Here are a couple of the things we’ll be watching closely…
MISSOURI’S YOUNG OFFENSIVE LINE
The Tigers’ offensive line — junior left tackle Tyler Howell, redshirt sophomore left guard Kevin Pendleton, redshirt sophomore center Sam Bailey, redshirt junior right guard Alec Abeln and redshirt sophomore right tackle Paul Adams — goes into the season opener with a combined total of three career starts at the Division I level.
All three starts were by Abeln a year ago.
So one of the biggest challenges for the Tigers this fall will be counting on their young and inexperienced offensive line to be good enough to give the rest of the offense a chance to succeed.
The Tigers lost a lot of experience up front from last season and the offensive line wasn’t exactly great a year ago. So this group will need to play better while also learning and adjusting to their new roles.
The encouraging thing coming out of fall camp was the talk from defensive players, especially on the defensive line, about how well that offensive line played and how they played with a new nasty streak. If that is true, there’s hope that this group could be better.
MIZZOU’S QB SITUATION
The old coaching staff never really gave Zanders a shot a year ago after the issues of Maty Mauk and then the struggles of Lock, who was thrown into a tough situation as a true freshman.
Zanders, more of a dual-threat QB than Lock, is expected to play on Saturday, but how much and in what role is still unknown outside of the program. The coaches have talked about being creative with how they try to run the football this season, so it wouldn’t be surprising to see them use Zanders in some run-pass option concepts, some zone-read type plays or even straight QB runs.
The focus will obviously be on Lock, who threw twice as many interceptions (eight) as touchdown passes (four) in his debut season, and how much better he looks with a year of experience, and eight starts, under his belt. But now the Tigers seem to have someone they can turn to if he struggles.
WEST VIRGINIA OL VS. MISSOURI DL
West Virginia returns three starters on the offensive line — Rimington Trophy candidate Tyler Orlosky at center, Adam Pankey at left guard and Kyle Bosch at right guard — and could be the strength of the Mountaineers’ defense.
There’s no denying that Missouri’s deep and talented defensive line, led by redshirt junior defensive end Charles Harris, is the strength of the Tigers’ defense.
This will be an entertaining matchup to watch for four quarters and could be the deciding factor in the outcome because the Tigers will need to limit the Mountaineers’ offensive production to have a chance.
Missouri looks loaded along the defensive line, particularly at defensive tackle with Rickey Hatley, A.J. Logan, Josh Augusta and Terry Beckner Jr. Besides Harris, the defensive ends are unproven but have potential with Jordan Harold, Spencer Williams and Marcell Frazier. The Tigers need one or two of those guys to step up.
MISSOURI RUNNING BACKS
Odom said this week that the Tigers are likely to take five running backs on the traveling roster and that four of them could get carries.
Redshirt senior Alex Ross, a graduate transfer from Oklahoma, and junior Ish Witter, last year’s leading rusher, are listed as the potential starters on the depth chart. Behind them are freshman Damarea Crockett and sophomore Natereace Strong, a junior college transfer. The fifth RB may be redshirt freshman Ryan Williams.
Ross, Crockett and Strong are all bigger backs than the Tigers have had in a while and Witter bulked up to 200 pounds since last season. The Tigers are hoping their bigger backs will help make them a more physical running attack and this is the first opportunity to see what that looks like in game action.
Ross and Witter both have plenty to prove — Ross wasn’t a significant factor as a running back at Oklahoma and Witter wants to perform better than he did a year ago — and Crockett and Strong look like two good building blocks for the future.
Missouri has 11 freshmen (eight true freshmen and three redshirt freshmen) on the two-deep depth chart, but the Tigers also have several other players who could make their debuts with the team.
Among those are graduate transfers like Ross, wide receiver Chris Black (Alabama) and backup center Michael Stannard (Memphis), as well as JUCO transfers like Howell, Strong, wide receiver Dominic Collins and safety Greg Taylor, who is listed on the depth chart as one of the kick returners along with Ross and Crockett.
There’s also Harold, the starting defensive end opposite Harris, who had to sit out a year ago after transferring from Division II Northwest Missouri State.
Then you have the placekicker spot, where true freshman Tucker McCann or junior walk-on Turner Adams is expected to handle the field goal duties and neither have appeared in a game for the Tigers previously. Odom said earlier this week the coaches would probably go with whichever kicker performs better during pre-game warmups.
So that is a large number of players who will make their debuts with the Tigers under difficult circumstances — on the road against a Big 12 Conference squad that won eight games a year ago.
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