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Missouri at Kentucky preview: This outcome will completely define the Tigers' 2015 goals

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It's been a funny week of content. Mizzou defense good! Mizzou offense bad! Mizzou defense good! Mizzou offense bad! Mizzou defense good! Mizzou offense bad! Mizzou defense good! It's hard to get too creative when the extremes are this ... extreme.

Mizzou's decided strengths and weaknesses have made the Kentucky game both big and decidedly unsexy. It's a volatile one, too -- with each offense's massive inconsistency, big plays and bursts and random breaks mean that either team could win a blowout.

We'll start with the bad news, i.e. when Mizzou is forced to put its offense on the field.

When Mizzou has the ball...

Missouri indeed will have approximately half of the possessions in this game and at some point will have to do something with them. How or when does that happen?

Standard Downs

Missouri Offense Kentucky Defense
Avg. Rk Avg. Rk Nat'l Avg.
Standard Downs S&P+ 82.6 121 114.0 34 UK big
Standard Downs Success Rate 33.0% 128 57.6% 123 push
Standard Downs IsoPPP 1.27 17 0.93 32 push
SD Line Yards per Carry 1.72 126 3.34 111 push
SD Sack Rate 2.0% 34 5.1% 61 MU

Opponent adjustments are pretty cruel to Missouri's offense for obvious reasons, but it bears mentioning that Missouri seems to almost benefit from having a run game even though it doesn't actually have a run game. Maty Mauk gets a clean pocket most of the time, and Mizzou's been able to connect on some big pass plays here and there. (Not nearly enough, mind you, but the big ones have been quite big, at least.)

Granted, these are full-season numbers; UConn had no interest in allowing big plays, and the clean pocket last Saturday was due in part to the fact that UConn allowed the pocket to be clean. The Huskies didn't have to attack to make stops.

We're talking a lot about the return of Russell Hansbrough from injury, and with obvious reason: he's good. Even at just 80% effectiveness (if he is indeed 80%), he is automatically Missouri's best, most proven weapon. But he's also not a solution to efficiency problems. His opportunity rate in 2014 (percentage of carries going at least five yards) was just 36%, four percent lower than that of both Marcus Murphy and Ish Witter. He dances a bit too much at times and ends up working horizontally instead of vertically after a bad run or two. When moving vertically, he is a threat, but it's not a guarantee that Missouri's efficiency numbers will improve much simply because he's in the game.

(Actually, now that I think about it, it is a guarantee that Missouri's efficiency numbers will improve with him ... simply because they quite literally can't get worse. Missouri is 128th, dead last in FBS, in standard downs success rate. Still, the numbers won't be good just because of Hansbrough.)

When he's not touching the ball, though, Hansbrough could still have an effect. UConn in no way, shape or form respected Missouri's run game last week, focusing instead on forming a bend-don't-break cloud and aiming to prevent big plays. Hansbrough commands respect, and if he has at least one or two nice runs, he could help to open up the passing game in a way that it was not open last week.

Standard Downs Targets & Catches
Nate Brown (WR): 12 targets, 8 catches, 102 yards (8.5 per target), 1 TD
J'Mon Moore (WR): 11 targets, 4 catches, 65 yards (5.9)
Sean Culkin (TE): 8 targets, 7 catches, 45 yards (5.6)
Emanuel Hall (WR): 4 targets, 2 catches, 12 yards (3.0)
Ish Witter (RB): 4 targets, 3 catches, 24 yards (6.0)
Wesley Leftwich (WR): 3 targets, 2 catches, 38 yards (12.7), 1 TD

Any attention Hansbrough commands could be good for Missouri's receivers, particularly Nate Brown and Wes Leftwich, who have done damage on standard downs when given (and earning) the opportunity: between them, they've caught 10 of 15 passes for 140 yards and two scores. Brown is a nice, big, physical, Bud Sasserish target who should continue to mature and develop in the coming years, and Leftwich showed that he can indeed make tough catches at times with his nice touchdown grab at Arkansas State. We know that Maty Mauk has to see you open to pass you the ball, though, and that's just not happening if the run cannot distract the defense a bit.

Of course, be it Hansbrough or quick passes to the perimeter, Mizzou would be best served by finding ways to move the ball four to six yards at a time instead of hoping for a couple of big plays from Brown. UK's defense prevents big plays pretty well but is just begging you to carve it up a few yards at a time. The success rate they allow is almost as ineffective for them as the success rate Missouri achieves. (This is the movable object vs. resistible force portion of the game.)

Mizzou has to do its damage on standard downs when Kentucky doesn't have extreme advantages. Because hoo boy, does Kentucky have extreme advantages on passing downs.

Passing Downs

Missouri Offense Kentucky Defense
Avg. Rk Avg. Rk Nat'l Avg.
Passing Downs S&P+ 72.1 121 176.8 7 UK very big
Passing Downs Success Rate 25.0% 105 22.2% 29 UK big
Passing Downs IsoPPP 1.75 73 1.24 5 UK big
PD Line Yards per Carry 3.00 86 3.16 60 UK
PD Sack Rate 6.8% 79 8.3% 50 UK

Once you've been leveraged into awkward downs and distances, UK does just fine. The Wildcats are able to achieve decent pressure while completely shutting off the big play spigot.

Missouri has been running semi-frequently on passing downs, and that makes sense. Josh Henson's priority on second-and-10, for instance, has long been stealing back some yards to make things third-and-manageable, and there might be an opportunity to spring Hansbrough or Maty Mauk for nice gains if UK gets a little careless. But if this game comes down to Mizzou throwing on second- or third-and-long, Mizzou's win probability is not high.

Passing Downs Targets & Catches
J'Mon Moore (WR): 11 targets, 7 catches, 65 yards (5.9)
Ish Witter (RB): 6 targets, 4 catches, 22 yards (3.7)
Sean Culkin (TE): 5 targets, 4 catches, 52 yards (10.4)
Nate Brown (WR): 4 targets, 1 catch, 23 yards (5.8), 1 TD
Wesley Leftwich (WR): 3 targets, 1 catch, 6 yards (2.0)

Brown and Leftwich have a 67% catch rate on standard downs and a 29% catch rate on passing downs. The rest of the PD options have been able to at least catch the ball and steal back some yards before punting, but it appears if you're going to get Brown going (and Mizzou really needs to get Brown going) it'll be on first-and-10 or second-and-5.

Luckily for Missouri, Kentucky still has to score, too.

When Kentucky has the ball...

Standard Downs

Kentucky Offense Missouri Defense
Avg. Rk Avg. Rk Edge
Standard Downs S&P+ 89.0 109 126.5 17 Mizzou big
Standard Downs Success Rate 38.7% 122 35.4% 16 Mizzou very big
Standard Downs IsoPPP 1.26 27 0.75 4 Mizzou
SD Line Yards per Carry 2.70 95 2.03 18 Mizzou big
SD Sack Rate 10.6% 122 6.7% 40 Mizzou big

If not for Missouri's comic ineptitude, I'd be able to use words like "inept" to describe UK's massive offensive inconsistency. Despite a more experienced squad than what it had last year, Kentucky has been quite inefficient, relying on big plays to bail itself out of bad down-and-distance combinations.

As we discussed yesterday, Stanley "Boom" Williams is one hell of a big-play back. And with receivers like Jeff Badet, quarterback Patrick Towles could certainly connect big a couple of times. But from what we've seen so far this year, Kentucky is going to struggle mightily to control the line, both because of its own struggles and because of the dominance of the Missouri defensive front. The Wildcats might need quite a few big plays to offset a few three-and-outs.

Standard Downs Targets & Catches
Dorian Baker (WR): 13 targets, 8 catches, 96 yards (7.4)
Garrett Johnson (WR): 8 targets, 4 catches, 34 yards (4.3)
Jeff Badet (WR): 8 targets, 3 catches, 85 yards (10.6)
Blake Bone (WR): 4 targets, 4 catches, 40 yards (10.0), 1 TD
Ryan Timmons (WR): 3 targets, 2 catches, 22 yards (7.3)

Kentucky is striving for balance. The Wildcats run the ball 58 percent of the time on standard downs, slightly lower than the national average but within earshot of it. But unless Badet is breaking a big gain, the Wildcats' standard downs passing attack is pretty mortal on these downs. If Missouri controls the line and doesn't have reason to get sucked into play-action, the Tigers should force plenty of passing downs.

Passing Downs

Kentucky Offense Missouri Defense
Avg. Rk Avg. Rk Edge
Passing Downs S&P+ 102.0 84 99.3 74 push
Passing Downs Success Rate 24.7% 108 24.3% 42 Mizzou big
Passing Downs IsoPPP 2.29 12 1.27 6 push
PD Line Yards per Carry 3.24 73 1.99 17 Mizzou big
PD Sack Rate 10.0% 107 10.3% 26 Mizzou big

Missouri has been a little glitchy on passing downs, however. The pass rush has been perfectly solid (and UK's pass protection has been dreadful, which is one of the reasons the Wildcats run the ball quite a bit on these downs), but when given enough time to throw the ball, opposing quarterbacks have completed 11 of 14 passes on Missouri for 127 yards and a passer rating of nearly 180 on third-and-7 or more.

There haven't been massive glitches -- Mizzou has allowed just three passes of 20-plus yards (fifth in FBS) and none of 30-plus (first, obviously) -- but Barry Odom is countering aggression up front with reasonably soft coverage in the back. It's a sensible strategy considering how frequently Mizzou is forcing passing downs (they can allow you a third-and-10 completion knowing that they'll have you right back in third-and-10 in two plays), but I realize this is one of Mizzou fans' most exposed nerves. I'm pretty sure "CORNERS ARE GIVING 20-YARD CUSHIONS!!!" has surpassed "WHY DON'T WE HAVE A FULLBACK???" on the list of common complaints at this point.

Passing Downs Targets & Catches
Dorian Baker (WR): 9 targets, 3 catches, 43 yards (4.8)
Garrett Johnson (WR): 6 targets, 6 catches, 100 yards (16.7), 1 TD
Boom Williams (RB): 5 targets, 4 catches, 23 yards (4.6)
Jeff Badet (WR): 5 targets, 3 catches, 59 yards (11.8), 1 TD
Blake Bone (WR): 4 targets, 1 catch, 4 yards (1.0)
Ryan Timmons (WR): 3 targets, 1 catch, 36 yards (12.0)
Jojo Kemp (RB): 3 targets, 2 catches, 6 yards (2.0)

Johnson and Badet have both broken big gainers on passing downs this year, but here's where Dorian Baker can do some damage. He's the Wildcats' best possession guy, the guy most likely to be relatively open eight yards downfield on third-and-7. If Mizzou's pass rush cannot get to Towles -- and it quite possibly can -- Baker could end up with a "seven catches for 79 yards" kind of day, and UK could convert some third downs.

Even with some passing downs success, I assume Kentucky will slow down before it reaches the end zone; I still don't think the Wildcats will score a ton, in other words. But this could have a pretty damning effect on the field position battle, which tends to be pretty huge in low-scoring games.

Five Keys

1. Nate Brown

I think it was actually pretty encouraging to see J'Mon Moore playing a steady role in the shorter passing game last week. He's come off as an all-or-nothing guy at times, and it was good to see him being used in a reasonably efficient manner, especially after he had such a brutal game at ASU.

That said, I think Nate Brown is Missouri's most important weapon in this game. Assuming Hansbrough is healthy enough to at least get 10-15 carries, the Tigers might not only have a little bit of potential in terms of standard downs efficiency, but Mizzou's run game might actually be effective enough to open up passing opportunities. And Brown has been far more likely to make noise on standard downs than passing downs. Passing downs will be deadly for Mizzou, but if Brown can make just a few plays, which either lead to points or field flippage, then the Tigers could be in good shape.

2. Big plays and glitches

When you've got two dreadfully inefficient offenses, the big plays that do take place are almost doubly important. Both offenses have shown the ability to get far downfield when given open space, and neither offense is finding open space that frequently. If one team breaks off 4-5 gains of 20-plus to the other team's 1-2, that team probably wins.

This makes individual mistakes, turnovers, and random defensive breakdowns deadly. Who's making them, and who's avoiding them?

3. Field position

When you've got two dreadfully inefficient offenses, you're going to see a lot of three-and-outs and punts. Missouri appears to have an advantage in the punting game, and that could come in handy here. So could simply moving the chains occasionally. Missouri's averaging a poor 18 first downs per game (105th in the country), and UK's averaging an even worse 17 (114th). If one offense figures out how to crack even 21-22, the field position battle probably flips in their favor.

4. Start well ... or at least don't start poorly

Kentucky is desperate for a big win on which Mark Stoops and his program can hang their hat. Stoops has improved the talent level, and win or lose, the Wildcats have a better chance to reach a bowl than at any point in recent history, even including last year, when they started 5-1 then got waylaid by the meat of their schedule.

Missouri, meanwhile, is 26-5 in its last 31 games. No matter how woeful the offense, the Tigers have grown accustomed to making the plays it takes to win games in the second half.

The longer this game stays close, the more the odds shift in Missouri's favor, I think. Kentucky could tighten up or take unnecessary risks while Missouri relaxes and makes plays. We saw this pretty clearly in Mizzou's first road game of the year, and we could see it again.

At the same time, an early deficit could be a terrifying thing. If UK breaks a big play, picks off a pass, and goes up 14-0 in the first quarter, for instance, Missouri's offense might not respond particularly well, knowing it cannot score even 14 points very efficiently. The game could get out of hand, just as it could the other way if Missouri goes up early and Kentucky panics.

Mizzou doesn't have to pull off the latter scenario to win, but it probably needs to avoid the former scenario.

5. Finish

Football is two different games: the one played when you are on your side of the field, and the one played when you've got the ball in scoring opportunities. An offense good at creating chances can be bad at finishing them, and, more importantly, vice versa. If the return of Russell Hansbrough helps in no other area, giving Mizzou a steadier option near the goal line could be huge. The Tigers have been simply horrific at finishing drives in the end zone, a year after being pretty damn good at it. Barring the blowout scenario above, each offense should have about the same number of scoring chances. The one that actually scores touchdowns wins.

***

The S&P+ projections say Missouri has a 62 percent chance of winning this game, with a somewhat unbelievable score of about 24-19. That should serve as a reminder that, while the Tigers are sinking in the ratings for obvious reasons, they still grade out quite a bit better than the Wildcats. As I've already written this week, Kentucky isn't particularly consistent in any one area of the game at the moment, while Missouri's got the extremes -- consistently awesome defense, consistently awful offense. And as I've also already written, if Missouri plays well, the Tigers win. If they play poorly, they will absolutely lose.

This game will mark an interesting pivot for the rest of the season. Despite offensive ineptitude, Missouri is still 3-0. With a win, the Tigers will likely be favored to beat both South Carolina and Florida and move to 6-0. In theory, if the offense is showing some grade of improvement (and in this 6-0 scenario, it almost certainly is), then a lovely 10-win season and, yes, a potential East title, are still on the table.

With a loss, however, those goals get erased. Bowl eligibility is still more likely than not, but the narrative shifts from "the offense needs to improve" to "the offense simply must improve right now," and negativity takes over in a hurry.

Because the defense is so good, another 10-win season is still on the table. Because the offense is so bad, 6-6 is not guaranteed. We'll learn a lot about what we should be hoping for tomorrow night.