Oscar Gamble, of the always eminent Missouri blog RockMNation fills us in on the Other, OTHER Tigers coming in to Baton Rouge this weekend.
1. Well, Mizzou seems to have made quite the rebound on offense from last season. What's the difference?
The biggest change has to be the coaching turnover. Missouri brought in Josh Heupel, the (co)architect of Alabama's thrashing by Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl two years ago, to replace former offensive coordinator Josh Henson (who you may remember from his days under Les Miles as a tight ends coach.
The rebound has been due the talents of sophomore QB Drew Lock, who has the arm to make every throw. Through four games Lock has throw for 1,508 yards, 14 TDs against three interceptions while basically doubling his yards per attempt.
Our skill position guys are are mix of old and new. Yes there's Alabama grad transfer Chris Black getting some action in the slot but he's been battling with a redshirt freshman Johnathan Johnson, and another youngster for catches. As Bill Connelly put it Monday in RockMNation's Depth Chart post, "Chrisraythan Wingblackson is now on pace for 104 targets, 75 catches, and 1,495 yards. #WingblacksonForBiletnikoff". There's also #1 option, redshirt junior receiver J'Mon Moore who is top 10 in the country in receiving yards and touchdowns and top 15 in receptions. Moore is third in average yards per reception behind starters Johnathan Johnson (19.9) and #2 receiver, sophomore Emanuel Hall (18.5) which should key you into Missouri's desire to hit home runs with the passing game.
All of this possible because of a young, overhauled offensive line. Only one guy with any starting experience, RG Alec Abeln, returned after 2015 and the starting left tackle, Tyler Howell, was a JUCO transfer who had to sit out a year and didn't make it to campus until January. So far they've managed to keep Lock protected, having given up the second fewest sacks and tackles for a loss in the SEC (admittedly against light competition). The running game remains a concern as they have struggled to open lanes and manufacture yards on the ground and starting center Samson Bailey is coming off a tweaked ankle that reminds fans just how thin the depth is for the group.
2. The general consensus seemed to be rebuilding year under Barry Odom. Has that ceiling been raised?
I'm not so sure the ceiling has been raised but perhaps a skylight was installed. After a dreadful 2015 season, the way Missouri has played through four games seems to hold promise of a return to form. Odom still hasn't won a game against real competition and the odds are not in their favor this weekend, but six wins and a bowl season is expected with hopes of an upset somewhere in the back half of the schedule (Personally, I'm hoping it's Tennessee).
Once again I'll reference Bill Connelly's win projections which suggest Missouri has a 30% chance against LSU and is favored in five of its last six games. Seven wins with a "rivalry" win over Arkansas sounds like a solid rebuilding year.
3. How's the defense looking?
For the past few years Missouri has made its bones with SEC caliber defense, particularly along the defensive line. Barry Odom was the defensive coordinator last year but coaching turnover and interpersonal conflicts led to ace defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski joining Mark Richt at Miami which meant a huge change for what fans and players had come to call "D Line Zou".
The Tigers have moved away from relying on an aggressive, attacking defensive line pressure to a more read and react system brought by in by defensive coordinator and former Tiger safety DeMontie Cross who learned under Gary Patterson at TCU. The early results have been somewhat mixed; lower sack numbers and some early struggles adapting to changes meant allowing 26 and 28 points to West Virginia and Georgia respectively. Mizzou held Nick Chubb to 63 yards and only 3.32 yards per carry and the hope has been a new focus on stopping the run will yield results in conference play. Guess we'll find out against the demi-god Leonard Fournette.
4. What's the excitement level for Mizzou fans coming down to Baton Rouge for the first time?
I'd say it's very high. I know several Rock M Nation contributors are making the trip and there's a definite buzz among the fanbase about getting to travel to Baton Rouge. This is the first time the two Tigers teams have met since the 1978 Liberty Bowl and LSU is the sole remaining SEC opponent Mizzou hasn't faced since joining the conference in 2012. I know there were a fair number of fans eager to make the trip even last year so it certainly helps Mizzou seems to be on the rebound.
5. Given what's gone on for LSU in the last week, what's your read on this game?
I didn't want to see Les Miles fired because he's basically college football's fun uncle and a living legend among coaches. Missouri has been a bit of an Angel of Death for SEC coaches, putting an end to the Derek Dooley era at Tennessee, putting the finishing touches on Steve Spurrier's career at South Carolina and embarrassing Will Muschamp during Florida's Homecoming in 2015.
There's a hesitant sense of optimism given how LSU has looked through four games and the chaos of Les Miles' departure. Some have pointed to Missouri's 2-0 record against Ed Orgeron while he was coaching Ole Miss, but I don't put much stock in that. The question is, which talented Tiger team shows up motivated in Death Valley?
I think Orgeron 6-2 record at USC demonstrated his bonafides and the Trojans made a mistake passing him over. Based on my understanding of how he's evolved as a coach and his decision to let Cam Cameron go shows he gets what needs to be done to succeed at this level. I wonder if LSU has the quarterback necessary to compliment what may be a gimpy Fournette but I know Derrius Guice can be a weapon in the running game.
I will be looking to see if Missouri can somewhat replicate Auburn's defensive performance while managing to score more than two touchdowns. I'm not confident either of those things will happen and suspect, much like Mizzou, LSU's offense will be reinvigorated with a coaching change so I'll say LSU wins 24-14 with Missouri and Drew Lock throwing for two scores but also two interceptions and Leonard Fournette providing the game-sealing touchdown in the fourth quarter. Regardless, I expect it will be an intriguing, hard-fought game that will be fun to watch and hints at a promising future.