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Seriously, what the hell does Missouri want to be?

Missouri’s identity doesn’t match its strengths. That is just a wee bit frustrating.

NCAA Football: Missouri at Kentucky Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

During Missouri’s bye week, head coach Barry Odom mentioned changes he was considering making to the struggling Tiger defense.

“Looking more at the things anything we’ve done well, why did we do it well? The things we’ve done poorly … what was the breakdown? If you use your time wisely you can split up and game plan against each other and do some cross-evaluation and use your time efficiently.

“For us, some of our odd-front stuff defensively has been really good, so we spent a little more time on that this week. Then some of the fits we had working together structurally just making sure getting into this now positionally, we’re spending more time in the film room seeing how we work off each other and fitting together where you’ve got all 11 guys doing the thing we need to do. Then we’re a pretty good defense. If you don’t then you’re not. Offensively, efficiently running the ball and finding ways a little bit more creatively to get that done. We’ve spent more time than anything on the mindset. We’re going to have some adversity. Let’s embrace it and go play the next snap.”

Now, “odd-front” does not automatically mean playing with three down-linemen — it just refers to how the linemen are aligned. “Odd” means the center is covered up by a lineman, “even” means he’s not.

Still, the most common odd-front defense is what we generally think of as the 3-4. It can be a 3-3-5, it can be a less-common 4-3, it can be a lot of things. But usually it’s the 3-4. And as David Morrison’s snap counts have shown us, the 3-4 had probably been Missouri’s best defense this year.

Through the first four games, Missouri was allowing 4.4 yards per play out of a 3-4 look and 6.2 per play out of everything else.

It was one of the most positive things I could point to through four games. The stats, combined with Odom’s words, suggested perhaps Missouri might move in that direction from a personnel standpoint.

Per Morrison’s numbers, in the last two games, Missouri has shown a 3-4 look ... five times. The Tigers allowed 2.2 yards per play in those five snaps, all against Georgia. They otherwise allowed 7.9 yards per play.

Look. I don’t go to practice. I don’t know as much about Missouri’s personnel as Barry Odom does. I also know that, by definition, your base defense is what opponents will be most prepared for (and, therefore, part of the success of the 3-4 has come from opponents’ lack of preparation for it). But ... what the hell?

Mizzou’s defense has been absolutely horrible, worse than last year. Odom and his staff decided that their base defense should probably be the nickel (well, a 4-3 with a safety stubbornly labeled as an “outside linebacker”) heading into the year.

The benefits to that are speed, improved support in pass defense, and, in theory, big-play prevention. But the Tigers are 128th out of 130 teams in my primary explosiveness measure, IsoPPP, at the moment.

Since the bye week, they have moved more toward a base 4-3. It has allowed 7.9 yards per play.

(And for now, I’m ignoring the whole “youth movement, but not a youth movement” thing that David brought up.)

But, on the bright side, there’s the offense.

The Tigers are currently 37th in Off. S&P+, perhaps not as good as we hoped this year, and a big reason for that has been a (familiar) struggle to convert scoring chances into points. Mizzou is just 66th in points per scoring opportunity, and when your defense ranks 109th in the same category, that means you have to create more chances to score the same number of points.

There are issues, but in this week’s stat profiles, I began including opponent-adjusted Rushing S&P+, Passing S&P+, Standard Downs S&P+, and Passing Downs S&P+ measures. Mizzou:

  • 6th in Rushing S&P+
  • 4th in Passing S&P+
  • 1st in Standard Downs S&P+
  • 31st in Passing Downs S&P+

These figures put a little more emphasis on big plays than the overall, more efficiency-based Off. S&P+ measure does, which is part of the reason why the Tigers are 37th overall but higher in each of these categories.

Still, that’s obviously pretty good. The offense has been a relative strength, and the more aggressive the Tigers have been — the more Drew Lock has looked downfield and employed the vertical pass — the better they have been.

That aggression hasn’t translated to fourth downs, however.

By my calculations, Missouri has faced five fourth-and-short situations (which I’ll define simply as fourth-and-1 or fourth-and-2, no matter the field position) and has punted three times. The Tigers are attempting to convert only 40 percent of their fourth-and-short chances, 96th in the country.

Even within the staid, conservative SEC, this is on the lower end of the aggressiveness scale.

4th-and-short attempt rate (SEC)

  1. Vanderbilt 75% (13th overall)
  2. Alabama 69% (27th)
  3. South Carolina 67% (28th)
  4. Auburn 60% (52nd)
  5. Ole Miss 60% (52nd)
  6. Mississippi State 57% (57th)
  7. Georgia 44% (86th)
  8. Texas A&M 44% (86th)
  9. Florida 42% (93rd)
  10. LSU 40% (96th)
  11. Missouri 40% (96th)
  12. Kentucky 38% (102nd)
  13. Arkansas 33% (107th)
  14. Tennessee 11% (121st)

Vanderbilt, Vanderbilt!, is an aggressive short-yardage team despite a rushing success rate rank of 123rd and a power success rate of 55% (118th). South Carolina is an aggressive short-yardage team despite a) being coached by Will Muschamp and b) ranking 83rd in rushing success rate and 70th in power success rate.

Missouri, sixth in Rushing S&P+ with a 79% power success rate (21st), punts on fourth-and-1 on the first drive of the Purdue game, punts on fourth-and-2 from the UGA 49 in the third quarter, and punts on fourth-and-1 from the MU 48 in the fourth quarter. Small samples? Sure. Infuriating all the same? Very, very much so.

Missouri’s not good at all that many things this year, and the Tigers have a low ceiling because of it. But they have an aggressive offense that plays things conservatively when you can’t, and they have a defense that appears to actively avoid the sets that have performed the best. This is not a team giving itself the best possible chance to succeed.

This is, to put it lightly, frustrating. And considering how winnable the remaining games are, it’s doubly frustrating. From Mizzou’s stat profile:

The best remaining road opponent currently ranks 67th in S&P+. The best remaining home opponent is 48th. Despite falling into the damn 90s overall, Mizzou still has at least a 30 percent chance of winning in each of the six remaining games.

If the Tigers were playing at a top-50 level — and it wasn’t entirely unreasonable to expect that before the season — they’d be favored in each game. Instead, they’ve put themselves in a situation in which they have only a 37 percent chance of going 2-0 against Idaho and UConn.

It’s only the midway point of the season. If Missouri can indeed begin putting its best foot forward, then a 4-2 finish (or, hell, even better) is conceivable. But neither the players nor the staff have yet led us to believe that is even slightly possible. And it’s up to them to change that. Especially the latter.