Campus Corner

Mizzou Mailbag | The BCS, bowl games and Franklin vs. Gabbert

Updated: 2013-10-11T22:57:49Z

By TOD PALMER

The Kansas City Star

Borrowing from colleagues Sam Mellinger and Bob Dutton, the time has come to start a weekly question-and-answer blog.

The plan is to make this #MizzouMailbag thing a weekly, ongoing thing — probably even through basketball season, assuming the interest remains high.

Before we get going, be sure to check out Vahe Gregorian’s excellent commentary on Gary Pinkel 3.0.

For what it’s worth, it feels like we’re off to a solidish start. Feel free to lob questions my way on Twitter using the hashtag above or, for those not into tweeting, fire off emails and ask to be included. Don’t make me beg my mom to sign up for Twitter to keep this thing going. Let’s make it work (apologies to Tim Gunn) … if we can:

Ouch, that hurts, Rui. Thought we were friends. Of course, part of me also expected that, but — God bless, America — you’ve been proven wrong. It may not be the beautiful game, but Missouri’s 5-0 start is a thing of beauty to a great many people. It’s even made a few people a little nuts …

You mean you haven’t already? I booked mine at halftime against Vanderbilt along with a flight to Atlanta the morning of Dec. 7 for the SEC Championship game. Hopefully, you realize Missouri already has a national championship under Pinkel, right? Oh, wait, that was sarcasm. Gotcha, but others folks seem genuinely optimistic.

If — and that’s a monumental if, perhaps an IF — Missouri returns from Athens, Ga., at 6-0, it’s not an impossible dream. Unlikely, still, but not impossible. Remember, when the Tigers came within a game of playing for the BCS National Championship during the 2007 season, that squad was unranked at the beginning of the year. It was also a team led by a veteran quarterback playing his best football that had a lot of things break its way, kind of like Georgia getting beaten up just as Missouri hits town.

Making a BCS game will still be a challenge short of winning an SEC title, though. The SEC West is so strong with Alabama, LSU and Texas A&M — brand-name teams with more of a national following. Even if Missouri made the SEC title game and played well but came up short, the BCS probably would take even a two-loss Alabama or LSU team or the Aggies and Johnny Manziel over the Tigers. Basically, I’m saying even if the Tigers earn a BCS bid again, it seems likely that coach Gary Pinkel’s club might get bumped out as it did from the 2008 Orange Bowl. But that’s just a guess.

Besides, there’s a lot of football left to be played and it all becomes a moot point unless the Tigers can continue winning. Lose two of the next three and the dream goes up in smoke anyway. Of course, win two of three and find a way to beat Texas A&M in the regular-season finale, we can revisit the discussion. Playing in a BCS game is not unattainable, but I’d give it a 1-percent chance (and that might be generous).

Ugh, bowl projections this early in the season about as valuable as a Canadian penny. Here’s my take anyway: It probably depends on if Missouri can beat Texas A&M in the regular-season finale. Unless the Aggies make the BCS in some form or fashion, it would be tough for the Cotton Bowl to pass on Texas A&M and reigning Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel. However, a head-to-head win for the Tigers would be compelling enough. If the Tigers finish 9-3 or 10-2, I still say the Outback, Chick-fil-A or Gator Bowls seem to be more likely landing spots. Of course, there’s so much football left to be played, anything’s possible.

I can make compelling case that Missouri will win each of the next three games. Georgia is banged up and has a bad defense, one that the Tigers should shred en route to a high-scoring win. Meanwhile, Florida can’t score a lick and Missouri’s high-powered, balanced attack will generate enough points to prevail. Finally, South Carolina has struggled to finish games and is underachieving as Jadeveon Clowney becomes an increasing distraction. It’s a team primed for a meltdown.

At the same time, there’s a compelling case that Missouri should be the underdog in every game. Sanford Stadium is a tough place to play and completely foreign territory for the Tigers, whose pass defense isn’t good enough to hold up against Aaron Murray and the Bulldogs. Meanwhile, Florida’s defense is so ridiculously good, Missouri will sputter its way to a home loss. And finally, South Carolina is as balanced on offense and defense as any team the Tigers will see, but perhaps more talented player for player. Plus, Clowney might be gearing up to prove a lot of folks wrong down the stretch and reclaim the mantle of unstoppable force and future Jacksonville Jaguar. (With the No. 1 pick in the 2014 NFL Draft …)

Win all three and Missouri is playing with house money — on track for a berth in the SEC Championship and the talk of college football coast-to-coast. However, it seems far more likely that the Tigers stumble at least once during that stretch. The defense gives up enough big plays that somebody is bound to outscore them at least once. Still, 2-1 wouldn’t be bad, right? I’ll say 7-1, final answer.

No, the Tigers are balanced on offense and defense. Quarterback James Franklin is playing at a high level. The three-man rotation at running back is carving teams up. Missouri’s receivers are in beast mode right along with the pass rush. The pieces are there for the Tigers to beat anybody provided those pieces don’t regress and the team continues to avoid mistakes, Missouri has been penalized the least in the SEC (20 for 174 yards) and is tied for the best turnover margin (plus-five).

It’s life on the edge a bit, but the Tigers’ defense is what it is — solid and prone to big plays, one way or the other. Against teams that don’t cough up the football and are excellent on third down, Missouri will struggle. Against careless teams, Missouri will thrive. Of course, you’d rather have a dominant defense, a more sure-tackling defense, a feared defense. That is not the Tigers and there’s no magic pill defensive coordinator Dave Steckel can slip into the Gatorade. Missouri is athletic, seasoned and hungry. It’s good enough to win most games, but the Tigers’ offense seems likely to carry the heavier load.

Now, most of the time, I wouldn’t allow a double in the #MizzouMailbag, but since Connor was the first to respond to my plea on Twitter (and, more important, because I love the question) I’m already suspending that rule …

My answer is probably not — not with the way James Franklin is playing. These exercises are fun, but it’s also impossible at some levels, because there are so many factors that affect the quarterback, which are tough to isolate. Was the Tigers’ defense better in 2010 or now? How about the running backs and wide receivers that surround Gabbert compared to Franklin? Plus, remember that Franklin, in some ways, was Gabbert’s understudy and pupil. He probably owes some measure of gratitude to the Jaguars’ embattled and oft-injured QB.

Anyway, senior-year Franklin would be starter the over junior-year Gabbert for one very important reason, which we’ll get to later. Let’s start with the passing numbers. It’s a bit unfair, because Franklin hasn’t gone through the toughest part of his schedule yet. Still, Franklin’s numbers outpace Gabbert as a passer. He’s got a far superior completion percentage (67-63) as well as better averages per attempt (8.4-6.7) and per completion (12.3-10.6). Franklin, who touchdown-to-interception ratio is also better, can hit the short, intermediate and deep balls as well as Gabbert, but he’s also better able to extend plays and make throws on the run now that he’s healthy. That ties in with the key deciding factor.

Franklin is a dual-threat guy. Gabbert wasn’t much of a runner. He averaged 2.1 yards per carry in his carry on 221 attempts, many of them sacks. He just didn’t bring that element to Missouri’s offense. Franklin, on the other hand, can be quite beastly when he gets a head of steam. People always ask him about whether he needs to slide more, but Franklin’s QB DNA includes occasionally trucking people. It’s just who he is, and it’s what sets him apart — far apart, in my mind, from Gabbert.

Honestly, I haven’t seen Clarkson play yet. I’ve seen him shoot around some, but that’s about it until the Black & Gold game. From the reports I’ve heard, though, he’s the real deal (and probably headed to The League next year). He’s a scorer. He can slash to the rim, pull up on the way or throw daggers from the perimeter. He also learned a lot about playing point guard last season going against Phil Pressey in practice.

Clarkson’s length makes him a force defensively. That’s an area in which Missouri will be improved. His length and scoring ability also will stretch opposing defenses, creating more space on the interior and additional passing angles for the Tigers’ pick-and-roll game. He’s a matchup nightmare and absolutely can be a first-team All-Southeastern Conference performer (unless Kentucky’s starting five sweeps the awards).

P.S. Anyone notice that Flip’s career seems to on the uptick on Boston? Good for Phil Pressey.

To reach Tod Palmer, call 816-234-4389 or send email to tpalmer@kcstar.com. Follow him at twitter.com/todpalmer.

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