The Missouri football team begins preseason practices on Friday, which means the real games are less than a month away. Congratulations for surviving the offseason.
As kickoff nears, here’s a look at one key to each game on Mizzou’s schedule. We will make score predictions another time.
Sept. 1, vs. Tennessee-Martin
Key: Be focused.
Missouri should win this game, and if the Tigers don’t, then this season will probably turn out worse than everyone is currently predicting. Last year, Missouri gave up 43 points in its season-opening win against Missouri State, and it was a sign of things to come for a team with an at-times porous defense.
Mizzou needs to come out ready to play and beat Tennessee-Martin in a thorough and convincing manner. Giving up a number of points that is less than Barry Odom’s age would be ideal.
Sept. 8, vs. Wyoming
Key: Avoid turnovers
This will be a point of emphasis through offensive coordinator Derek Dooley’s first season at Mizzou, but it is especially key for this game. Wyoming returns most of a defense that led the country in takeaways by a wide margin with 38. Mizzou, meanwhile, was minus-8 in turnover margin, which tied the Tigers for 111th in the country.
Giving an opponent extra opportunities is the easiest way to lose to an inferior team.
Sept. 15, at Purdue
Key: A strong game from Drew Lock
Purdue’s hybrid 4-3 defense (four down linemen, three linebackers) focuses on stopping the run, so Mizzou’s Heisman hopeful needs to throw the ball effectively to put the Boilermakers’ defense off balance.
Lock didn’t do this in last season’s blowout home loss to Purdue, when he completed just 12 of 28 passes and threw two interceptions. The Tigers also averaged just 2.9 yards per carry in that game.
This season’s Boilermaker defense will look quite a bit different from last season’s, though. Purdue’s front seven was the team’s strength a season ago, but it could now be the squad’s greatest question mark. The defensive line has been overhauled.
Sept. 22, vs. Georgia
Key: Limit the number of big plays
Nine Georgia players — nine! — recorded gains of 20-plus yards in last season’s matchup. That’s what turned the game into a 52-28 blowout. Missouri, despite a strong offensive showing to start, couldn’t keep up with a team as talented as Georgia.
Mizzou will be the underdog again this season, but to keep the game close and give itself a chance, Missouri can’t allow as many huge gains as the Tigers did when they last faced Georgia.
The Bulldogs are the favorites to win the SEC East, and even though they’re replacing some key players from last season’s team that made it to the national championship game, they should still be one of the most-talented teams in the country.
Oct. 6, at South Carolina
Key: Contain Deebo Samuel
This will be a good early test for a Missouri secondary that needs to improve from a season ago. Samuel might be the best skill-position player Mizzou faces this season. He tied for the team lead in touchdowns last season (six) despite playing just three games. One of those three was against Missouri. Against the Tigers, he ran for a 25-yard touchdown, caught five passes for 45 yards and returned a kickoff 97 yards for a score.
Oct. 13, at Alabama
Key: Play perfectly
This might seem a little too general, but it’s true. Alabama is the favorite to win the league and the College Football Playoff yet again. Though the Crimson Tide replaces 11 starters, Nick Saban’s coaching staff recruits the top players in the country and will always have talent to plug in holes. By this point in the season, that talent will be experienced.
This is the one game on MU’s schedule that the Tigers seem to have no shot of winning — unless everything breaks their way. That will start with keeping Drew Lock upright, so he has a chance to make big plays against a Bama secondary that replaces both cornerbacks and its top two safeties from a season ago.
Oct. 20, vs. Memphis
Key: Stop the running backs
Memphis is replacing one of the most productive quarterbacks in the country, Riley Ferguson, as well as his two his top receiving targets, so stifling Memphis’ running game will likely become even more important to beating the opposing Tigers. Memphis’ top two tailbacks from last season, Darrell Henderson and Patrick Taylor Jr., are both back for their junior seasons. They combined for 2,020 rushing yards last season.
Oct. 27, vs. Kentucky
Key: Make the Wildcats win through the air
Kentucky’s strength will be running the ball, as the Wildcats still have junior Benny Snell, who ran for more than 1,000 yards in each of the past two seasons. Snell doesn’t many proven offensive threats around him, though. No quarterback on the Kentucky roster has played in an FBS game, and no returning Wildcat caught more than 30 passes last season.
Mizzou should feel comfortable zeroing on the run, assuming the Tigers’ secondary is improved and the Wildcats’ passing attack is as bleak as it currently appears.
Nov. 3, at Florida
Key: Get into the backfield
Florida returns five starters from an offensive line that was coached by current MU line coach Brad Davis, but those starters are the same men who helped UF allow the most sacks in the SEC this past season (37). How much improvement can the Gators’ offense show in their first season under new head coach Dan Mullen? Last season, Mullen’s offense at Mississippi State tied Mizzou for the last sacks allowed in the league with 13.
Nov. 10, vs. Vanderbilt
Key: Put the game away early
Mizzou faces a difficult schedule this season, and to improve its record from a season ago, the Tigers need to take care of the games they are supposed to win. This home matchup against Vanderbilt qualifies as one of those games.
Vandy has a new defensive coordinator, but the Commodores’ defense could be porous yet again after struggling mightily during SEC play a season ago. Mizzou has the offensive weapons to quickly bury Vandy with big plays, just as the Tigers did last year, when they led the Commodores 35-0 at the half.
Nov. 17, at Tennessee
Key: Own the line of scrimmage
Tennessee will have an inexperienced offensive line that struggled a season ago, when it allowed the most tackles for loss (64) and sacks (32) in league play.
On defense, new head coach Jeremy Pruitt is transitioning the Vols into a 3-4 defensive front (three down linemen and four linebackers). With this being Pruitt’s first year, the scheme change might come with some growing pains.
Nov. 23, vs. Arkansas
Key: Force three-and-outs
The Razorbacks are transitioning into an up-tempo spread attack under new head coach Chad Morris, but their personnel better fits a pro-style offense focused on pounding the ball, the style former head coach Bret Bielema preferred.
So Arkansas should at struggle to play the way Morris wants next season, which means they could record plenty quick and empty drives, the sort that sometimes plagued Missouri in Josh Heupel’s spread offense. If Mizzou can force Arkansas into enough quick three-and-outs, the Tigers’ offense will face a tired Razorback defense, and this could be a blowout.