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MISSOURI AT VANDY PREVIEW: Tigers' bowl hopes probably hinge on winning this tossup

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Get Hansbrough going. Get Hansbrough going. Get Hansbrough going. Get Hansbrough going. Get Hansbrough going. Get Hansbrough going. Get Hansbrough going. Get Hansbrough going. Get Hansbrough going. Get Hansbrough going. Get Hansbrough going. Get Hansbrough going. Get Hansbrough going. Get Hansbrough going. Get Hansbrough going.

Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

I do not fear missing a bowl. After the experience of 2012 (and the years that followed), I've come to understand that it's a lot like relegation in soccer -- you're terrified of it, and then it happens and you realize, "Oh, I guess that wasn't that bad." (Getting relegated twice, on the other hand, is the worst thing imaginable. I guess maybe missing two bowls in a row would be the same.) After Missouri's bowling streak ended in 2012, recruiting didn't die, and the team didn't fall apart. In fact, it was the direct opposite.

I don't want to miss a bowl, mind you, but I'm at peace with the idea if it comes to that, and if Missouri's offense simply cannot get things turned around.

I bring this up for a simple reason: bowl hopes very, very much ride on Missouri beating Vanderbilt on Saturday. It's conceivable that the Tigers could split their final four games (three of which are either at home or at Arrowhead), and while all four of the remaining opponents are decent to good, none are untouchable, especially with this Missouri defense. But while Vandy isn't as bad as we might want to believe, the Commodores are still the worst opponent left on the schedule. Best to win this one ... and S&P+ certainly doesn't love the Tigers' chances. It says the Tigers have about a 40% chance of winning, with an average score of Vandy 22, Mizzou 18. Granted, I'd be shocked if 40 points were scored, but use that as a reminder that Mizzou and Vandy are basically the same team this year -- Missouri's defense is a little better, its offense worse -- and this one could go either way.

When Vandy has the ball...

Hey, guess what: the defenses have most of the advantages. Crazy, right?

Standard Downs

Vandy Offense Mizzou Defense
Avg. Rk Avg. Rk Edge
Standard Downs S&P+ 89.7 109 126.7 11 Mizzou big
Standard Downs Success Rate 42.2% 111 42.1% 36 Mizzou big
Standard Downs IsoPPP 1.03 100 0.89 5 Mizzou big
SD Line Yards per Carry 2.44 115 2.46 29 Mizzou big
SD Sack Rate 3.0% 36 5.2% 57 Vandy

Vandy runs the QB Protector offense, throwing a lot on standard downs and running quite a bit on passing downs. This is a pretty good approach against Missouri -- get the ball out of your hands quickly to negate the pass rush and keep moving forward, at least incrementally, to avoid second- or third-and-long.

Johnny McCrary has completed a decent 62 percent of his passes on first-and-10 this year, but they don't really go anywhere. The run isn't good enough to open up play-action opportunities, and McCrary's completions are averaging only about 9.7 yards per. He's thrown three first-down picks, too.

Standard Downs Targets & Catches
Trent Sherfield (WR): 45 targets, 28 catches, 340 yards (7.6 per target)
Ralph Webb (RB): 21 targets, 16 catches, 131 yards (6.2)
Caleb Scott (WR): 18 targets, 13 catches, 138 yards (7.7)
Steven Scheu (TE): 16 targets, 7 catches, 54 yards (3.4)
Latevius Rayford (WR): 15 targets, 10 catches, 59 yards (3.9)
Darrius Sims (WR): 7 targets, 5 catches, 37 yards (5.3)
Kris Kentera (WR): 6 targets, 3 catches, 29 yards (4.8)
DeAndre Woods (TE): 6 targets, 4 catches, 96 yards (16.0)

Sherfield's the man on standard downs. As mentioned yesterday, he did the lion's share of his damage against Austin Peay and has been otherwise forgettable, but it will be interesting to see what approach Vandy takes if (or, preferably, when) Aarion Penton, Kenya Dennis, and company limit Sherfield's opportunities.

The frequency of passes to Webb, by the way, pretty clearly reveal the attitude here. If your read's not open, dump it down and get positive yardage. Webb isn't a destructive force receiving the ball, but he's gaining yards most of the time. Slowing Webb, on both carries and catches, will be big. Missouri will probably do that with little issue, but we'll see.

Passing Downs

Vandy Offense Mizzou Defense
Avg. Rk Avg. Rk Edge
Passing Downs S&P+ 85.3 107 130.4 18 Mizzou big
Passing Downs Success Rate 29.6% 74 26.2% 37 Mizzou
Passing Downs IsoPPP 1.56 108 1.36 1 Mizzou very big
PD Line Yards per Carry 3.62 32 2.47 18 push
PD Sack Rate 6.0% 54 12.2% 13 Mizzou

Expect a decent amount of Webb and some McCrary scrambles/draws on passing downs. Vandy's first goal will be to neutralize the pass rush, and with no steady big-play threats, against maybe the best big-play prevention D in the country, the goal will be to get to the sticks, run or pass.

Passing Downs Targets & Catches
Steven Scheu (TE): 18 targets, 9 catches, 120 yards (6.7)
Trent Sherfield (WR): 11 targets, 8 catches, 143 yards (13.0)
Ralph Webb (RB): 10 targets, 3 catches, 30 yards (3.0), 1 TD
Kris Kentera (WR): 8 targets, 4 catches, 63 yards (7.9)
Latevius Rayford (WR): 6 targets, 3 catches, 25 yards (4.2)
Caleb Scott (WR): 5 targets, 3 catches, 36 yards (7.2)

Here's where Scheu becomes an interesting weapon. Sherfield's done some damage here and there, but Scheu is McCrary's favorite passing downs target. And to the extent that Missouri's struggled with much of anything from opposing offenses, tight ends are on the list. As mentioned yesterday, Scheu had a nice game against Mizzou last year, so I'd expect McCrary to be looking for him.

When Mizzou has the ball...

Standard Downs

Mizzou Offense Vandy Defense
Avg. Rk Avg. Rk Edge
Standard Downs S&P+ 77.3 125 126.6 12 Vandy very big
Standard Downs Success Rate 34.7% 128 41.1% 30 Vandy big
Standard Downs IsoPPP 1.08 73 1.08 67 push
SD Line Yards per Carry 2.09 127 2.38 20 Vandy very big
SD Sack Rate 6.1% 82 3.7% 93 push

I'm not going to lie, I laugh every single time I see that Missouri is 128th -- dead last -- in standard downs success rate. That's simply incredible. No need to rehash it, I guess, but .. incredible.

As I've mentioned, Vandy's run defense isn't bad, but the pass defense is a strength. The Commodores don't have a monstrous pass rush, but they leave you with throws you can't usually make. And hey, maybe Drew Lock makes them ... and maybe the receivers even catch them. But one figures that run success, to some degree, will be a requirement. You don't need six yards a carry, but ... you need more than two.

Standard Downs Targets & Catches
Nate Brown (WR): 22 targets, 16 catches, 165 yards (7.5), 3 TD
J'Mon Moore (WR): 21 targets, 7 catches, 115 yards (5.5)
Wesley Leftwich (WR): 15 targets, 9 catches, 124 yards (8.3)
Sean Culkin (TE): 11 targets, 8 catches, 52 yards (4.7)
Jason Reese (TE): 10 targets, 4 catches, 28 yards (2.8)
Keyon Dilosa (WR): 7 targets, 7 catches, 35 yards (5.0)
Ish Witter (RB): 7 targets, 6 catchecs, 55 yards (7.9)
Emanuel Hall (WR): 5 targets, 2 catches, 12 yards (2.4)

Brown's and Leftwich's numbers on standard downs are downright solid. (Moore's, not so much.) With any -- ANY -- run success, Vandy might fall victim to a big pass or two. But man oh man ... let's just say four. Four yards per carry from the backs. That's really not too much to ask, right?

Right?

Passing Downs

Mizzou Offense Vandy Defense
Avg. Rk Avg. Rk Edge
Passing Downs S&P+ 85.2 109 112.0 43 Vandy big
Passing Downs Success Rate 24.7% 107 31.7% 86 Vandy
Passing Downs IsoPPP 1.68 87 1.64 42 Vandy
PD Line Yards per Carry 3.37 57 1.90 9 Vandy
PD Sack Rate 7.3% 71 6.1% 81 push

Passing Downs Targets & Catches
J'Mon Moore (WR): 16 targets, 9 catches, 90 yards (5.6), 2 TD
Nate Brown (WR): 14 targets, 4 catches, 86 yards (6.1), 1 TD
Wesley Leftwich (WR): 11 targets, 3 catchces, 24 yards (2.2)
Ish Witter (RB): 10 targets, 6 catches, 34 yards (3.4)
Jason Reese (TE): 9 targets, 7 catches, 73 yards (8.1)
Sean Culkin (TE): 7 targets, 6 catches, 65 yards (9.3)
Russell Hansbrough: 7 targets, 6 catches, 39 yards (5.6)

Vanderbilt plays it reasonably safe on passing downs; they don't have much of a pass rush, they stay home against the run, and they prevent big plays even if their success rate is unimpressive. That might mean the tight ends play a role. Like Brown and Leftwich on standard downs, Culkin and Reese have been strong on passing downs, catching 81% of their passes on second- and third-and-long. That's a weapon you might be able to utilize, especially considering your limited options.

Five Keys

1. The trenches ... always the trenches

I'll just copy and paste from last week (and the week before).

Spoiler alert: This is probably going to be the No. 1 key all season. Missouri's offensive line was between bad and terrible for most of four games, and Mizzou had one of the least efficient offenses in the country. ... This key is for both sides of the ball, of course. If Mizzou's defensive line wins its battle, and the Missouri offensive line can either fight to a draw or only occasionally lose, the Tigers might be able to position themselves to win. But this has to be a net win for Mizzou, and preferably a large one.

Yep.

2. Field position (and turnovers)

This game is going to be played at a hilariously slow pace -- neither team is in a hurry to put its defense back out on the field, and both offenses take their sweet time. That means minimal possessions, and it means that turnovers and random possessions starting at midfield (or better) will be worth almost double. Missouri was actually able to create some field position opportunities against Georgia but couldn't take advantage; still, creating them is the first step.

3. Finishing

Finishing them is the next step. Mizzou was able to stay close to Georgia because both teams were abhorrent in scoring situations. Averaging even 4 points per scoring opportunity -- below average but not awful -- would be fantastic.

4. Ralph Webb vs. Russell Hansbrough

At 25 intended touches per game, Webb gets more use than Hansbrough probably would be getting even if he'd never gotten hurt. But Hansbrough's more of a big-play threat. I'm pretty confident that Missouri doesn't need Hansbrough to outgain Webb to win the game, but if he does ... I don't see how Vandy wins the game. If a redrawn offensive line is able to create some creases, or if Mizzou is able to hold Webb to minimal yards after contact, that might be enough to tip the game in the Tigers' direction.

5. First down

This one probably doesn't need an explanation. Missouri has about as bad as an offense has ever been on first down last week. Simply being bad, and not completely inept, might have been enough to turn the game.

***

I feel confident about this one for some reason, and my gut has been at least reasonably well-tuned of late -- I had minimal confidence against Florida, but I thought Mizzou would at least cover against UGA. I didn't see "tied late in the game despite even worse offense than you're guessing" as an option.

My gut says Hansbrough gets going a bit, and with Missouri avoiding passing downs to some degree, the Tigers at least get into the 14- to 24-point range. Since Vandy has only scored more than 17 once, that might get the job done. Regardless, don't expect aesthetics or some massive 35-point breakout. Just win.