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What to watch for from Mizzou football on Thursday night

Regardless of the opponent, there's a lot that we will learn about the Missouri Tigers this week.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 01 Georgia at Missouri

Game week is upon us, and that means that we are mere days away from getting our first glimpse at the 2023 Missouri football team. Expectations are high given the returning production on the roster and the addition of offensive coordinator Kirby Moore from Fresno State this offseason, and the moniker “Something to Prove” has been heard within the football facilities for months now.

The Tigers, in fact, do have a lot to prove. From people doubting Eliah Drinkwitz’s ability to win at this level to the ongoing drama surrounding the quarterback competition, there are plenty of intriguing storylines to follow this season.

Against South Dakota on Thursday, Mizzou will take its first of 12 steps that make up the 2023 regular season campaign. While the Coyotes are likely the worst opponent the Tigers will face this year, there are still plenty of trends to watch out for on Thursday. The age-old cliché is that every team takes its biggest leaps from Week One to Week Two, and everybody will be paying attention to how these personnel groups perform on Thursday and continue to develop throughout the season.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 08 Missouri at Florida Photo by David Rosenblum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Dominance From The Offensive Line

Last Friday, Armand Membou said that he didn’t care if his O-line was going up against an elementary school or the band; the opposition was going to feel them.

After an offseason of constant criticism and question marks surrounding the offensive line room, this unit finally gets its chance to right the wrongs of 2022. Membou and Javon Foster spearhead the front as potential all-conference performers, and transfers Marcellus Johnson (Eastern Michigan) and Cam’Ron Johnson (Houston) add quality depth. Xavier Delgado figures to retain his starting role at left guard, as will Foster at left tackle, but the rest of the positions are up for grabs. Connor Tollison is still making a claim for the center spot, and Membou has rotated between guard and tackle throughout camp.

With so much experience and established leadership, the accepted expectation is that the Tiger O-line will be much improved in 2023. For this team to increase its win total from last season, that expectation will have to ring true.

It all starts on Thursday against a South Dakota team that, despite generally fielding top-20 defenses in the FCS, will be undersized and outmatched from a talent perspective. If there is any game that the offensive line should flex its muscle this season; it’s this one, and a strong performance would create some momentum for the unit as the schedule heats up.

It’s not too ambitious to say that the Tigers should run for over 175 yards and allow less than 2 sacks on Thursday. Anything less than that and concerns will yet again be raised about the ability of this group to hold up in the SEC.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 12 Missouri at Tennessee Photo by Bryan Lynn/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Clean Play From The Quarterbacks

Yes, quarterbacks plural. We will see both Brady Cook and Sam Horn take the field on Thursday, and Drinkwitz and Moore will have a solid idea of who their starter should be by Friday morning.

But, competition aside, Tiger fans should just be rooting for crisp, clean performances from both quarterbacks. That means no turnovers, a completion percentage of 60% or better, and making the throws that are available within Moore’s offense. Again, the Coyotes do have a strong defense, but Cook and Horn will not need to be superstars to lead Mizzou to a victory. By the end of the night, the goal will be for Mizzou fans to be talking about how comfortable and efficient both Cook and Horn looked, showing their improvement over the offseason.

It’s simple: the better they both play, the higher the standard will be within the QB competition. For Cook, Thursday is about showing that he has improved in the intermediate to deep passing game and in his decision-making. For Horn, Thursday is about showing what he learned as a freshman and proving that he is ready to be a starting quarterback in the SEC.

Florida A&M v Jackson State Photo by Don Juan Moore/Getty Images

New Faces Step Up At Defensive End

On a loaded defense, there is one position group that is largely an unknown at this point.

The Tigers lost Isaiah McGuire (Cleveland) and DJ Coleman (Jacksonville) to the NFL, as well as Arden Walker Jr. to the transfer portal, decimating the depth of the defensive end room. Drinkwitz and Blake Baker brought in Northwestern transfer Austin Firestone, Jackson State transfer Nyles Gaddy, Missouri S&T transfer Ben Straatmann and Arizona State transfer Joe Moore III to bolster the depth, and former defensive tackle Darius Robinson slid over to the edge.

Thus, the defensive end room is full of new faces, with Johnny Walker Jr. being the only returner with much experience. Walker figures to join Robinson as running mates on the edges, and the coaching staff is high on the RS-Jr’s potential to step up after biding his time behind the likes of McGuire and Coleman. If Walker can be productive from his end, he figures to form a solid duo with Robinson, who remains a leader of this team and was already disruptive as a DT. After cutting some weight this offseason, Robinson should use his burst off the line and arsenal of pass-rushing moves to become the next great pass rusher for “D-Line Zou.”

But, having two defensive ends is not nearly enough in the SEC. The likes of Firestone, Gaddy, Straatmann (who was recently awarded a scholarship) and Moore are all fighting for the chance to play significant snaps in the rotation, and at least 1-2 of them need to emerge as quality options.

Game one is always a chance to find out which new faces will be major contributors during the season. Just take a look at Ty’Ron Hopper’s six tackles (two for loss), one interception performance against LA Tech last season as an example. Against a lacking South Dakota offensive line, the plethora of newbies at end should be able to make their mark on the game and give the staff a better idea of what the rotation at DE will be throughout the year.