Welcome to the Week Five edition of the Three by Three. Allow me to be your college football sherpa, guiding you through the intrigue of the sport each week. I will try to avoid just covering the big obvious stuff, but sometimes Tennessee is the most interesting thing, you know?
Each week I will highlight three interesting storylines each from the Missouri contest, in the SEC, and around the nation. Let’s get to it.
Missouri at Vanderbilt — 3 PM CT on SEC Network
What’s With All The Blitzes?
Missouri’s third down defense has been the source of much consternation because, well, to be frank, it has sucked. The Tigers consistently put Memphis (but also K-State and MTSU) behind the chains, then allowed Seth Henigan to convert through the air. What gives? I wonder if part of the issue has been fewer bodies in coverage as Blake Baker has been dialing up more blitzes this season.
I took a spin through PFF charting – say what you want about their grading, but they are an amazing resource for charting-based analytics – and found that Missouri is blitzing on 51.7% of opposing dropbacks, up from 42.8% last season. Unfortunately, I’m not sure this is the correlation for third downs – Baker sent extra men on only 34% of Henigan’s dropbacks, easily a season low, and that was perhaps the worst third down effort yet. But I do think the trend is interesting; Baker doesn’t trust his new defensive ends to generate pressure without help, and perhaps he wants in on the offense’s new found aggression, too.
Oh No, a Backup Quarterback
When did the “Mizzou can’t beat backup QBs” meme start? Probably the Connor Shaw game in 2013, I imagine? (note: any time I assert something started in a certain year, the venerable old-timers of the Rock M commentariat drop some knowledge on me. If y’all have been saying that Mizzou can’t beat backups since, like, the 70s, my dearest apologies and I hope you’ll school us up.)
Anyway, from the annals of Shaw, David Blough, Robby Ashford, and Dennis Grossel comes a new entry: Ken Seals?! Starter AJ Swann seems doubtful to play, although I’m sure we will get more clarity on Thursday this week. Missouri fans, brace yourselves.
Regardless of which quarterback lines up for the Commodores, he will have the luxury of throwing to one of the most underrated wide receiver rooms in the country. Senior Will Sheppard is a reliable veteran and one of the best players in the SEC. Sophomore Jayden McGowan is an electric playmaker, a threat to score from everywhere on the field. And freshman London “We have Ladd McConkey at home” Humphreys has been making his impact felt on the outside, too. With injuries to cornerbacks Ennis Rakestraw Jr. and Dreyden Norwood, Missouri’s secondary will have to play their best ball to hold up against a talented group of receivers.
In the SEC
South Carolina at Tennessee — 6:30 PM on SEC Network
This is the first week where all of the league’s teams play one another, so invariably we have a selection of teams facing off that are all competing in the same range of the standings. Both fanbases believe they are the ones ready to heat up Georgia’s seat at the throne in the East - except the Gamecocks have already dropped two contests, including one to the reigning champs. The Volunteers will be looking for revenge after South Carolina stunned them in Columbia last fall. This game should be fast and pointsy; Carolina’s Spencer Rattler is playing perhaps the best quarterback in the country right now, despite getting little help from his defense. Tennessee’s Joe Milton has yet to figure it out while operating the best offensive infrastructure outside of Heritage Hall — is this the week he breaks, through?
Dane Key & Barion Brown (Florida at Kentucky — 11 AM on ESPN)
Kentucky’s shiny pair of sophomore receivers have been fine to start the year, but have not broken out in a major way like many thought might happen. This is indicative of the entire Kentucky offense — it’s been fine, they are 4-0, but you would hope to see more game-breaking plays considering the level of competition. The best defense the Wildcats have faced is Vanderbilt, checking in at 110th in SP+. Now, conference play really heats up as the Florida Gators come to town with the #21st ranked SP+ defense. Have the ‘Cats been playing possum, and ready to break out in league play with Devin Leary? If that’s the case, it will likely come from more consistent play from these precocious pass catchers.
Arkansas vs Texas A&M — 11 AM on SECN
This classic SWC rivalry is now an SEC contest, and it gets squirrely every year it seems like. To be fair, Arkansas is one of the most, “Oh, this game might get squirrely” teams in the league. A&M will be without starting quarterback Conner Weigman, who is out for the season after injuring his foot. The vibes are not good in Fayetteville right now, and the Hogs' two-game losing streak is in danger of growing.
Around the Nation
Houston at Texas Tech — 2:30 PM on FS2
Houston is limping into their first season of Big 12 play, and even lost at home to Rice. Texas Tech was a sleeper darling all off-season, as many expected them to build on Joey Maguire’s eight-win debut, but things have not gone as planned. So why is a game between two underwhelming outfits on the list? Simply put: the revenge factor. Houston is quarterbacked by Donovan Smith, who escaped east to find more playing time away from the crowded Tech quarterback room. Texas Tech’s promised dream season could get even more nightmarish with a loss to the newbie Cougars and their old signal-caller.
Notre Dame at Duke — 6:30 PM on ABC
Notre Dame’s reward for a close loss to Ohio State, including one of the most baffling end-of-game decision-making processes I can remember, is a matchup with Mike Elko’s defense and burgeoning star quarterback Riley Leonard. If the Domers don’t bounce back, they could be in for a long night against a Duke team that is better than you realize.
South Alabama at James Madison — 11 AM on ESPNU
It feels like every week I spill some electronic ink in this column encouraging you to watch a Sun Belt game. I mean, do I need to tell you to watch Colorado vs USC? If that game turns into a laugher in the noon time slot, check out this matchup of two Sun Belt contenders. Each has a road win over a Power 5 program already (JMU at Virginia, South Alabama at Oklahoma State). Both have veteran quarterbacks who line up around supremely talented groups of skill position weapons. And both have swarming, athletic defenses that like to create havoc and negative plays, sometimes getting the boom but sometimes allowing the bust. This should be a fun affair.