Brad Smith, Chase Daniel and Blaine Gabbert have held the quarterback position honorably over the past nine seasons. Now it’s James Franklin’s turn, and how he performs at quarterback, especially early, is the biggest question about the 2011 Missouri Tigers.
Fortunately, Franklin steps into a good situation. Four of the five starting offensive linemen are seniors, so he should have good protection. Franklin throws to a deep receiving corps led by T.J. Moe and Michael Egnew, who each caught at least 90 passes last year. Three running backs return who averaged over 5 yards per carry and ran for at least 400 yards.
Expect Missouri to run more as Franklin develops, even putting the linemen in three-point stances at times to help the ground game. Also, Gabbert’s stats from last year are actually fairly replaceable (9th in Big 12 in quarterback efficiency rating). Franklin will likely have some growing pains, but he won the starting job for a reason.
Last year was maybe the Tigers’ best defense in coach Gary Pinkel’s 10 years in Columbia. Missouri led the Big 12 in points allowed (15.8 per game) in conference play.
One area of concern is that the Tigers led the nation last year in yards allowed per point, meaning they gave up a lot of ground, but were able to dig in or get a turnover to prevent scoring. The numbers show that usually teams can only play “bend but don’t break” defense so long before the points allowed begins to catch up to yards allowed.
Fortunately, Missouri has a stout defensive line and could allow fewer yards. Brad Madison (7.5 sacks last year) and Jacquies Smith (5.5) bring a ferocious pass rush, and junior college transfer Sheldon Richardson should strengthen the Tigers’ run defense.
The defense’s big question could be how well the secondary’s new starters can curtail opponents’ passing games. Senior safety Kenji Jackson will need to anchor this young unit if it’s to stand up to the Big 12’s outstanding receivers. Missouri’s strong pass rush might make the defensive backs look a lot better.
The big question: How many do they win? Missouri will now play nine conference games (instead of eight), plus a tough early test at Arizona State (Sept. 9). The schedule is especially tough early, with the first two conference games on the road. I see several swing games (at Arizona State, at Kansas State, home vs. Oklahoma State and Texas, to name some), which should make for a thrilling season. I’ll predict an 8-4 record, although if Franklin comes out of the box fully assembled, the ceiling is high for this team. A finish in the top four in the conference is a reasonable goal.