Missouri’s offense could use some work. You know that, I know that, and they know that. The Tigers are 89th nationally in Bill Connelly’s SP+ offensive rankings. That is the worst offense in the SEC. In fact, Missouri is one of just three SEC teams to boast a 50 offense, as ranked by SP+, along with Texas A&M (82nd), Kentucky (84th). That’s what happens when you average a league-worst 5.3 yards per play and score an average of just 19 points per game against conference opponents.
It’s been ugly. It might look better against New Mexico State, but this offense is not going to get fixed overnight. It will require personnel additions, scheme alterations and a change in mindset.
I went through to see what some of the biggest issues are with this offense, and what must be done to fix it.
1) Reduce the negative plays
Missouri has allowed an average of 8.3 tackles for loss per game, according to CFBStats. That is the worst single-season rate by Missouri since at least 2009. In fact, the last SEC offense to allow more tackles for loss per game was Ole Miss in 2011. That Rebels squad finished the year 116th in points scored per game, and their lone wins came against Southern Illinois and Fresno State. Winning games is hard when you’re constantly behind the chains.
Why is this happening? It’s pretty simple, really. Missouri’s offensive line is not getting the job done in the run game. We can turn to a stat called “line yards” to get a better grasp on how poorly Missouri’s offensive line has performed in the run game this year. Line yards is a stat Football Outsiders developed to better assign credit to the offensive line and running back when a play is successful. The offensive line deserves credit for the first few yards on every play. But does it deserve credit when a running back breaks free into the secondary and makes a move to beat a safety for a big gain? Probably not. That’s what this stat accounts for. Missouri’s struggles on standard downs tell an even clearer picture. On standard downs (first down, second-and-7 or fewer, third-and-4 or fewer, fourth-and-4 or fewer), Missouri is 107th in average line yards on the season, and 121st in standard down line yards, according to Football Outsiders. The only power five teams with offensive lines that have performed worse than Missouri’s on standard downs are Iowa, Boston College and Indiana. It’s not what you want. The Tigers also rank in the bottom 25 nationally in short yardage success rate (3rd or 4th down with 2 or fewer yards to go). None of this is a surprise to those of you who have watched this season. The eye test matches the analytics.
How does this get fixed? Well, there are a few things that could help. First, it’s a personnel issue. Missouri’s interior offensive line, in particular, has really struggled to open up holes. Xavier Delgado ranks 19th in Pro Football Focus’ run blocking grade among the 21 SEC guards to participate on at least 200 run blocking snaps. He is not, however, the worst run blocker on the Tigers’ offensive line. There are 57 power five centers to participate in at least 200 run blocking snaps this season. Connor Tollison ranks 56th among them in run blocking grade, per PFF. Remember that quarterback sneak that got blown up a couple weeks ago? Take a guess who they ran behind. Delgado and Tollison, of course. Missouri added Bence Polgar as a transfer last offseason for a reason. I’m sure the hope will be for Polgar to add some much-needed competition at center in the offseason. The Tigers should also be open to adding a guard through the transfer portal to compete with Mitchell Walters, EJ Ndoma-Ogar and Armand Membou this spring.
Personnel isn’t the only issue, though. This bread and butter of this running game is the outside zone, and it simply has not worked for the vast majority of the season. Eli Drinkwitz should hire an offensive coordinator in the offseason, and that hire should add some creativity to the running game concepts.
2) Stop turning over the dang football
Missouri has a turnover problem. The Tigers’ nine interceptions thrown this season are 11th this year in the SEC, ahead of only Kentucky, South Carolina and Auburn. That’s too many, especially when Missouri is also tied for 10th in yards per attempt. The risk isn’t worth the reward. But Mizzou’s turnover problem extends beyond the interceptions; the Tigers have also lost nine fumbles on the season, tied for the second most in the SEC. Some of that is bad luck. Some of it is bad ball security. Nate Peat and Brady Cook have both run into some real issues with the fumble-itis this year.
How does this get fixed? Well, the fumbling issue is hard to “fix” immediately. The interceptions, though? Well, that’s on he quarterback and the receivers. Cook, much like Connor Bazelak before him, has put the ball in harms way too often this season. Teams can live with that when they have a high-risk, high-reward starter. Drew Lock comes to mind as an example of such a player. Cook and Bazelak are high-risk, low-reward quarterbacks. It’s not a good combination! If Cook is back as the starer in 2023, he needs to do a better job of taking care of the football. Live to fight another down. His receivers also must do a better job of battling for the football for him. There have been multiple games this year in which a wide receiver left Cook out to dry, whether that was not fighting through contact, or giving up on routes early. That also must be improved.
3) Convert on those scoring opportunities
I can’t begin to tell you how many times I’ve talked with Nate Edwards on the podcast about Missouri’s struggles with converting on its scoring opportunities in recent years. Missouri has converted an SEC-low 54 percent of its red zone opportunities this season into touchdowns. Missouri’s red zone offense has been a problem at times over the past few seasons, and the common theme is the Tigers’ inability to get their passing game going in such a confined space. That’s where teams must find a way to either, a) get creative or b) rely on their players who create matchup issues for he defense. Missouri has not done a great job of either.
The result has been a heavy reliance on the running game in the red zone. That’s fine, in theory, unless your offensive line is among the worst in the country at converting short yardage situations. Welcome to Mizzou’s 2022 red zone offense!
How does it get fixed? A new offensive coordinator could bring a fresh look to the red zone offense. An improved offensive line could help maximize the current offense. A playmaker at quarterback could do both. A second-year jump for Luther Burden could lead to a bigger role in the red zone. There are legitimate reasons to believe the Tigers could and should be better in he red zone in 2023 than they have been from 2020-2022.