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2022 Football Opponent Previews: Abilene Christian Wildcats

The second of Missouri’s three Wildcat-theme opponents is an FCS foe who has seen better days and features a brand new head coach. Good.

Abilene Christian v Virginia Photo by Ryan M. Kelly/Getty Images

Catch up on previous 2021 opponent previews!

Louisiana Tech

Kansas State

Let’s get this out of the way first: FCS teams can take down good FBS teams and have absolutely done so in the past. There were twelve such incidents last year (four of those were P5 teams) and - COVID-shortened season aside - have been at least three FCS-beats-FBS games every year since 2009. It can happen, it does happen, and no team - especially Missouri - should overlook their FCS foe.

I should also point out: Abilene Christian is not very good.

The Wildcats haven’t had the greatest football history over the years. Since 1985 only two ACU coaches have finished their career with a winning record, and in those 37 years they’ve only had 14 seasons when they’ve finished with more wins than losses. They’ve had two notable coaches in that timespan: the first was Gary Gaines, ACU’s coach from 2000-2004; if that name doesn’t immediately flip a switch in your head he was the head coach of the Odessa-Perminan high school football team, the focus of the book/move Friday Night Lights. The other notable coach was their winningest coach, Chris Thomsen, who went 61-21 over seven years with six Division II Playoff appearances. He apparently got tired of winning at that level and resigned as the Wildcats’ head coach to take a position coach gig with Todd Graham’s Arizona State program. As one does.

Ken Collum, Thomsen’s replacement, barely managed three winning seasons before collapsing and was replaced by Northwest Missouri State dynasty-maker Adam Dorrel. Was Dorrel able to replicate his multi-championship level success at ACU? Of course not! He had one season in which he went 6-5 but had three awful losing seasons and was relieved of his duties at the conclusion of the ‘21 season.

Speaking of which, here’s what Abilene Christian did last year:

2021 Abilene Christian Schedule Results

Fun fact: ACU beat one team with a winning record in 2021, a 29-3 thumping of a Tarleton State team that finished 6-5. The Wildcats either had a notable athletic advantage or they didn’t: in their five wins they outscored opponents 205-36 but, in their six losses, were outscored by opponents 106-244; remove the SMU beatdown and it’s still not great at 97-188.

Since moving up to the FCS level in 2013 the Wildcats have only one won game against FBS competition: a 38-35 victory over Troy in 2014. Since then the Wildcats are 0-12 against FBS competition.

Coaching Staff

Oklahoma State v Texas Tech Photo by John E. Moore III/Getty Images

Keith Patterson - 1st Year - 0-0 (0-0)

Here’s a quirky little factoid! Texas Tech’s offensive coordinator last year was Sonny Cumbie who, despite not having any college head coaching experience, is now Louisiana Tech’s head coach and will play Missouri in Week 1 of the 2021 season. Texas Tech’s defensive coordinator last year was Keith Patterson who, despite not having any college head coaching experience, is now Abilene Christian’s head coach and will play Missouri in Week 3 of the 2021 season. Weird!

Patterson has been coaching football since before I could talk, starting as a high school coach in Oklahoma and Texas before getting a position coach gig at Tulsa and working his way up to defensive coordinator. His defenses haven’t been all that great and outside of a handful of quality squads - a 32nd-ranking with Pitt, 43rd at Arizona State, 35th at Utah State - usually finishing seasons ranked 60th or worse. Yet, here he is, given the opportunity to steer a program out of a rut as a spry 57-year old rookie head coach.

Much like Sam Pittman at Arkansas, Patterson’s press conference where he accepted the job featured an emotional remark where he mentioned that he always wanted the opportunity to be the head guy but thought the chance had passed him by. So good on him for finally getting a shot and good luck...you’re going to need it.

Coach Patterson’s Resume

Assistant Staff

Stephen Lee - Offensive Coordinator: Patterson made a heck of a hire for his offensive coordinator position, snatching three-time D-III National Championship winning head coach Stephen Lee away from the Mary Hardin-Baylor dynasty he built. Lee’s offenses are dynamic and relentless, frequently leading the nation in passing yards and scoring offense. And it’s not a fluke, either: Lee’s previous stops in the high school/lower college ranks featured an 89-21 record and quarterbacks that lead their respective affiliations in passing. The West Texas native can coach successful offense no matter the pieces he has and should have some sort of success as well at ACU.

Skyler Cassity - Defensive Coordinator: The defensive coordinator hire Patterson made was the complete opposite of his offensive coordinator hire. Skyler Cassity has been in coaching for about five years, most of that at the GA level before a two-year stint as Missouri State’s outside linebackers coach. He has no DC experience which leads me to the conclusion that this will be Patterson’s defense and Cassity will manage it on gameday. That’s not necessarily a bad thing but does mean that the Wildcat play caller will not have a ton of in-game play calling experience.

Matt Clark - Special Teams Coordinator

Jerale Badon - Running Backs

Steven Thrash - Wide Receivers

Ryan Pugh - Offensive Line

Dan Phillips - Defensive Line

Conor Dubin - Outside Linebackers

Shannon Carter - Inside Linebackers

Julian Wilson - Defensive Backs

Offense

Whatever Abilene Christian’s offense was last year is totally irrelevant with the arrival of OC Stephen Lee. A Lee offense moves at warp speed and almost exclusively throws the ball. That puts a lot of pressure on the quarterback to make the right read and quick decisions but, also by design, makes those decisions and reads super simple. Lee’s running backs are super explosive as well as they exclusively get the ball when the defense is playing shell coverage to keep the passing damage to a minimum. It’s effective and helps cover for athletic deficiencies; a young Tiger secondary could absolutely be tested in this matchup.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 06 Abilene Christian at Jacksonville State Photo by Michael Wade/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Quarterback - Peyton Mansell - Graduate Student

Peyton Mansell Stats

A former Iowa Hawkeye, Peyton Mansell struggled to see the field in Iowa City and elected to return to his home state and take a shot at the FCS level. As you can see from the stat sheet: for the past two years Mansell’s passing skills have stunk. A career 61.8% completion percentage is fine but throwing three more interceptions than touchdowns and barely eclipsing 7 yards per attempt in two years is indicative of how limited the Wildcat offense has been. He’s decently mobile - averaged 5.2 yards per rush last year and was second on the team in total rushing yards - and does a good job of avoiding sacks but has been totally underwhelming on the whole. Lee’s offense will either a.) revitalize his career, or b.) give the offensive keys to a younger guy. Mansell is the most experienced QB on the roster but if he can’t grasp the new offense then don’t expect him to just inherit the starting position on experience alone.

Abilene Christian v Virginia Photo by Ryan M. Kelly/Getty Images

Running Back - Tyrese White - Graduate Student

ACU’s primary running back got 80 carries for 539 yards and 3 touchdowns in an 11-game season but was part of a four-man rotation that ended up with 214 carries for 1,142 yards and 8 touchdowns. All four return so the experience for the ground game is certainly there. It will be interesting to see how they are utilized in an offense that emphasizes passing way more than running or if one of the four starts getting the majority of the carries per game.

NCAA Football: Abilene Christian at Mississippi State Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports

Wide Receiver - Kobe Clark - Graduate Student

There was no question who the go-to receiver was for the Wildcats last year as Clark finished with 63 receptions, 740 yards, and 8 touchdowns, easily doubling up the second-most targeted receiver on the team. Last year’s offense used running backs as the go-to in the intermediate passing game and the receivers as deep-ball threats with each of the five primary receivers averaging double digits in yards per catch. That will change a little bit in the new system but the scheme helps elevate the talent that’s already on the roster. Look for Clark and the rest of his friends to be annoying and frequently open.

Defense

Last year’s defense had one clear strength and one clear weakness that was made painfully apparent in the bifurcation of their wins and losses. In their five wins the Wildcat defense gave up less than 200 yards passing; in their six losses, opponents threw for more than 250 yards nearly every single time. Patterson defenses aren’t renowned for their ability to stop offenses stone cold, rather they rely on an extreme bend-don’t-break approach where they give up yards and hope an offense makes a mistake. His best defenses were ones that could generate turnovers as well as stiffen up in the red zone. It’s a strategy that works well against peers but doesn’t do a consistently great job of overcoming athletic mismatches.

Defensive Line - Jordan Paup - Graduate Student

The former Nebraska Cornhusker was the leading tackler on a relatively quiet defensive line, finishing with 25 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks. Last year’s philosophy, however, was to eat up blockers so the linebackers could feast. A schematic change that could highlight Paup’s pass rushing abilities could give him new life with his 25% sack rate on pressures created.

Linebacker - Tory Hargrove - Graduate Student

Hargrove, fellow linebacker Chike Nwankwo, and the since-graduated Brian Bullock represented a vast majority of the tackles for the defense and the first two return in ‘22. They weren’t very disruptive - only Nwankow managed a half of a sack all season - but were consistently in place to make a play.

Defensive Back - Elijah Moffett - Redshirt Sophomore

The redshirt freshman safety burst onto the scene in ‘21, finishing third on the team in total tackles as well as breaking up 4 passes and intercepting 2. Moffett was easily the most disruptive piece on the entire Wildcat secondary and should be the player keyed in by Missouri’s offense on most plays. While he might not have a ton of help around him he certainly can disrupt on his own enough to be a problem.

So what does it all mean?

2022 Abilene Christian Schedule

It’s an FCS team. You should win, and win easily, and get your freshmen in as soon as possible to burn one of the four games they get during their redshirt season. Missouri will be young and untested in several position groups but should still outclass the Wildcats up and down the roster. If you don’t see any of the non-starting freshmen in the second half, something has gone terrible wrong. The Tigers need to take this time to get some experience, iron out any issues they still have, and gear up for a challenging road trip the next week.