This is the kind of game that scares head coaches, waking them up in a cold sweat in the middle of the night.
Actually, both coaches face that scenario tonight. Missouri coach Gary Pinkel must find a way to keep his Tigers confident--but not too confident--as they travel to Troy. Trojans' coach Larry Blakeney has the unenviable duty of shutting down the Missouri offense, which boasts a Heisman candidate and solid depth at the skill positions.
This is a game that the more experienced Tigers should win. Breaking the teams down by units exposes this, but the outcome could be determined inside the helmet instead of on the field.
Despite the strong nonconference opponents Troy has faced the past few seasons, the Trojans have never seen anyone like Missouri junior QB Brad Smith. The Troy defense is an athletic one, but it will need to fire on all cylinders to hold just Smith to 177 yards, the amount they gave up to the entire Marshall offense Saturday.
The most intriguing match-up is a talented Trojan front four against an evolving Missouri offensive line. Troy uses a traditional 4-3 defensive set; three of the four starters are undersized but all four have experience. The ends are an athletic group, led by senior Demarcus Ware, who recorded three sacks and forced two fumbles in Troy's 17-15 upset win at Marshall. At 6-foot-4 and 232 pounds, Ware is undersized and could struggle against Missouri's larger offensive front. Senior Cedric Sullivan is also an impact player off the edge for the Trojans.
Missouri should match up well against this unit, but a few wrinkles could confuse the line's younger members. T Tyler Luellen will get his first true test, as will C Adam Spieker. The Missouri running game will depend almost entirely on how well its line can slow down the front four.
The Trojan linebacker corps is just as experienced, if not as athletic. Blakeney sees the group as full of strong collegiate backers and at least two-deep. How the group handles Smith, however, will show how good they really are. If they can slow down Missouri's rushing attack, the Trojans will be well on their way to an upset.
The Trojan secondary is very aggressive, recording the third most interceptions in the country last season. As a junior, FS Derrick Ansley, the key to the secondary as a senior, had nine of those picks. The unit does not boast the experience of the Missouri receiving corps (a redshirt freshman, Clint Coe, starts at strong safety), but neither group has proven game breakers. If Missouri junior WR Sean Coffey--or someone else--has another career game, the Tigers will be in good shape.
Fifth-year senior Aaron Leak leads the Troy offense, a group that is evolving but strong. Leak did not have a stellar junior season, throwing 12 interceptions to just seven touchdowns. He completed just 42.7 percent of his passes, a situation that the coaching staff is striving to correct this season.
So far, so good. Leak turned his left ankle in the first quarter against Marshall and was slowed by that injury for the rest of the contest. He still finished with 196 passing yards, completing 13-of-26 attempts, with an interception. Leak also ran the balls six times for 18 yards, including a 15-yard touchdown run in the first quarter. He focused on rehabbing the ankle in the short practice week and should be ready for kick-off this evening. Still, the ankle issue could resurface; expect the Missouri defense to take advantage of Leak a time or two early.
The rushing attack has been Troy's stronger suit the past few years, but it still is not a dominant force. Two backs--DeWhitt Betterson and Jermaine Richardson--split the carries against Marshall, with Richardson having the better day, statistically. The group is similar to what Missouri offers; Betterson is a bigger back that bounces off defenders (much like Tiger starter Damien Nash), while Richardson is a smaller, shiftier back that makes opponents miss (more like freshman Marcus Woods). Missouri's front four should have no trouble with these two, for the most part.
Troy has a talented group or receivers, but much like the Tigers, no clear go-to guy. Jason Samples and James Earl Cray will make plays, but neither is likely to turn in a game-changing performance. Still, the Missouri secondary must show improvement over its effort against Arkansas State, when it allowed 350 yards through the air. The Troy offense has played together longer than the Indians' unit has, so they have the potential to turn in a similar performance. Don't expect that, though.
Troy has an undersized offensive line. Four of the five starters are seniors, with sophomore T Kenny Griffin the only exception. The Tigers should not struggle much with this group; expect the Trojans, who run a multiple I base set, to try to run around the Tigers more than they run right at them.
Neither team can view this segment of the game as a strong point yet. Troy holds the edge in experience, but Missouri has more athleticism.
Junior Thomas Olmsted handles both the placekicking and punting duties for the Trojans, possessing an experience factor that Missouri's kickers do not have. Still, he was not overly successful last season. Missouri K Joe Tantarelli lacks big-game experience and P Brock Harvey has had an up and down career. Special teams should not decide the game; if it does, the Tigers will have stumbled in other areas.
As a whole, the rest of Missouri's special teams players should outclass Troy's group, although receiver Toris Rutledge could be a weapon on the return team. The Trojans lack the quality depth that Missouri has, but a big play from either unit could certainly be a turning point.
The Trojans earn the nod for several reason, the most important of which is home-field advantage. Missouri has struggled on the road the past few seasons, often unable to turn in two strong performances in a row. The Tigers managed a nonconference road win at Ball State last season, but the Cardinals cannot match the atmosphere that Missouri will fight through tonight.
The Tigers deserve credit for becoming the first BCS conference team to travel to Troy, especially if they lose. That possibility should benefit the Tigers greatly; make no mistake, Missouri is not overlooking the Trojans. The potential loss--a fear of losing to a Sun Belt Conference team on national television--should spark the Tigers. But if they don't come out of the locker room with that level of intensity, handling this contest almost as if it were a Big 12 Conference game, the Tigers could be in for a test.