What to watch for: Baylor

Missouri travels to Waco to take on Baylor in its first conference road game Saturday. The Tigers have not won a road game since late in the 2002 season, a span of almost two calendar years. The Bears present a great opportunity for Missouri to end that streak; check inside for a breakdown of all of the matchups that will decide the outcome.

Which sounds better, the Big 11 or the Big 12?

Baylor was essentially forced on the Big 8 when it expanded in the mid-1990s, as the death of the Southwest Conference left several teams without a home. In order to get top-notch schools like Texas and Texas A&M into the fold, somebody else had to come along. That somebody was Baylor.

Now, in their ninth season in the Big 12, the Bears continue to struggle, losing recruiting talent to other Texas schools and unable to gain positive momentum, having never won more than one conference game in a season. At 2-2, Baylor already has a few victories this season, but they came against such heavyweights as Texas State and North Texas. Just a week after falling to the Longhorns 44-14, the Bears will welcome Missouri on Saturday night.

Baylor does not have the athletes to hang with the Tigers, opening as a 20-point home underdog. That spread might be a bit of a stretch, but Missouri should have little trouble moving to 2-0 in league play and 4-1 overall.

Tiger offense vs. Bear defense

Advantage: Missouri

Baylor boasts an experienced defense, projecting seven starting juniors and seniors. For the most part, that experience hasn't yielded success. Although Baylor is second in the conference in pass defense (allowing just 166.8 yards per game), the Bears cannot even come close to stopping the run--they allow 218.8 yards per game, more than 60 more yards per game than any other team in the league. Missouri should be able to run all over the Bears all game long.

The defensive line is the most inexperienced aspect of the unit. Only one letterman--senior end Khari Long--starts on the line, but Long is one of the team's best defenders. He ranks third on the team with 23 tackles, but he has only managed one sack thus far. After recording the sixth-most sacks in school history (29) last season, the Bears have not met that pace this season, having recorded seven sacks through four games.

Junior end Montez Murphy, an East St. Louis native and Coffeyville graduate, has not made the impact the Bears were expecting. He has recorded 14 tackles and one sack, but remains the most talented and athletic member of the line.

The linebacker unit is likely the best position on the entire team. Anchoring the group from the weak side, senior Justin Crooks is a Nagurski Award candidate and plays some of his best football in the Bears' most important games. He will need an equally strong performance for the Bears to have a chance against the Tigers. Senior Michael Tolbert, who missed most of last season with an injury, has come back strong, recording 19 tackles, the fourth most on the team.

It was the Baylor pass defense that hurt the Bears the most last season. The secondary allowed 31 touchdowns and had just six interceptions, worst in the conference in both categories. Some improvement has been made, with junior FS Maurice Lane leading the team with 33 tackles and an interception. The Bears still struggle to force turnovers, having managed just five takeaways and ranking last in the league in turnover margin, at -1.50 per game.

Baylor's starting cornerbacks, sophomores James Todd and Anthony Arline, do not have a ton of experience, but are bigger than Colorado's corners and match up against Missouri's larger receivers moderately well. The talent is not there to shut down the Tigers completely, particularly their tight ends, but the Bears should not be hurt much by their pass defense. Unless, that is, the Tigers struggle to establish a running game,

Baylor uses a 4-2-5 base defense, employing two linebackers and two outside safeties.

Bear offense vs. Tiger defense

Advantage: Missouri

The Baylor offense has not been great, ranking 11th in the conference at 22.2 points per game, just .2 points ahead of Iowa State. The passing game, led by junior QB Dane King, is decent, averaging 215.2 yards per game, in the middle of the conference pack. The Baylor rushing attack is lacking, averaging 93.8 yards per game, just .6 yards ahead of pass-wacky Texas Tech.

King, a transfer from tiny Blinn College, put up big numbers last season, averaging 310.8 passing yards and leading the Bucs to a 7-3 record. King passed two more-experienced quarterbacks to earn the starting job this fall, surpassing sophomore Shawn Bell and senior Aaron Karas, who combined to start all of Baylor's games last season. So far, the decision appears to be a wise one; King, a lefty, averages 192 passing yards per game and has thrown six touchdowns. Bell has played in three of Baylor's first four games and could see playing time against the Tigers.

Baylor has struggled to replace TB Rashad Armstrong, who graduated after becoming the Bears' first 1,000-yard rusher since 1995 when he tallied 1,074 last season. Sophomore Paul Mosley and senior Anthony Krieg split the carries, but neither has been very successful. Mosley leads the team with 201 yards and two touchdowns, but his season-long rush is just 15 yards. Krieg has seen more touches, but averages a yard less per rush (3.7 to 4.7) than Mosley. The Missouri front four should stifle this unit without much effort.

Baylor also lost its top receiver from last year, as Robert Quiroga's 490 yards and four touchdowns graduated. Baylor does not have a go-to receiver, but senior Marques Roberts makes most of the big catches, already having recorded four touchdowns. Sophomore Dominic Zeigler leads the Bears with 18 receptions. The Bears do not have much of an intermediate passing game; senior Marcus Venus and freshman Mike Miller both have four catches to lead the tight ends.

The offensive line is experienced but not very deep. Two seniors and three juniors start, with senior LT Quintin Outland the most experienced of the group. The line is very large, with all five starters at least 6-foot-4 and 289 pounds. (Outland and senior C Joseph DeWoody are two of the biggest linemen in the conference, both tipping the scales at around 350 pounds.) As a whole, the group has not been too successful; along with the running struggles, the Bears have allowed nine sacks already. Missouri's front four will be tested by the size of the line, but if should be able to knife through the Baylor front consistently.

Baylor runs a multiple pro-style offense, employing two receivers, a tight end and a fullback in its base set.

Special teams

Advantage: Baylor

Baylor's specialists are two of the better kickers in the conference. Senior K Kenny Webb, a former walk-on, is consistent from close range, having made every extra point he has attempted in two seasons with the Bears and four of his five field-goal attempts this season. He struggles from beyond 40 yards, but made a career long of 47 yards against SMU last season.

Sophomore Daniel Sepulveda may be the best punter in college football. He is second in the country averaging 47.1 yards per punt and has already had 11 punts of more than 50 yards. Not bad for a player who had never punted in his prep career, arriving in Waco as a linebacker. Compared to Missouri sophomore walk-on Matt Hoenes, who will make his first start Saturday, Sepulveda is practically an NFLer.

Junior OS Willie Andrews, a preseason All-American kick returner, handles the return duties for the Bears. He averages 10.4 yards per punt return and 23.8 yards per kick return.

Intangibles

Advantage: Missouri

There is an interesting combination of factors that point to Baylor faring well in this contest, including Missouri's inability to win on the road in conference play and Baylor's surprising upset win at home against Colorado last season. Still, a Baylor win would be a huge upset, making Kansas' upset of the Tigers last season pale in comparison.

The Tigers should establish the running game early and have the potential to turn in more than one 100-yard rushing game. Junior TB Damien Nash should have a field day, and if junior QB Brad Smith gets rolling early, the Tigers should be comfortably ahead by halftime.

From all indications, the odd 9 p.m. start does not concern the Missouri coaching staff, although wrapping up a game around midnight must be a new experience for most of the players. What better place to spend an evening than Waco?

Final Prediction: Missouri 38, Baylor 9


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