Last year, the Missouri Tigers were favored by many media members to win the Big 12 North. But the Tigers struggled with inconsistency, especially on offense, and stumbled to a 5-6 record.
In no game was this more apparent than in last year’s game against Kansas at Faurot Field. Kansas, starting its fourth-string quarterback and second-string running back due to injuries, limped in with a 3-7 record and nothing to play for except pride.
The Tigers, on the other hand, came in at 4-5, and with two games left, a shot at the Big 12 North title and a bowl game on the line. The Tigers came out flat and lost 31-14.
The next week, the Tigers went into Ames and defeated the Iowa State Cyclones. If Missouri had defeated Kansas, the Tigers, with victories against both Iowa State and Colorado would have been the North champ. Instead, the Buffaloes represented the North and Missouri finished tied for third.
But that was last year. The Tigers’ former inconsistent offense is now taking the conference by storm with a new-look spread attack that allows dual-threat quarterback Brad Smith to play like, well, Brad Smith.
“What we do in our offense, we have different tempos on how we run our offense,” said Missouri coach Gary Pinkel. “We can go up there right away or go up there and pause. There are several things that we can do without going into specifics. And we do that with most defenses, so this game was no different from any of the others. When it works, it looks good.”
Smith has certainly done his part. Missouri’s senior leader is second in the conference in total offense, and leads the Big 12 in rushing. Thanks to Smith’s efforts, the Tigers are third in the conference in passing yards per game, while finishing second in rushing, a devastating balance that has been difficult for opponents to control. Perhaps most importantly, Missouri sits at 5-2, and their 3-1 conference record puts them atop the North with Colorado.
But while Smith has been effective his whole career, one team that has found a way to disrupt his rhythm has been Kansas. The trend started in Smith’s sophomore year, when the Kansas coaches decided to rush three or four and make Smith beat them with his arm. He failed miserably, only amounting to 95 total yards in a Kansas upset.
Last year, Kansas utilized the same strategy and held Smith to negative 41 yards rushing, and Smith didn’t make a meaningful pass until his team was down 28-0.
“We're playing one of the best defenses in the United States,” Pinkel said. “Without question, their numbers are very, very good and you have seen them on film and they're excellent. They've out played us and out coached us the last couple of years, and they won because they deserved to win, and certainly, it's a very important football game.”
If Kansas slows Smith down again, however, the Tigers have another option to turn to in true freshman Chase Daniel. Daniel led a comeback victory against Iowa State earlier in the year, and the coaches won’t hesitate to put him in if Smith falters.
Smith is the team’s leading rusher, but the Tigers also use a two-headed rushing attack with Marcus Woods and Tony Temple to do damage from the tailback spot. They run behind one of the conference’s better offensive lines, and combine to make enough plays to force defenses to slough off Smith.
When Missouri isn’t running, Smith’s best target is tight end Chase Coffman. William “Helicopter” Franklin, a freak athlete who has been used mostly in a possession role this season, heads the wide receiver corps, with help from powerful Sean Coffey and Brad Ekwerekwu.
If last season was the year of the inconsistent offense, this season it’s Missouri’s inconsistent defense that gives Tiger fans the most concern. The defense is fast and athletic, but often follows brilliant plays with mental mistakes. The Tigers currently are last in the conference in scoring defense, allowing more than 30 points per game, while giving up more than 375 yards per game. Even worse, the defense has little to hang its hat on — while the Tigers excel at getting to the passer, they are eighth in pass defense and eleventh in rush defense.
That pass rush is led by rangy defensive end Brian Smith who is at the top of the Big 12 in sacks with 6.5 for the season. But the defensive line is feeling the loss of two starters at defensive tackle, which is one of the reasons the team has struggled against the run.
The other reason is the linebacking corps, but that may change fairly soon. Missouri’s linebacking trio boasts incredible speed, and the players are starting to understand how to apply it to football. After struggling early, this unit has gotten stronger with each week.
“I just think it's having more reps now,” said Marcus Bacon, Missouri linebacker. “You get more reps, the better the team will be.”
The secondary, however, has struggled. Safety Jason Simpson’s tackles are down, and he’s making fewer plays. David Overstreet has been a pleasant surprise in run support, but the cornerbacks struggle when left on an island.
Missouri remains one of the most talented teams in the Big 12 North, which is a major reason the Tigers sit at the top of the charts. But it remains to be seen whether they can finish. They’ll get a major chance this weekend against a Kansas team that will be fired up for the homecoming rivalry game.
Win the game, and Missouri may go on to win the Big 12 North. If the Tigers lose, however, don’t be surprised to see Missouri stumble another couple of times as another team takes the crown.
“I'm 2-2 right now, and this one will be a deciding factor on my chapter in college football,” said Tony Palmer, senior Missouri guard. “I'd definitely like to leave here beating them.”