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2016 Missouri opponent preview, Week 1: West Virginia

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I've written about most of Missouri's 2016 opponents for SB Nation at this point, so let's start walking through the schedule.

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My 2016 West Virginia preview went up at SB Nation back in May. Let's walk through a few key tidbits that pertain most directly to Missouri's Week 1 battle against the Mountaineers. (Note: This piece originally appeared back in May.)

1. Dana Holgorsen's seat is a bit hot

West Virginia set the bar high and then failed to clear it, first for a month, then for 30 key minutes.

That can be more frustrating for fans and administrators than simply being mediocre would be. Holgorsen and his squad showed what they were clearly capable of, then lost three games by 20-plus points and blew a double-digit lead.

Maybe it isn't surprising, then, that a few days after the loss to Kansas State, it appeared the school was considering firing Holgorsen. That didn't happen, but it revealed he's under pressure.

West Virginia was downright awesome for about two-thirds of last season but fell into a massive October funk (which coincided with good teams showing up on the schedule), then blew a double-digit lead at Kansas State late in the year. Suddenly, Dana Holgorsen is on the hot seat to some degree.

Whether he should be in trouble or not, it appears he is, and that could make Milan Puskar Stadium an interesting atmosphere in Week 1. We know quite well how a stadium can clam up at times when things aren't going as the home team imagined, and if Mizzou starts well against the Mountaineers, it could turn into a bit of a home-field disadvantage for WVU.

2. WVU was mostly bad against good teams and mostly great against everyone else

Did you notice that the four-game slump happened against the four best teams? It's possible WVU's success was totally dependent on having an athleticism advantage and that, when that advantage didn't exist, the Mountaineers had little to offer.

WVU's midseason funk coincided both with a key injury (safety Karl Joseph, the heart of the defense) and the meat of the schedule. A 12-game sample is sometimes too small for drawing definitive conclusions about trends, but we'll see if Missouri starts out the season more like Maryland (a top-80 team that lost 45-6 to WVU) or Oklahoma State (a top-40 team that won, 33-26).

3. The Mountaineers couldn't close

WVU's biggest problems came late, either in drives or games. The Mountaineers ranked 79th in Redzone S&P+, settling too frequently for field goals, and even though Josh Lambert was pretty good (17-for-19 inside of 40 yards, 4-for-9 outside), he was still asked to kick 28 field goals. [...]

To say the least, the Mountaineers were also ill-served by dreadful offense in the final 15 minutes of games. Granted, part of this sample includes blowout wins, but not all of it. In the first 45 minutes, quarterback Skyler Howard produced a completion rate of 58 percent, an interception rate of 3.1 percent, and a passer rating of 150.1. Fourth quarter: 41 percent, 4.9 percent, and 73.5, respectively. Yuck.

Mizzou's 2015 defense wasn't incredibly bend-don't-break, but it was certainly pretty good at shutting down scoring opportunities -- the Tigers were ninth in Redzone S&P+, while WVU's offense was pretty bad in the same category. Holding opponents to field goals buys you time.

Meanwhile, the longer you could stay close to WVU, the more it paid off. Without any efficiency options to lean on when they absolutely needed to move the ball (or kill some clock), the Mountaineers struggled mightily late. So uh, Mizzou should stay close for a long time then. #analysis

4. The offense was inefficient

It's impossible to overstate how important efficiency can be for a tempo offense. West Virginia ranked seventh in the country in Adj. Tempo, but 41 drives lasted three or fewer plays before a punt or turnover. On nearly one of every four possessions, WVU's defense got off the field only to have to go right back on. That's a tricky combination.

This is a Holgorsen offense, and WVU wants to play at the highest possible tempo. But while the passing game was awesome at creating big plays, QB Skyler Howard only completed 55 percent of his passes, 51 percent over the final 10 games. Leading receiver Shelton Gibson is a tremendous deep threat, but Mizzou allowed fewer big pass plays than anyone in the country last year. Slow the big gains, and WVU might not be able to lean on the small ones. That means a lot of really quick three-and-outs and a tiring WVU defense.

5. The WVU OL vs. the Mizzou DL will be a huge matchup

When it came to run blocking, WVU's line passes lots of tests (with help from RB Wendell Smallwood). The Mountaineers ranked eighth in opportunity rate and 27th in stuff rate. They kept a relatively clean backfield, and now they basically return three starters and two half-starters.

WVU's most efficient running back, Smallwood, is gone, but the line should still be a strength in blocking for Rushel Shell and Howard. We are assuming that Mizzou's defensive line will be both strong, even without Walter Brady, which makes this a huge matchup, especially if WVU is still struggling to generate efficiency through the air.

6. The Mountaineer defense attacked you

WVU's ability against the run was encouraging. This defense ranked third in Rushing Success Rate+ and returns three of its top four up front. But the line will be thin and under pressure. Outside of the three key returnees, no other returning lineman recorded more than 5.5 tackles last year, and with the top four linebackers and four of the top six defensive backs (plus Joseph) gone, the line could have to cover for some inexperienced moments in the back.

WVU was willing to risk big plays to force three-and-outs and turnovers last year. Against an offense like Missouri's, that approach was destined to succeed. But Mizzou has a new offensive coordinator, infinitely more experience, and a couple of new play-makers, particularly Alex Ross. Meanwhile, the WVU defense has to replace most of its starting linebackers and DBs. The WVU defense was miles ahead of the Missouri offense last year, but the gap has shrunk. The question is pretty obvious: Has it shrunk a little or a lot?

7. WVU's awesome linebackers are all gone

Nick Kwiatkoski, Shaq Petteway, and Jared Barber combined for 32.5 tackles for loss, nine sacks, and 14 passes defensed in 2015; WVU didn't make a ton of plays behind the line of scrimmage, but the chaos created by the linebackers resulted in a lot of confused quarterbacks. It also meant a lot of one-yard rushes.

The Mountaineer defensive line is strong enough to test a Missouri offensive line that still has a ton of question marks. But if WVU only wins that battle and doesn't dominate it, Mizzou might have the opportunity to test the play-making skills of a brand new WVU linebacking corps.

8. Most of the awesome DBs are too

It's a similar story in the back. WVU won't lack for experience -- of the eight returnees who played last year, five are seniors and three are juniors (plus, Miami transfer Antonio Crawford is a senior as well) -- but the Mountaineers still must replace a ton of known play-makers. Corners Daryl Worley and Terrell Chestnut combined for nine picks and 23 PBUs, plus four forced fumbles. K.J. Dillon had 6.5 tackles for loss from the SPUR position. Joseph had five interceptions in just four games.

WVU still has a secondary made of mostly juniors and seniors, so raw inexperience won't be an issue. But we won't know ahead of time how good these new starting DBs are. WVU relies on a nickel base for a large portion of the time and relies on speed and hard hitting. Can Mizzou force a few mistakes? Or at least, can the Tigers force more defensive mistakes than WVU forces on the other side of the ball?

***

I felt better about this matchup than I originally did when I began writing the WVU preview. The Mountaineers will be favored for obvious reasons, but their biggest strengths from last year are getting diminished a bit, and Missouri might be able to take full advantage of offensive inefficiency issues.

If the Tigers can force some early three-and-outs and show at least a little bit of promise offensively, that stadium might get awfully nervous in the second half. WVU still has the edge, but Mizzou has a chance.