So it certainly comes as a surprise that nine games in, Missouri sits at 4-5, facing a close to must-win situation against a Texas team the Tigers haven't beaten since 1997. So what happened? It appears to be a combination of injuries, a tough schedule — the Tigers' slate is the toughest in the country, according to Sagarin — and a few holes in personnel.
Everyone knows Missouri is a spread-it-out, pass-first team that throws for eight zillion yards, right? Except that this year, the Tigers are much more balanced. They're one of just three teams in the country to average at least 240 yards rushing and passing per game (244.9 rushing, 255.1 passing). And while Missouri's offense hasn't seemed quite as explosive, the Tigers are still scoring 35 points per game.
So why has Missouri gone to more of a balanced look this year? A big part of it is the fact that quarterback James Franklin (6-2 225), a sophomore from Corinth, Texas, is more of a dual-threat type. Franklin is a physical runner with speed, and can create some problems out of the zone read. He has also been somewhat of a streaky passer. Look at last week's fourth-quarter performance against Baylor — 20-of-27, 219 yards and three touchdowns — as an indicator.
But while Franklin's talents were a big part in the switch in emphasis, the other driving factor is that fellow sophomore Henry Josey (5-10 190) has emerged as one of the Big 12's top running backs. Call Josey this season's Cyrus Gray, an example of a running back who wasn't slated to start for his team, but through injuries gained an opportunity and took advantage of it. Josey's meteoric rise has pushed him to the top of the Big 12 rushing charts, and he has four straight games of 125-plus rushing yards. The former teammate of Quandre Diggs will represent a different challenge than many backs because of his elite speed and acceleration. Josey has 43 runs of 10 yards or more, and 13 carries of 20 or more yards, ranking tops in the country in both categories. He's highly capable of turning a mistake into six points.
If there's another reason for the decline in the passing game, some of it has to be attributed to the fact that the Tigers aren't trotting out explosive receivers like Jeremy Maclin and Danario Alexander anymore. The best of the bunch is probably T.J. Moe (6-0 195), a slick slot receiver who leads the Tigers with 10 catches of 20 or more hards. Wes Kemp (6-4 220) is a big target and can block on the outside. There were hopes that Jerrell Jackson (6-1 185) could turn into the Tigers' next great receiver, but he's battled injuries through his career and hasn't quite gotten there. He's listed as questionable for Saturday.
Tight end Michael Egnew (6-6 245) is among the top pass-catchers at the position in the country. The Plainview, Texas native catches a ton of throws — he had 12 snares against Baylor — but he isn't typically an explosive threat, as he had 69 yards in the same game. But watch out for him on third down and medium-to-short.
The offensive line was expected to be among the Big 12's best, but has been torn apart by injuries. Sophomore Justin Britt will start at left tackle for Elvis Fisher, and center Travis Ruth is listed as questionable. The guards — Jayson Palmgren and Austin Wuebbels — along with tackle Dan Hoch are all tough players. Jack Meiners has four starts this year and could fill in if needed.
Missouri has been pure average against the run this year, allowing almost 150 yards per game at 3.9 yards per game. That's right in the middle of the Big 12, and the national field. The Tigers' pass defense is different. Missouri has allowed 267.7 yards per game through the air, a better than 64 percent completion percentage and 16 touchdowns to eight interceptions.
Despite losing first-round NFL Draft Pick Aldon Smith, the Missouri defensive line was expected to excel because of the return of two talented ends in Jacquies Smith and Brad Madison. But those two haven't quite gotten to the quarterback at the same rate, and while not having poor seasons — they've combined for seven sacks and 14 tackles for loss — they also haven't stepped up past last year's production levels.
Dominique Hamilton (6-5 305), Terrell Resonno (6-5 295) and Sheldon Richardson (6-4 305) are three starting-caliber defensive tackles. Hamilton is among the Tigers' top defensive players, making 46 tackles, 5.5 for loss and three sacks. Richardson is also emerging as a big-time player, ranking third on the team with 6.5 tackles for loss despite not starting.
The Tigers have a nice front line of linebackers, but aren't as deep there as they have been. Zaviar Gooden (6-2 230) is one of the top athletes playing the position not only in the Big 12, but in the entire country, though that hasn't always translated into great play. Andrew Wilson (6-3 230) and Luke Lambert (6-3 230) are solid. Wilson leads the team in tackles with 75 (a 17-tackle lead over the second-place player) and has 6.5 stops for loss. Lambert is second on the team with seven tackles for loss.
Missouri has gotten roasted against the pass, though the Tigers do seem to have a nice cornerback duo in Kip Edwards and E.J. Gaines. Gaines has hand an active season, ranking second on the team in tackles and first in interceptions and passes broken up. Kenji Jackson (5-10 200) is excellent in run support, but isn't great in coverage. Kenronte Waler (6-0 205) handles the free safety spot.
The Tigers believed that they had one of the top returning kickers in the country in Grant Ressel, but he has been injured and has struggled this year. Saturday, Trey Barrow will handle both placekicking and punting duties, as he has done the last couple of games. Barrow is 2-3 on field goals, making a 26 and a 30-yarder, while missing a 46-yarder. He's averaging 44.3 yards per punt, but has booted as many punts for touchbacks as has pinned teams inside the 20. Moe and running back Kendial Lawrence (5-9 190) will handle the kick returns, while Gaines serves as the punt returner. Moe has averaged a paltry 17.5 yards per kickoff return. Gaines has been a dangerous punt returner, averaging 15.2 yards per runback, with a 44-yard touchdown in there.
So can the Tigers claim their first win over the Longhorns in the Mack Brown era? It will be interesting to see, as both teams appear to have the same strengths as weak points. But the Tigers need to win to give themselves a good shot at a post-season bowl game, an approach few expected out of this team before the year started.