This weekend, the Missouri Tigers
will travel to South Florida, to take on the Knights
of Central Florida
. It will be a tough test for Mizzou on the road, as UCF is by no means a pushover team. In fact, they're exactly the sort of non-conference team the Tigers should
be playing as they attempt to move themselves up into the ranks of the elite teams in college football.
Speaking of elite teams, Missouri is now a member of the most elite conference in all of college football, the Southeastern Conference. So far they've played two SEC teams. So far they've lost two SEC games. And in both of those losses, the margin of defeat for the Tigers was 21 points. Not exactly the kind of statement the Mizzou program was hoping to make out of the gates, I'm sure.
At some point in time, I think the question has to be asked: are the Tigers really ready for this level of competition?
I honestly thought the Tigers would be okay coming into the SEC. I didn't think they were ready to play the absolute top of the heap yet, the Alabamas
s, but I thought they would show well enough against the conference as a whole. I certainly wasn't expecting to see Mizzou blown out in each of their first two conference games.
The Tigers have won a pair of non-conference games, blowing out a small school opponent in Southeastern Louisiana and outlasting a tough Arizona State team I think is a little better than they get credit for. But a pair of three-touchdown losses to conference teams is a tough pill to swallow, first season in the league or not. So what exactly has gone wrong?
Well, first off, the Tigers haven't exactly played rank-and-file opponents in their first two SEC games. Both Georgia and South Carolina are top ten ranked teams, and deservedly so. We knew coming in the Bulldogs were going to be the top dogs (or Dawgs, as the case may be), in the Western Division, but I was surprised just how good Steve Spurrier's Gamecocks were as well.
The biggest problem for the Tigers to this point has been the play of their offensive line, which shouldn't necessarily come as a surprise to anyone. First, what the SEC is known for, first and foremost, is the speed of the defenses. Look around the NFL, and what you'll see everywhere in the front seven of teams are former SEC stars. The rosters are just loaded with them. SEC teams field the biggest, baddest, fastest defenses in the nation, and watching them eat up the Mizzou line really brings home just how high a level we're talking about.
The other issue, though, is the number of injuries the Tigers have endured on that same line. When you aren't running the players you thought you were going to out on the field every week, things can get ugly in a hurry. And that's exactly what has happened to the Tigers.
I'm not sure at this point that the offensive line can really be fixed. It's an issue of talent, and an issue of health. Coaching and practice and simple adjustment can provide some improvement, I'm sure, but not enough. More troubling to me, though, has been the play of the rest of the Tiger offense. The Tigers rank 96th in the nation in passing yards per game, and 77th in rushing. The problems in the passing game don't surprise me so much; the aforementioned issues with the offensive line have manifested themselves mostly in the form of pass protection breakdowns, and James Franklin hasn't exactly put his best foot forward either.
The lack of a strong running game, though, I find particularly puzzling. Last season the Tigers boasted one of the strongest rushing attacks in college football, led primarily by the two-headed monster of Franklin and Henry Josey. The power of Franklin and explosiveness of Josey complemented each other brilliantly, allowing the Mizzou offense to attack any opposing defense anywhere on the field. The threat of the Tiger running game forced defenses to stay home and track multiple backs, opening up the passing game. Unfortunately, with Josey yet to play this season, the Tigers haven't managed anything approaching their 2011 ground success.
However -- and this is what I find most puzzling, and disturbing, so far -- it honestly appears to me the issue with the running game for Missouri is less in the talent, and more in the way that talent is being utilized. James Franklin is one of the more dynamic running quarterbacks in the nation, so why are the Tigers constantly lining up with an empty backfield, all but ensuring he'll have to pass?
What made the Tigers so successful offensively in 2011, despite failing to light up the scoreboard with an aerial attack of the sort they had enjoyed through both the Chase Daniel and Blaine Gabbert eras, was their ability to confuse defenses with multiple options and move the ball upfield on the ground. Lining up in empty backfield formations just makes absolutely no sense with the type of offense this team should be running.
James Franklin, for all his obvious skills, is never going to be the kind of quarterback Daniel or Gabbert were. Honestly, from what I've seen this year, if Gary Pinkel and David Yost have their hearts set on throwing the ball around the field extensively, they might as well go to backup QB Corbin Berkstresser, He's better equipped, even now, to run a pass-heavy spread than Franklin is. Or will ever be, I do believe.
Which isn't to say I think that's what the Tigers should do. What Mizzou should be doing on offense is what they did last year, running plays that take advantage of what the players they have can do, rather than what they can't.
In the end, I don't think the Tigers' two SEC losses prove much of anything definitively just yet. They were competitive with Georgia until things went of the rails late. Against South Carolina, they failed to ever really get anything going, gaining just 255 total yards on the day, including a dismal 5.6 yards per play average on passing plays. Again, though, both of those teams are true elites, among the top programs in all of college football. Losing to Georgia and South Carolina, even by relatively lopsided scores, proves only that the Tigers aren't ready to beat top ten teams right now, not that the whole conference is above their ability level.
What Missouri's play in the SEC so far does prove to me, though, is that this is a team struggling to find an identity. It's understandable that the Tigers' running attack has taken a downturn this season against faster defenses and missing their most dangerous rusher, but the biggest issue for me is more in the gameplan than the execution. The Mizzou coaching staff is trying to square hole James Franklin's round peg, and it just isn't going to work. A makeshift offensive line trying to hold their own against a level of defense they've never seen before only exacerbates the situation, to the point I just don't think the Tigers can be successful trying to beat these teams they way they've been going about it so far in 2012.
So to answer my question from the headline: yes, I think the Missouri Tigers are still good enough for the SEC. But I also think this is a team that needs to find their identity, fast, if they want to compete against this level of competition. And that starts with the coaching staff figuring out just what it is they have. And, more importantly, what they don't.