We are now half way through our breakdown of Vanderbilt Commodore football opponents throughout the 2013 campaign. This is where the meat of the Vandy schedule really begins as this contest against Missouri is the first of six straight SEC games.
WHEN: Saturday, Oct. 5; Time TBD
WHERE: Vanderbilt Stadium (Nashville, Tenn.)
LAST SEASON: 5-7 (2-6 SEC, 5th place in SEC East; No bowl game)
CURRENT PRESEASON RANKING: Not ranked
SERIES HISTORY: Series tied 2-2-1. (Last meeting: Vanderbilt 19, Mizzou 15, 364 days ago at kickoff)
OFFENSE: It seems crazy to imagine now, but just 12 months ago Missouri was the team expected to canter into the SEC and be the newcomer with the most success. What Johnny Manziel is today, that is what Tiger quarterback James Franklin was supposed to be before a debilitating shoulder injury needed surgery last summer which he just never recovered from. Next running back Henry Josey who gained almost 1,200 yards in 2011 was lost for the season. Throw in an offensive line which suffered from all manner of injuries before the season began, and which picked up more and more as the year went on, and you can see why Missouri was nothing more than a blip on the SEC radar as the 2012 season ran is course.
Fast forward to today and offensively at least Mizzou has the pieces in place to make some noise, just a year later than advertised. Ignore for now that head coach Gary Pinkel is still refusing to name Franklin his starter and instead realize that the athletically gifted 6-2, 230 pounder is the healthiest he has been in his entire collegiate career. In the spread, read-option style offense which Missouri employs Franklin will be flanked by a trio of backs who are as talented as any in the SEC. Josey is back and he has been flashing the vision, speed, and feel for the position which make him an elite back. Depth at the position comes from Marcus Murphy and sophomore Russell Hansbrough, backs who lack ideal size but who have moves and speed to burn. When Franklin does drop back to pass he can always look to former No. 1 national recruit Dorial Green-Beckham, who has All-American ability packed into a terrifying 6-foot-6 frame, creating a nightmare matchup for smaller corners.
Conclusion: The skill position talent is there for all to see, but the Missouri season will all depend on the health and ability of the offensive line. What was supposed to be a strength entering 2012 turned into the biggest weakness on the field and basically crushed any hopes the Tigers had of competing in the SEC as the season wore on. If the line can keep the Vandy pass rush off of Franklin then the 'Dore defensive backs will have to be on their game to shut down what has the potential to be a very dangerous passing attack.
DEFENSE: Missouri returns three of the four starters on their defensive line, but the one missing spot at defensive tackle leaves a void in production which will be impossible to fill. Sheldon Richardson was taken with the 13th pick of the NFL Draft by the New York Jets after a season where he had 75 tackles, 10.5 tackles for a loss, four sacks and three forced fumbles. 75 tackles is an astonishing number for an interior defensive lineman, and unsurprisingly it was the most in the SEC by anyone at his position. There is plenty of experience coming back up front with the likes of DE Kony Ealy and DT Matt Hoch, but the front as a whole is undersized and it is hard to see how they can hold up against some of the mauling offensive lines they will face in conference play.
There is plenty of experience returning in the back seven too and both the linebackers and secondary should be improved from respectable performances last year. Andrew Wilson (79 tackles) and Donovan Bonner are both seniors who read the game well and are athletically strong enough to move sideline to sideline to make plays. All four starters at cornerback and safety are upperclassmen, but the coaching staff will be begging to see more game changing plays from a defensive unit which had just 17 sacks and seven interceptions in total last fall.
Conclusion: There are athletes all over the place on a defense which managed to rank 58th in the country last year despite getting no help from the offense at any point. The Richardson loss cannot be understated, consider for example that as an interior defensive player he had almost a quarter of the teams sacks last year. Vandy should be able to use their size up front to control the line of scrimmage and open running lanes for the running backs to fly through into the secondary.
Other Factors: It is hard to expect a repeat of success on special teams from one year to the next, but Missouri probably had the best all around unit in the country in 2012. The Tigers had four return touchdowns last fall and they return an all-conference contender at kicker. Mizzou does need to replace a good punter in Trey Barrow, but if junior Christian Brinser can get close to his impact on field position then this phase of the game will be a big strength again.
Conclusion: Missouri will be come into this game at 4-0 with a start to the season which is as soft as any in the country. The Tigers will also know that a win in Nashville would see them take on Georgia on the cusp of a Top 25 ranking. The 'Dores though have big plans of their own and know that to continue to the quest to be relevant as a program this is the kind of game that has to be won. A dominant performance by the offensive line should make that concept a reality.
Preseason Preview: Vandy vs. Missouri
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