my (frequently wrong) gut says something like 27-17 Mizzou -- but it's easy to see how Minnesota pulls this one out. Hopefully the Gophers won't.