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Mizzou Head Coach Gary Pinkel
Mizzou Head Coach Gary Pinkel

In the hysteria following the upset of Oklahoma, the #1 team in the country, sportswriters and fans alike held lofty aspirations for coach Gary Pinkel’s Missouri Tigers.  Those aspirations seemed painfully unfulfilled following the Tigers’ 27-24 loss to Iowa in the Insight Bowl and coming within one win of the Big 12 championship and a shot for a BCS game., Returning several key cogs in the offensive and defensive attacks Pinkel’s squad will look to challenge for the top spot in the conference again this season.

 

OFFENSE:

 

Passing Game:

Mizzou returns several key starters from one of the nation’s top offenses last year.  Nine of the Tiger’s offensive starters from last year are back, highlighted by All-American tight end Michael Egnew.  A senior, Egnew is drawing well-deserved attention from the other Big 12 teams, and was named the All-Big 12 preseason team’s tight end.  Along with arguably the nation’s top receiving tight end, last season’s team receiving leader T.J. Moe anchors the passing game.  Moe caught 92 passes for 1,045 yards and six touchdowns last season, all team highs.  Flanking Moe, the Tigers also return Jerrell Jackson and Wes Kemp, both of whom caught over 35 passes for more than 400 yards each a year ago and provide 1st year starter James Franklin solid deep-ball threats.

However, the Tigers hand the offense to Franklin after losing one of the most prolific passers in school history.  Franklin registered only 14 pass attempts last season as a freshman, and narrowly beat out now transferred backup Tyler Gabbert for the starting role.  Pinkel expresses confidence in his young starter, but with OU, Texas, OSU, and Texas A&M all posting stout secondaries, Franklin’s arm and decision making will have to be sharp every week if Mizzou wants to compete for the conference title.

 

Running Game:

With a plethora of small backs returning, the Tigers seem set at the running back position.  Three different Tigers split time running the ball last season.  Senior De’Vion Moore, junior Kendial Laurence, and sophomore Henry Josey all carried the ball at least 70 times last season, with Moore taking the bulk of the carries. All three are expected to see considerable time on the field again this season. The three combined for 17 touchdowns last season and all three, under six feet tall, utilize speed to pick up yards.

However, the Tigers still lack a bruising tailback to power the ball through the line on 3rd and short or in the red zone. Mizzou has only one tailback on it depth chart over 215 lbs, junior Jared Culver, who carried the ball only one time in 2010. It seems Mizzou will remain an offensive rarity: a shotgun offense in goal-to-go situations.

Blocking for the running game could be the biggest problem for the Tigers. Along with losing Tim Barnes, the unquestioned leader on the O-line last year, Mizzou will now face at least one week without his replacement at center, Travis Ruth. Ruth suffered an injury to his Achilles tendon on August 15th and has not practiced since.

In his place, left guard Jayson Palmgren will make his first start at center. Mizzou’s line also took a hit when starting left tackle Travis Fisher, a returning starter from 2010, went down for the season with a knee injury. As a result, the Tigers will turn to sophomore Justin Britt to fill the hole at left tackle and junior Jack Meiners will start at left guard while Palmgren fills in at center.

 

DEFFENSE:

 

Pass Defense:

Mizzou’s may be returning eight of its starters from last season, but the three that are gone could greatly impact the Tigers’ ability to stop opposing quarterbacks.  Mizzou loses one of its best tacklers and coverage corners in Carl Gettis. Gettis not only ranked 5th on the team in tackles a year ago, but also intercepted two passes and recovered two fumbles for the Tigers. Along with Gettis, the secondary loses Kevin Rutland, the 2010 team leader in interceptions and a two-year starter at safety and cornerback. Mizzou will rely on the experience of returning starters Kenji Jackson and Kip Edwards. With OU’s Ryan Broyles and Landry Jones, and OSU’s Brandon Weedon and Justin Blackmon—all potential Heisman candidates—on the schedule, Mizzou’s secondary has to perform at its peak to keep the Tigers competitive.

The pass rush also took a big hit when the San Francisco 49ers took Aldon Smith with the 7th pick in this year’s NFL draft. Though Smith missed some of last season due to injury, Mizzou would have greatly benefited from an NFL-caliber defensive end. However, Mizzou is in no way depleted at the DE position. Senior Jaquise Smith and junior Brad Madison combine for 13 sacks last season. Given the powerful passing games lining up against Mizzou this season, Jaquise Smith and Madison will have to have big seasons to win the Big 12.

 

Run Defense:

Many pointed to Mizou’s lack of size at linebacker as a major reason for Iowa winning last season’s Insight Bowl mostly with their running attack. The Tigers, however, begin the 2011 with more than just a size problem. Andrew Gachkar, the team’s 2nd leading tackler last season, graduated, leaving Mizzou without its best tackler, strongside linebacker, and one of its defensive leaders. However, weakside and middle linebackers Zaviar Gooden and Will Ebner return for their senior seasons. Gooden recorded a team-leading 85 tackles a year ago and started all 13 games his junior season and is poised to take a strong leadership role this season.

Meanwhile, a pair of seniors looking to continue the strong defensive presence set by the Tigers last season anchor the D-line. Thanks in large part to the up front push from Tackles Dominique Hamilton and Terrell Resonno, the Tigers’ defense was among the best in college football last season, giving up only 16 points per game. The two were a big reason why the Tigers held OU’s prolific running back Demarco Murray to only 49 yards last season. If the line can hold and the linebackers can use their speed and athleticism to win the push at the line, expect to see another dominant season from the Tigers’ defense.