2011 Season Preview: The Missouri Tigers And The Living, Breathing Spread

Photo via Rock M Nation's Bill Carter.

With an ever-evolving spread offense, Missouri has won 40 games in four seasons. They won ten games last fall despite defensive injuries; can they come up big in 2011 despite a front-loaded schedule and a new quarterback?

NOTE: Confused? Don't miss the definitions and footnotes at the bottom. As always, if you don't like numbers, just skip to the words. And be sure to purchase your Football Outsiders Almanac 2011 today! The college portion is available for just $5, and if you pre-order the entire book, you can download the college portion instantly.

Six years ago this summer, Missouri head coach Gary Pinkel and his offensive staff, namely coordinator Dave Christensen and quarterbacks coach David Yost, set about changing up the Mizzou offense to breathe life into a team that had underachieved terribly in 2004. With quarterback Brad Smith entering his senior season, Pinkel and company adopted a spread offense that has both adapted over the years and paid off handsomely for the Tigers. In the six seasons pre-spread, Mizzou went 29-40; in the six seasons since: 55-24. They have won 40 games in four seasons for the first time in school history, and their four-year F/+ performances averages are better than that of Arkansas, South Carolina, Florida State, Iowa, Wisconsin and other well-established programs.

That's great and all, but what is perhaps most interesting about Missouri's version of the spread is how much it has changed through the years. The Tigers have started three quarterbacks in the last six years: Smith, Chase Daniel and Blaine Gabbert. The three couldn't have possibly been any different, but they have all produced, and all three are now in the NFL (granted, Smith is there as a receiver, but why would we want to ruin this neat tidbit?). They have gone from run-heavy to pass-heavy, and in the last half of 2010, they began to shift back in the other direction again.

As they came to realize that they actually had a) a strong defense for once and b) an even stronger running game, Pinkel and second-year coordinator Yost (Christensen left after 2008 to take the head coaching job at Wyoming) shifted their line of thinking (until they passed all over Iowa in the Insight Bowl, anyway). With James Franklin replacing Blaine Gabbert at quarterback this fall, that shift toward the run could become even more prevalent.

The spread offense really has taken hold in a way other formations/alignments/ways of thinking have not. The Wishbone was awesome, but it's a running offense. The run-and-shoot is a passing offense. But the spread can be whatever you want it to be. And as defenses across the country get lighter and faster in an effort to adapt to the spread's success, it is likely that offenses will adapt with more size and more running. It is a constant dance between offensive innovation and defensive adaptation, and as we reach Phase Two of the spread's life cycle, Missouri is a team worth watching.

2010 Schedule & Results*

Record: 10-3 | Adj. Record: 11-2 | Final F/+ Rk**: 16
Date Opponent Score W-L Adj. Score Adj. W-L
4-Sep vs Illinois 23-13 W 29.4 - 12.1 W
11-Sep McNeese State
50-6 W 31.9 - 19.4 W
18-Sep San Diego State 27-24 W 35.0 - 15.2 W
25-Sep Miami (Ohio)
51-13 W 59.3 - 23.8 W
9-Oct Colorado 26-0 W 21.9 - 17.8 W
16-Oct at Texas A&M 30-9 W 42.5 - 21.1 W
23-Oct Oklahoma 36-27 W 44.0 - 30.0 W
30-Oct at Nebraska 17-31 L 28.3 - 36.1 L
6-Nov at Texas Tech 17-24 L 20.6 - 23.1 L
13-Nov Kansas State 38-28 W 32.8 - 26.8 W
20-Nov at Iowa State 14-0 W 19.5 - 16.1 W
27-Nov vs Kansas 35-7 W 31.1 - 1.5 W
28-Dec vs Iowa 24-27 L 36.4 - 28.6 W
Category Offense Rk Defense Rk
Points Per Game 29.8 43 16.1 6
Adj. Points Per Game 33.3 19 20.9 18

The 2010 season officially served as Gary Pinkel's announcement that his program is not going anywhere. Missouri went 22-6 in 2007-08, but when they lost both an insane number of key players (Chase Daniel, Jeremy Maclin, Chase Coffman, Ziggy Hood, William Moore, etc.) and both coordinators after the 2008 season, it was easy to project them to reestablish their middling lot in life. But in 2010, with few true stars and two second-year coordinators, the puzzle came together nicely. The offense, while up-and-down, was solid enough against a tough slate of defenses, but the difference in 2010 was the Mizzou defense. The Tigers put together only three below average defensive performances and only one truly bad one (Nebraska), and they watched their overall Def. F/+ rankings rise from 48th in 2008 and 63rd in 2009, to 16th in 2010.

This was a remarkable effort considering the injuries. Soon-to-be top ten draft pick Aldon Smith missed three games with a broken foot and was only half-speed for a couple more. Linebacker Will Ebner missed the first three games, and his replacement Luke Lambert missed the last nine. Starting safety Jasper Simmons was suspended, then hurt, then suspended again. The 11 true "first-stringers" never actually saw the field at the same time and lost about 28 games in all, but the defense continued to produce.

The one injury that seemed truly costly was that of defensive tackle (and entertaining Twitterer) Dominique Hamilton, who was lost for the season during the Oklahoma game. Pass defense had been the strength of the defense all year, but upon Hamilton's departure, the Mizzou line showed severe cracks against Nebraska (Roy Helu, Jr., rushed for 307 yards) and Iowa (Marcus Coker rushed for 219).

Missouri Defense With Dominique Hamilton: 19.9 Adj. PPG Allowed
Missouri Defense Without Dominique Hamilton: 22.0 Adj. PPG Allowed

Still, the defense showed strong stability despite all the injuries, and the depth they created with all the lineup shuffling could pay off in 2011.

Offense***

Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 18 10 29
RUSHING 7 14 5 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 34 10 59 48
Standard Downs 28 12 41 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 15 13 20 27
Redzone 12 6 16
Q1 Rk 20 1st Down Rk 25
Q2 Rk 32 2nd Down Rk 20
Q3 Rk 19 3rd Down Rk 34
Q4 Rk 63

If Blaine Gabbert (3,186 yards, 6.7 per pass, 63% completion rate, 16 TD, 9 INT) had returned for the 2011 season, Missouri might have been a borderline Top 10 pick. Without him, they still return nine starters from an offense that was efficient in the air and explosive on the ground. But until people see a new quarterback succeed, it is difficult to assume it.

James Franklin is Mizzou's new starting quarterback. The 6-foot-2, 220-pound true sophomore won the backup job in 2010 and began serving as the primary short-yardage back by the end of the season. He completed 11 of 14 passes for 106 yards and rushed for 116 yards and two touchdowns overall. Though he can run a bit, he is no Brad Smith; he is a quarterback first, and while the run percentages might remain at late-2010 levels, this is still going to be a pass-heavy offense.

Franklin inherits a receiving corps that was reliable but limited. T.J. Moe (1,045 yards, 11.4 per catch, 71% catch rate, 6 TD) and Michael Egnew (762 yards, 8.5 per catch, 71% catch rate, 5 TD) were fantastic over-the-middle options (Moe has the added benefit of Local Legend status after bailing the Tigers out against San Diego State ... and for being a tremendous Twitterer himself); if you played a zone against the Tigers in 2010, you likely paid dearly because of these two. But against sturdy man defenses like Nebraska's, this was not a unit that had enough athleticism to get open and create plays downfield.

Now-seniors Jerrell Jackson (656 yards, 13.1 per catch, 60% catch rate, 3 TD) and Wes Kemp (420 yards, 10.8 per catch, 64% catch rate, 3 TD) both had incredible moments in 2010 -- Jackson caught nine passes for 139 yards in the win over Oklahoma, Kemp 10 for 89 in the win at College Station -- but they both struggled mightily in the two losses to Nebraska and Texas Tech. Overall, only Moe averaged even 8.0 yards per target. More big plays are needed from this group; the emergence of two former four-star recruits -- sophomore Marcus Lucas and redshirt freshman Jimmie Hunt -- certainly wouldn't be a bad thing.

Other tidbits:

  • When the preseason All-Big 12 lists came out recently, a light bulb went on throughout the country: the Big 12 has almost no proven running backs. A&M's Cyrus Gray was a given for the first-team, but the vote for the other first-teamer ended up a tie between Oklahoma sophomore Roy Finch (398 career yards) and Kansas State's Bryce Brown (460). Allow me to put in a good word for an overlooked back: Hendial Moorphy. Mizzou's four-headed spawn of De'Vion Moore, Kendial Lawrence, Henry Josey and Marcus Murphy combined to rush for 1,557 yards (5.8 per carry), a +23.9 Adj. POE and 19 touchdowns a year ago. A different one starred at different times -- Moore was magnificent against Oklahoma, then-freshman Josey rushed for 212 yards on 26 carries in non-conference play, Lawrence torched Kansas and Murphy ripped off a 69-yard touchdown against Texas Tech -- and as long as ego doesn't get involved, Moorphy could create an unorthodox but extremely effective unit.
  • Nothing does more favors for a young quarterback than a steady, experienced offensive line. The Mizzou line returns a whopping 105 career starts and four starters. They are particularly set at tackle, where three-year starter Elvis Fisher and two-year starter Dan Hoch combine for 66 career starts. The center is new, and the guards are still a bit shaky -- the line was only decent in run blocking, and right guard Jayson Palmgren is penalty-prone -- but this is one of the most experienced lines in the country.

Defense

Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 24 27 16
RUSHING 56 67 50 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 6 12 5 81
Standard Downs 13 19 8 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 49 44 59 22
Redzone 4 18 3
Q1 Rk 48 1st Down Rk 5
Q2 Rk 24 2nd Down Rk 50
Q3 Rk 14 3rd Down Rk 27
Q4 Rk 21

Missouri's was one of the more pliable bend-don't-break defenses in the country last year. They ranked 16th in Def. F/+ despite the fact that their starting safeties registered an almost alarming 116.5 tackles. The line was a bit all-or-nothing, and the rotating crew of linebackers didn't help, but the Tigers mastered the art of bending, then stiffening in the red zone. That is a high-wire act that is sometimes hard to replicate from year to year.

For 2011, it appears the strengths might get weaker and the weaknesses may get stronger. The losses are somewhat minimal in the front seven, but the secondary is quite a bit less experienced. Gone are starting corners Carl Gettis (44.5 tackles, 2.0 TFL/sacks, 2 INT, 3 PBU) and Kevin Rutland (39.0 tackles, 4.0 TFL/sacks, 3 INT, 7 PBU) and tackling-machine safety Jarrell Harrison (58.5 tackles, 2 INT, 3 PBU).

The Mizzou staff took the interesting step of listing new No. 1 corner Kip Edwards (30.5 tackles, 5.0 TFL/sacks, 1 INT, 6 PBU) as a "returning starter" since he got the same number of snaps as Gettis and Rutland, and the job he did on Texas A&M's Jeff Fuller is reason for optimism. Edwards, corner E.J. Gaines (22.5 tackles, 1 PBU as a freshman), safety Kenji Jackson (58.0 tackles, 3.5 TFL/sacks, 2 INT, 3 PBU) will man three of the four starting spots; Jackson's counterpart has yet to be determined, though Matt White (14.0 tackles, 2 PBU as a redshirt freshman) seems to have the early upper-hand. The secondary is important not only because Mizzou's pass defense was a strength last year, but also because coordinator (and foul-mouthed former Marine) Dave Steckel likes to attack with defensive backs quite a bit.

Other tidbits:

  • The line is an unlikely source of optimism despite the departure of Aldon Smith (41.0 tackles, 10.0 TFL/sacks, 1 INT, 2 PBU). Smith was half-speed or out for a good portion of the year, and fellow ends Brad Madison (26.5 tackles, 11.0 TFL/sacks, 2 FF, 2 PBU), Jacquies Smith (28.0 tackles, 10.0 TFL/sacks, 2 FF, 3 PBU) and Michael Sam (17.5 tackles, 7.0 TFL/sacks, 2 FF) stepped up in a major way. Last year's problems came with a thin unit of tackles; Terrell Resonno (25.5 tackles, 4.0 TFL/sacks) was decent, but big Dominique Hamilton's (14.0 tackles, 2.0 TFL/sacks in seven games) return is significant, and the depth chart gets bolstered by the (likely) arrival of former five-star recruit Sheldon Richardson. Richardson has taken Tiger fans through quite the soap opera in recent years but is expected to be ready to go this fall. He and a healthy Hamilton could be huge for the defense overall.
  • Thanks to injuries, Mizzou is in an interesting situation at linebacker: they lose one starter but return four in a three-man unit. Andrew Gachkar (67.5 tackles, 8.5 TFL/sacks, 2 INT, 2 FF, 5 PBU) is gone after serving as a strong sideline-to-sideline presence, but Zaviar Gooden (67.5 tackles, 7.5 TFL/sacks, 2 INT, 5 PBU) is a potential all-conference performer, injury-prone Will Ebner (62.0 tackles, 9.5 TFL/sacks in 2009) and Luke Lambert (44.0 tackles, 3.5 TFL/sacks in 2008; 10 games in 2009-10) are healthy (for now), and part-time starter Andrew Wilson (33.0 tackles, 0.5 TFL/sacks as a redshirt freshman) returns as well.

Missouri's 2010 Season Set to Music

Take your pick: either Television's "Prove It," Bruce Springsteen's "Prove It All Night" or Radiohead's "Prove Yourself."

Fun Stat Nerd Tidbit

Here.

Summary and Projection Factors

Below is a small handful of projection and change factors most pertinent to the Football Outsiders' preseason projections you will find in the Football Outsiders Almanac 2011.

Four-Year F/+ Rk 17
Five-Year Recruiting Rk 28
TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin**** +11 / +10
Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.) 15 (9, 6)
Yds/Pt Margin***** -8.4

Thanks to their defensive success in the red zone, Mizzou's YPP margin was almost unsustainably positive in 2010. It appears that strong redzone defense is sustainable as a whole, but the combination of Mizzou's less-than-explosive passing game and their porous run defense (over the second half of the season) gave them little margin for error.

In all, this is an extremely experienced team that has begun to establish a proven track record. If James Franklin clicks, the Tigers could threaten for, at the very least, second place in the Big 12. In fact, the Football Outsiders Almanac 2011 projects them to possibly do just that. But the front-loaded schedule could be an obstacle for a new quarterback -- in Franklin's first five games, he will face trips to Arizona State, Oklahoma and Kansas State. If the Tigers survive that stretch, things become more favorable. They have to travel to Texas A&M for the second straight year, but they host Oklahoma State, Texas and Texas Tech. The numbers now give the Tigers the benefit of the doubt, but Franklin, the receiving corps and secondary both have to prove their bona fides.

 

 

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* For more on the 'Adj. Score' and 'Adj. Record' measures below, feel free to read this Football Outsiders column. Adj. Score is a look at how a team would have performed in a given week if playing a perfectly average team, with a somewhat average number of breaks and turnovers. The idea for the measure is simple: what if everybody in the country played exactly the same opponent every single week? Who would have done the best? It is an attempt to look at offensive and defensive consistency without getting sidetracked by easy or difficult schedules. And yes, with adjusted score you can allow a negative number of points, which is strangely satisfying.

** F/+ rankings are the official rankings for the college portion of Football Outsiders. They combine my own S&P+ rankings (based on play-by-play data) with Brian Fremeau's drives-based FEI rankings.

*** What is S&P+? Think of it as an OPS (the "On-Base Plus Slugging" baseball measure) for football. The 'S' stands for success rates, a common Football Outsiders efficiency measure that basically serves as on-base percentage. The 'P' stands for PPP+, an explosiveness measure that stands for EqPts Per Play. The "+" means it has been adjusted for the level of opponent, obviously a key to any good measure in college football. S&P+ is measured for all non-garbage time plays in a given college football game. Plays are counted within the following criteria: when the score is within 28 points in the first quarter, within 24 points in the second quarter, within 21 points in the third quarter, and within 16 points (i.e. two possession) in the fourth quarter. For more about this measure, visit the main S&P+ page at Football Outsiders.

**** Adj. TO Margin is what a team's turnover margin would have been if they had recovered exactly 50 percent of all the fumbles that occurred in their games. If there is a huge difference between TO Margin and Adj. TO Margin (in other words, if fumbles and unlucky bounces were the main source of a good/bad TO margin), that suggests that a team's luck was particularly good or bad and might even out the next season.

*****Phil Steele has long tracked Yards Per Point as a means of looking at teams that were a little too efficient or inefficient the previous season. A positive Yds/Pt Margin means a team's offense was less efficient than opponents' offenses, and to the extent that luck was involved, their luck might even out the next year.

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