It’s officially game week! After one of the more exciting offseasons in recent memory, a Missouri team, fresh from an offseason of recruiting victories, is heading into a season full of optimism and determined for some on-the-field wins to maintain those recruits who have bought in to the #NewZou. So we start with the first game: a home tilt against a feisty MAC team that won their division two years ago and boasts a former SEC coach who tends to work wonders with G5 rosters.
The offseason preview of Central Michigan is right here; since then they’ve seen some roster churn - both positive and negative - with some new faces stepping up to (likely) be hitting the field on Saturday. Missouri will be entering as a (current) 14.5-point favorite with a 71%-chance of winning per SP+. So how do they do that? Here’s how I see it.
When Missouri Has the Ball
As is expected, Missouri is operating at a talent advantage over their Chippewa counterparts. However, Central Michigan has a ton of experience - at least age-wise - and was excellent against the run for the past two years. Troy Hairston was a walk-on-turned-MAC-defensive-player-of-the-year while converted receiver Troy Brown and George Douglas have been all-conference performers for their entire tenure. They might not have been highly rated coming out of high school but they’re still able to hang if you let ‘em.
Show off that shiny, new, deep ball passing game
While the Chips were one of the best at containing the run - 46th overall, 2nd in explosive rushes - they were a total liability when it came to deep shots. Yes, they were 56th overall against the pass but they like to take risks and create havoc which tends to give the offense the opportunity to connect on big plays. They were the worst team in the country when it came to the number of big passing plays and the yardage given up on those big plays, and the secondary is breaking in two new safeties. You might have heard that Eli Drinkwitz made the deep-passing game a main focus of improvement during the offseason: it’s time to show off the fruits of that labor. A 7.5 yards per attempt or higher for Bazelak should mean that he and the receiving corps are taking advantage of the CMU secondary.
Again, Robb Akey’s defense loves to create havoc. They’re not always successful, mind you: that’s why the Chips were 126th in blitz downs success rate but also 12th in the nation at generating sacks and 36th in stuffing the run. But it does end up putting offenses in consistent passing down situations, aka 2nd-and-8 and more, 3rd-and-5 or more, 4th-and-5 or more. But while last year’s defense was good at getting teams to passing downs, they were awful at actually stopping them on said downs, ranking dead last in passing downs defense. Passing downs are “playmaker downs” where your best players step up and find a way to convert. Bazelak, Badie, Chism, et al might fall behind early in the sticks but still convert. A 38% conversion rate or more on passing downs should do the trick.
Finish your dang drives
Remember this? I know I do! Last year I was very loud about Mizzou’s inability to close drives with points and it showed: 4.14 points per scoring opportunity ranked 69th (nice) in the country. Now, it didn’t lose them any games since the Tigers had the Drinkwitz-magic-touch in one-possession games and were blown out in their losses. Also, you can argue that Drink was mega conservative on purpose last year since the receivers were not good, the quarterback was brand new, and Larry Rountree and Thiccer were super reliable. But if he repeats that conservative crap again this year then there’s definitely cause for concern. I want to see Mizzou finish with at least 5 point per scoring opportunity against a CMU defense that was stout in the red zone last year.
When Central Michigan Has the Ball
Again, Mizzou is operating at a talent advantage here but the Chippewa offense is no slouch. While the depth might not be there Lew Nichols and Kalil Pimpleton are going to be problematic and draw the attention of the defense every play. Jacob Sirmon is a Washington transfer, a development that occurred after I wrote their preview. Daniel Richardson - CMU’s starting quarterback last year - is still on the team and, depending on who you ask, might actually start against Mizzou. Regardless, Coach McElwain reliably crafts good offenses (Florida teams aside) and if he’s able to add some efficiency execution to last year’s offense he’ll be able to make this game a headache.
Knock them off schedule
McElwain ran a fairly conservative offense last year since he was forced to put a freshman quarterback at the helm. They ran on standard downs and only threw on passing downs; as would be expected, the Chips offense hummed decently well if they stayed in range of the chains (39th on standard downs) and completely fell apart in passing downs (121st). Given either Richardson’s experience or Sirmon’s pedigree I doubt that 2020’s gameplan is repeated but I do think this is still valid: a college offense playing in passing downs is a vulnerable college offense. Richardson and Sirmon are good but they aren’t Trevor Lawrence or Justin Fields; the Tigers should shoot to keep the Chippewas at a 45% success rate on standard downs or worse.
Bottle up the run
This runs concurrent with goal #1. The 2020 CMU offense ran a ton because they needed to, sure, but also because they were good at it. The good news for Mizzou, however, is one of their workhorse backs - Kobe Lewis - is gone for the season with an injury. Now, that still leaves Lew Nichols III behind, who was the more explosive back of the two. The Chippewas were overly reliant on big plays and they generated almost all of them via the run; Mizzou, on the other hand, was excellent at stuffing the run when their roster wasn’t riddled with COVID. Kalil Pimpleton is a one man wrecking crew in the receiver room but its in the Tigers’ best interest to keep the Chips throwing and play away from their strength. A rushing success rate of under 35% should mean Mizzou’s front six are getting the job done.
I’ve taken heat for saying this game is going to be a lot closer than people think but I stand by it. Mizzou, on paper, is clearly the better team. They have better facilities, a larger budget, a better conference, and, most of all, better athletes. However, they are also starting a lot of new, young faces on defense and in the offensive skill positions. We have no idea how the offense is going to click or how they will react to the first full stadium they’ve experienced in two calendar years.
For those reasons, Central Michigan is a terrible first game for this type of team. They have a good, veteran coach who is familiar with playing against the SEC and has had success in far-flung G5 gigs. Hell, he took over one of the worst G5 teams in the country in 2019 and immediately won the MAC West! They might not have the caliber of athlete that Mizzou boasts on their roster but they have an identity and they have a lot of returning starters; they might not be good returning starters, mind you, but they’ve all been here before.
In a perfect world Mizzou blows the doors off in the 1st quarter, builds the lead in the 2nd, then let’s the backups play the game out. In reality, I think we see a few yips, a big drive here and there, several stall outs, and a close game heading into the 4th. I think this will be frustrating and no fun but the point is to win and I think Missouri does it. Welcome back college football!