After the trip to Morgantown, Missouri returns to Columbia for its home opener against Eastern Michigan. I wrote about the Eagles back in April, and here are some interesting things to know about the matchup, one that should result in a pretty comfortable Tiger win.
1. EMU started 2015 pretty well until a lack of depth took over
EMU hinted at bowl-level potential early on, with a dominant win over Wyoming and a competitive showing in Baton Rouge (the Eagles trailed just 30-22 heading into the fourth quarter). But home losses to ODU, Ball State, and Army still established EMU's place near the bottom of the FBS totem pole. And after the LSU game, things fell apart quickly; EMU lost its final seven games by an average of 23 points each. [...]
The kindness of the injury bug will dictate so much. If you look at the starting 22 and nothing else, you see a high-ceiling quarterback, an explosive running back, at least one reliable receiver, five senior starters on the offensive line, a high-caliber defensive front four, two exciting linebackers, and a secondary loaded with experience.
And if you look at the potential second string, you see almost nothing but unproven freshmen and sophomores. If the injury bug bites hard, or if players like Shaq Vann or Eddie Daugherty suffer through a sophomore slump, then Creighton's third year will look a lot like his second: glimpses of early potential foiled by a failing depth chart.
Third-year head coach Chris Creighton has been doing his best to stockpile talent at a school that doesn’t tend to have much. At this point, he probably has more interesting starters than in 2014 or 2015, and he definitely has more experience. But depth is still a massive issue. The good news for the Eagles in this game is, lack of depth tends to make more of a difference in Week 10 than Week 2.
2. Beware the big plays
EMU couldn't get efficiency or consistency from either the run or the pass, but the Eagles did produce quite a few explosive rushes. Their 20 rushes of 20-plus yards ranked 51st in FBS, their six 40-plusses ranked 38th. Thousand-yard rusher Darius Jackson was one reason for that, but for the season, Shaq Vann hinted both at more efficiency (39 percent of his carries gained at least five yards, compared to Jackson's 35 percent) and explosiveness. He carried at least four times in every game and averaged at least 5.8 yards per carry seven times.
Vann could be ready for a lovely season, and 2015 star recruit Breck Turner, a three-time scout team player of the week last fall, could be ready to fill Vann's spot on the second string. The depth here is minimal, but if Vann and Turner both stay healthy, this could be one of the better 1-2 punches in the MAC. And if it isn't in 2016, it could be in 2017 or 2018.
Vann and Turner could have a solid line for the foreseeable future. EMU got a good push in short-yardage situations last year, and while seniors account for 119 of EMU's 123 returning career starts, there is a full second string of sophomores (including three-stars Ka'John Armstrong and Dakota Tallman) who could be ready to take over in 2017.
EMU probably won’t be able to run efficiently against Missouri’s defensive front, but if the Tigers suffer a couple of random breakdowns, Vann is fast and assertive enough to punish them for it. Meanwhile, tiny sophomore receiver Eddie Daugherty is in the same boat -- he probably won’t gouge Mizzou a lot, but one missed tackle could turn into a large gain. (Unfortunately for EMU, there’s not a whole lot else in the receiving corps, so he’ll be attempting to break those tackles against Aarion Penton, which ... good luck with that.)
3. EMU’s moving to a 4-2-5
Neal Neathery was Creighton's defensive coordinator and assistant head coach at Drake in 2008-09 before taking over as the inaugural DC at UTSA under Larry Coker. Utilizing a 4-2-5, he twice dragged the Roadrunners' defense into the top half of FBS -- 61st in Def. S&P+ in 2013 and 59th in 2014 -- before massive turnover led to 2015 regression (103rd).
Going from a three-man line to a four-man line can sometimes create depth issues up front, but thanks to injuries that's not much of a concern. EMU brings back not only two of last year's three starters, but also tackle Pat O'Connor and end Jeremiah Harris, two potential 2015 starters who combined to play just three games last year. Add them to a line that features former Pitt transfer Luke Maclean, tackle Mike Brown, and former Nebraska end Joe Keels, and you actually might have something pretty exciting.
Per Def. S&P+, the Eagles had the worst defense in the country last year. Their pass defense was reasonably effective (78th in Passing S&P+), but the run defense was a shambles. It’s hard to turn that around too much in one year, but I do like the Neathery hire, and it does appear the defensive line has a bit more talent/health this fall.
4. You probably want to avoid passing situations
Maclean did a nice job of filling O'Connor's shoes from a pass-rushing standpoint last year, and thanks mostly to Maclean and since-departed tackle Clay Dawson, EMU ranked in the top 50 in Adj. Sack Rate. That could have been an exciting thing if opponents ever had to pass.
With Maclean and O'Connor both back and Keels moving in, the pass rush should again be a strength, and Neathery might not have to blitz to generate pressure. But once again, the key will be actually forcing opponents to throw.
If Mizzou’s run game stinks again, the Tigers could run into some issues offensively. Drew Lock could take some hits. That shouldn’t matter because EMU shouldn’t be scoring very much, but if you want a fun, easy blowout instead of a closer-than-preferred win, then Mizzou better run the ball pretty well.
5. Delaware State aside, this should be the easiest game on the schedule
S&P+ gives Mizzou a 91 percent chance of winning this game, with an average margin of victory of 23.2 points. Creighton is doing his best, but EMU is a really, really hard job. I hope he succeeds simply because every fan base deserves occasional happiness, but in theory this shouldn’t be much of a game.