Monday, August 29, 2011

Debriefing: Another year, another chance for Mizzou to make its move

The least you should know about the 2011 Tigers. Part of Big 12 Week.

? Gabba Gabba Bye. At some point last winter, NFL scouts fell head over heels for Mizzou quarterback Blaine Gabbert, convincing him to leave school a year early for a spot in the first round of April's draft. But forgive Tiger fans if they're not exactly wringing their hands after watching Gabbert regress last year in his second season as a starter.

Though he was the third quarterback off the board in the draft, Big 12 coaches thought Gabbert was no better than the third-best quarterback in the conference, behind at least Oklahoma State's Brandon Weeden and Baylor's Robert Griffin. He didn't stretch defenses downfield to any notable degree. Statistically, he ranked seventh among regular Big 12 starters in completion percentage, eighth in yards per attempt, eighth in touchdown-to-interception ratio and eighth in pass efficiency. On the scoreboard, Missouri ranked eighth in the conference in scoring offense, more than 10 points per game short of its average with Chase Daniel running the same offense in 2007-08.

That was with an All-Big 12 receiver (T.J. Moe) and an All-American tight end (Michael Egnew), both of whom are back for sophomore James Franklin ? another big, once-hyped recruit who saw some Wildcat duty and a handful of garbage-time passes as a true freshman. And the cycle begins anew.

? The kids are alright. In fact, aside from Gabbert, the Tigers get back every single player who touched the ball last year on offense: In addition to Moe and Egnew (who combined for 1,807 yards with 11 touchdowns on 182 catches), seniors Jerrell Jackson and Wes Kemp were good for another 1,000 yards on 89 grabs, and running backs De'Vion Moore, Henry Josey and Kendial Lawrence combined for almost 1,400 yards and 17 scores on the ground. There are no game-breakers on the order of a Jeremy Maclin, but they're more than reliable enough if Franklin is.

You might have been able to say the same about the offensive line at the start of this week, before senior left tackle Elvis Fisher blew out his knee in Monday's practice, sidelining him for the season. Minus Fisher's 40 consecutive starts and outgoing center Tim Barnes' All-Big 12 presence in the middle, it's more of a work in progress.

? The other team's kwaddaback must go down... At any rate, last year was the first in coach Gary Pinkel's decade-long tenure that Mizzou genuinely qualified as a "defensive team," thanks in no small part to its other top-10 draft pick, defensive end Aldon Smith, and the most sack-happy front in the league. Even without Smith, the Tigers have the Big 12's best pair of bookends, Brad Madison (7.5 sacks) and Jacquies Smith (5.5), and arguably its most promising newcomer: Defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson, a former five-star prospect out of St. Louis who began his career as Rivals' No. 4 overall player in the entire 2009 recruiting class ? and continued it by failing to make his grades and taking a two-year detour through a junior college in California.

With Richardson finally in the fold and academically eligible, the line should be instantly better against the run without sacrificing any of its ability to get to the quarterback.

? To be The Man, you've got to beat The Man. Last year's win over then-No. 1 Oklahoma was only Missouri's second over the Sooners since 1984, and made the Tigers unlikely (albeit extremely brief) national contenders in late October. Mizzou hasn't won in Norman since 1966. But its trip there on Sept. 24 is a golden opportunity to make an early move in the Big 12 race before the Sooners figure out who their running back is and linebacker Travis Lewis returns from a broken foot. An upset there would change the complexion of the season and put the Big 12 championship squarely in the Tigers' sights.

Of course, that would also mean snapping OU's 37-game home winning streak, dating back to early 2005, but frontrunner status never did come cheap.

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Matt Hinton is on Facebook and Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.


Rafael Soriano Matt Thornton Jose Valverde Justin Verlander

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