Welcome to the first 2023 edition of Three by Three, my new column where I’ll take a look at three interesting college football storylines, three each at Mizzou, in the SEC, and on the national level. I’m a college football junkie, so I’ll try to stay on some interesting topics that have caught my fancy, and keep things away from boring and overdone talking head topics like “Alabama quarterbacks” and “the portal is ruining college sports” and “will you only be able to watch the Pac-12 on your kitchen smart appliances in 2025.”
This edition is all about some offseason storylines and position battles that are going to be waged in the upcoming summer and fall practices, all on the offensive side of the ball. I’ll do a few more, obviously the defenses at some point, but maybe also circling around new coaches, quarterback situations, transfers in new homes, and other ideas as they come to me. It’s still a loooong way to Labor Day. Let’s get to it.
Offensive Line - It all starts up front. If Missouri can’t improve in the trenches, the ceiling for wins is capped around five or six again. If new O-line coach Brandon Jones and a trio of transfers can improve this unit’s play, a rising tide will lift all boats. Specifically, I’ll be watching to see where the staff slides in Houston’s all-conference guard Cam’Ron Johnson. Will he move to center to stabilize that spot, and if so, does that weaken his impact as an excellent interior pass protector? And where will promising youngster Armand Membou line up, after a true freshman season where he saw a lot of action at right tackle but will likely lose his spot to Marcellus Johnson (one of the aforementioned transfers)?
Quarterback – Well, of course the three-way quarterback battle will be all the rage this summer. Brady Cook is back after offseason surgery, and there will be much weeping and gnashing of teeth by the outspokenly negative portions of the fanbase if the Ginger General gets the nod again. He gives the Tigers a high floor, but also a lower ceiling than the two blue-chippers in the room. The quarterback competition will be the main storyline of July and August in Columbia. Honestly, Missouri fans don’t care who wins the job – as long as the play is improved from recent seasons.
Tavorus Jones – Cody Schrader is a below-average SEC running back by almost every advanced metric, but he does run hard and protects the ball. Nate Peat is boom-or-bust, but his booms aren’t really that great and he had some really bad busts. (I do hope he can stabilize his play this year; I think he can be a good player if he protects the ball.) Neither veteran option has anything close to the upside that youngster Tavorus Jones has as a ball carrier, and I hope he can become a force in a suddenly thin running back room. The former four-star recruit earned a cup of coffee as a true freshman last year, but preserved his redshirt. The discerning viewer will be watching fall practice to see what kind of role the talented Tavorus can carve out for himself.
In the SEC
Kentucky & South Carolina O-Lines – A pair of sleeper teams in the SEC East have their eyes set on crashing the ongoing parties happening in Knoxville and Athens. They like their skill position playmakers, they like their veteran quarterbacks, they like their new offensive coordinators….but both have worries on the offensive line. Kentucky’s vaunted Big Blue Wall crumbled last year thanks to roster turnover, and the pieces haven’t really changed much to inspire hope. South Carolina lost a bunch of snaps from a mediocre line last year, and then starting left tackle Jaylen Nichols suffered a devastating injury in the spring game. Both teams could climb the SEC ladder if they have the offensive trenches figured out; if not, it will be a season of falling short of expectations.
Can Florida be competent? – Billy Napier’s offense was not very good with a talent like Anthony Richardson running it, and the line and the receivers have gotten worse for a far more pedestrian signal caller in Graham Mertz. Sure, the running backs are excellent, and Austin Armstrong’s defense should be solid, but there’s a chance this offense craters this fall: their attack was downright feckless in a miserable spring game showing. We have seen how SEC leadership loses their minds when being outpaced by their rivals – how will Florida react to another 6-6 season while Georgia, Tennessee, LSU, and FSU live in the top ten all season?
Lane Kiffin’s QB battle – Jaxon Dart played a fine quarterback last year for a sophomore, but maybe not the kind of high-level consistency and decision-making you would want for a team looking to replicate 2021’s Sugar Bowl run. So Lane Kiffin added a multi-year starter from Oklahoma State with Spencer Sanders and a former five-star recruit in Walker Howard to create the nation’s busiest quarterback room. This battle will likely go all the way down to Labor Day weekend, maybe even the morning of kickoff against Mercer. I also have a pet theory that Kiffin has been watching the two-quarterback play designs that have been percolating at schools like William & Mary, Montana State, and Kansas, and has eyes on bringing Dart/Sanders sets to the SEC. This quarterback battle will be one of the most fascinating soap operas of preseason camps.
Across the country
Texas State rebuild — Deion Sanders has received the national headlines for his complete roster flip at Colorado, but G.J. Kinne has been working on the same project in San Marcos. He took over the reins from Jake Spavital, who went 13-35 in his four years and stopped recruiting high schoolers (in Texas!). Kinne’s rebuild is down to the studs: he recently signed his 50th newcomer, a list which includes a pair of SEC quarterbacks, TJ Finley from Auburn and Malik Hornsby from Arkansas. Whichever of this these two wins the job will receive the keys to an offensive scheme that created 71 touchdowns for former Mizzou Tiger Lindsey Scott Jr last season at FCS incarnate Word. The Bobcats have been a Sun Belt cellar-dweller for ages, but a talent infusion and one of the most breakneck schemes in the sport could make them an exciting underdog.
Army & Navy transitions – You can be forgiven if this got past you, but Army and Navy are both going to look radically different on offense this year. Thanks to the NCAA rules that have eliminated cut blocks outside of the tackle box, the classic triple option playbooks have largely stalled out. Navy fired legendary head coach Ken Niumatalolo, and his direct descendant of the Paul Johnson flexbone is gone; in his stead is former Kennesaw State coordinator Brian Chesnut, who will run a different option scheme that will keep about a third of the typical Navy looks. And Army hired Drew Thatcher from Division II Nebraska-Kearney to install his shotgun scheme: think Willie Fritz’s funky Tulane offenses. Both teams also have multiple options at quarterback and will have fascinating position battles play out. Whoever wins college football’s best rivalry game in December might be decided by who made the more savvy coordinator hire the previous January.
James Madison quarterback battle – This is one of the only quarterback battles around the country that might legitimately shape a conference championship race – one that the James Madison Dukes aren’t even eligible to win this season anyway. But the returning production on all levels of defense & the offensive line is so overwhelmingly good (and those positions were excellent last year), that it’s hard not to see Curt Cignetti’s outfit as a Sun Belt conference challenger. But much of that will ride on if the veteran head man can work his usual quarterback whisperer magic with the eventual winner of the Jordan McCloud/Alonza Barnett III battle. McCloud is the experienced option, with unmet potential at Arizona and South Florida on his resume; Barnett is the dynamic raw talent that was forcing his way up the depth chart last fall as a true freshman. Whoever wins this job will have a host of proven playmakers around him, and the possibility to guide the Dukes to the top of the Sun Belt standings, which would send shockwaves through the college football world when a top team is ineligible for any postseason contests.