Sunday, September 21, 2014

Missouri opens season with South Dakota State

Congratulations, college football fans, you’ve made it. This weekend the grand old game returns, bringing back fight songs, gamedays and ancient stadiums packed with familiar colors.

Missouri opens the 2014 campaign, the 89th season for the Tigers at Faurot Field, by hosting the South Dakota State Jackrabbits on Saturday (2:30 p.m. on ESPNU). South Dakota State competes in the Football Championship Subdivision, the lower tier of Division I.

Under coach Gary Pinkel, Missouri is 10-0 against FCS teams, with an average margin of victory of 51-8. These games against FCS schools are usually viewed as “cupcake” games, although as with real cupcakes, some FCS cupcakes are harder to eat than others.

South Dakota State is no North Dakota State, which upset defending Big 12 champion Kansas State last season and routinely beats teams in Missouri’s Football Bowl Subdivision. South Dakota State can’t match North Dakota State in terms of recent football success, harshness of winter or strength of mascot (Jackrabbits vs. Bison), but SDSU is still a really good FCS team.

The Jackrabbits went 9-5 last year and are ranked No. 10 in the preseason FCS coaches poll. South Dakota State’s outstanding senior running back, Zach Zenner, has posted back-to-back 2,000-yard rushing seasons.

Still, this game is mostly about Missouri and how well the Tigers will play, given their talent advantage. Of course Tiger fans will be watching sophomore Maty Mauk as he begins his first full season as the starting quarterback.

Fans can also watch for the first indicators of how Missouri will answer some of its biggest questions this season, such as who will step up to replace the lost production at wide receiver and defensive line. Bud Sasser, one of the team captains, will be a leader for the receivers, but keep an eye on Darius White, a transfer from Texas who was a highly rated recruit in high school. White only had seven catches for 76 yards last season, but he could be poised for a breakout season, which is exactly what Missouri needs from him. A big game against South Dakota State would be an encouraging first step.

Likewise, the Tigers will need Markus Golden and Shane Ray to fill the void left by the departures of Michael Sam and Kony Ealy. Golden and Ray should provide a good pass rush, although South Dakota State will likely test the Tigers’ run defense more than passing.

Starting with an FCS team is a nice way to ease into the season, although things get tougher quickly with a tricky trip to Toledo in Week 2 and a challenging home game against Central Florida in Week 3.
However, Missouri first needs to deal with South Dakota State. Although Missouri is from the higher FBS tier and is allowed to award more scholarships than FCS teams, last year seven FCS teams beat FBS teams just during the first weekend of the season. The Tigers would do well to quickly put to rest any idea they’ll join that list and have a strong start to this game, and this season.

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