Thursday, August 29, 2013

Welcome back, college football

It’s back.

On Saturday, black-and-gold clad fans will fill the old bowl at the southern end of campus, Truman the Tiger will spin his tail, and Marching Mizzou will play those old familiar tunes. The Missouri Tigers will dash out onto the turf and begin the 2013 season, their 88th fall at old Faurot Field.

The schedule is set up to build momentum early in the season. Last season, the Tigers faced SEC heavyweights Georgia and South Carolina before the calendar turned to October. This year, Missouri’s September is much more manageable: Murray State, Toledo, a bye week, at Indiana and Arkansas State.

The opener with Murray State (6 p.m. Saturday, pay-per-view TV) should be a chance for the Tigers to work out any kinks and notch a fairly comfortable win. The Racers, from Murray, Ky., are in the Football Championship Subdivision (formerly I-AA), a cut below Missouri’s Football Bowl Subdivision, which is allowed to award more full-ride scholarships.

When playing the big FBS schools, FCS teams usually offer about as much resistance as I do when a family member offers me yet another piece of pie on Thanksgiving. Last year Murray State lost 69-3 to a strong Florida State team. The Racers went 5-6 last season.

But Murray State will no doubt bring their best effort for their game with an SEC team. The Racers do have a decent passing offense, and they throw the ball a lot.

Ole Miss transfer Maikhail Miller will likely start at quarterback for Murray State. He has some scrambling ability, and a reliable target in senior receiver Walter Powell, an FCS All-American last year.

Again, Missouri should win comfortably. Under coach Gary Pinkel, Missouri is 9-0 against FCS teams, with an average score of 50-7. But this is still the first chance for Tiger fans to get a look at what their team will be like. Here are three areas in particular to watch:

Henry Josey’s return

Josey makes his return after suffering a major knee injury late in 2011 at Faurot Field. He should have plenty of gaps to run through against the Racers. But it won’t be all smooth sailing against SEC foes, so seeing Josey hit the openings with that same old burst and break a tackle or two would be encouraging.

Pass defense

Murray State’s passing tendencies should provide a decent test for the Missouri secondary. The SEC has become a league with several good quarterbacks, so this unit, anchored by senior cornerback E.J. Gaines, needs to hold its own this fall.

Maty Mauk

Not stoking a quarterback controversy here; perish the thought. Senior James Franklin is the starter, but backup freshman Mauk is the future. Assuming the Tigers can build up a lead, Mauk should get a decent chunk of playing time, giving fans a glimpse of 2014.

Plenty of bigger tests await this season, but kicking things off with what should be a big win under the lights of Faurot Field is a good way to get things started.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Missouri hopes for improvement in SEC Year 2

“Welcome to the SEC!”

Missouri fans heard this phrase over and over after the move to the Southeastern Conference, from SEC commissioner Mike Slive, from Alabama’s and Georgia’s hordes that descended on Columbia for games last fall, from Kentucky fans counting down the days until basketball season.

It was a gesture of welcome and hospitality, but it also felt like something of a taunt at times as Missouri stumbled to a 5-7 record, its first losing season since 2004.

A tough schedule, an inability to overcome injuries and faltering late in some close games all contributed to the tempest of a season, one that began with soaring fan enthusiasm. It’s one thing to lose to Georgia and hear its fans chant, “SEC! SEC!” at Faurot Field; it’s quite another to suffer that fate at the hands of Vanderbilt.

Since about nine minutes into last season’s final indignity, a blowout loss at Texas A&M, Missouri fans have been thinking about next year. Here are three keys to making Year 2 better:

Replacing Richardson

Defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson created a stir and a niche joke market by saying Georgia played “Old Man Football.” But more noteworthy, he was Missouri’s best player last year. Richardson was an anchor on the defensive line, but he’s gone to the NFL now, and Missouri must find a way to replace him.

That burden will primarily fall on junior tackles Matt Hoch and Lucas Vincent.

In SEC games, Missouri was 11th among the conference’s 14 teams in both points and yards allowed per game, so the Tigers can’t afford a drop-off defensively.

Wide receiver potential

Offensively, Missouri was also 11th in points scored and yards per game in SEC play. One of the quickest ways to jump start the offense this year will be improvement among the receivers.

Seniors Marcus Lucas and L’Damian Washington return. Dorial Green-Beckham, for all his freshman struggles, led the team in receiving touchdowns last season, with five. He could take a big step forward this year. Also, keep an eye on Darius White, a once highly touted recruit who transferred to Missouri from Texas.

Quarterback play

Of course, the receivers’ impact is contingent on Missouri getting much better quarterback play. After a solid sophomore season, James Franklin had his share of struggles and injuries in 2012.

If healthy, he can outperform his numbers last season. By extension, a healthier, more experienced offensive line should provide at least somewhat better protection.

It’s August, and there are a lot of questions about this team. It looks to me like a team that will go 6-6, but anything from 4-8 to 8-4 wouldn’t shock me.

This is a big year for the program, and for coach Gary Pinkel. The athletic department is pumping money into football, evidenced by the ongoing construction at Faurot Field. At minimum, this team needs to get back to a bowl game.

Missouri does have four manageable nonconference games to hopefully generate some momentum before embarking on the second season of SEC play, one Missouri hopes will have more wins and fewer “Welcome to the SEC!” moments.