If you've never read the fine work being produced about Missouri athletics over at Rock M Nation, I'd encourage you to do so. I got together with CapnCribbs to chat about this weekend's game against the Tigers. Here are his answers to my questions; I'll post my answers to his questions soon.
1. First things first: How has Mizzou gone from being a lower-tier team in the conference last year to a potential national title contender this year? Obviously, being healthy has helped, but what else has Mizzou done to get so much better, so fast?
Like you've already stated, being healthy was the biggest thing. SEC fans and media both assumed that last year was kind of a preview for what Missouri would bring to the conference, but it wasn't really a fair image of the team given the circumstances involving injuries. Aside from that, it starts up front for me. The offensive line (now that it's healthy) is playing some really, really good football right now, making it easy for our quarterbacks to get the ball in the hands of our extremely talented receiving corps and opening holes for our three-headed monster of a RB committee. On the defensive side of the ball, our defensive line is playing out of this world for us right now. I think it's fair to say that the DL was one of the biggest areas of concern on this team (along with the OL honestly) but that have far exceeded expectations. I'd venture to say this defensive line is playing as well as any other DL in the SEC right now.
2. Missouri seems to have a total package on offense, even without James Franklin. The Tigers are very balanced and can beat you in many ways. How do you expect to see Mizzou attack a South Carolina defense with deficiencies at linebacker and potentially at safety?
One thing people didn't expect from our backup QB Maty Mauk was that he would successfully throw downfield, as Florida basically dared him to and he made them pay for it. I expect to see him do the same to take advantage of a questionable safety deficiency. Other than that, I'm not sure there will be much specific gameplanning against the defense aside from trying to stay the hell away from Clowney. Mizzou is very good at running the ball, be it up the middle or off tackle, so I expect our offensive coordinator Josh Henson to use that to neutralize the pass rush a bit. It helps having a QB that can use his legs to beat a defense too, so the speed option maybe something the Tigers can use to not only take some of the DE play out of the picture but also take advantage of the linebackers.
3. Part of Missouri's success has been a huge advantage in turnover differential that makes South Carolina fans jealous. Can Missouri maintain this differential over the remainder of the season?
I think a lot of the turnovers are a product of Missouri playing with a lead which goes along with what seem like pretty pedestrian pass defense numbers. When you play with a lead, teams have no choice but to throw the ball. As the famous Woody Hayes once said, "Three things can happen when you throw the ball, and two of them are bad." Mizzou has benefitted from this as it's allowed them to intercept more passes. The other major factor about turnover differential is that our defensive line is doing a fantastic job getting to the quarterback and getting the ball out of his hands. We've done an OK job of not turning the ball over ourselves, but that could change with a RS freshman QB on the field. There's reason to believe Mizzou could keep this up, but there's no guarantees with a young gun behind center.
4. If you could have any USC player other than Clowney, who would it be, and why?
Why can't we just have Clowney?!... I GUESS since you're making me pick someone else, I'd have to go with Mike Davis. The dude is an absolute bowling ball, and at only 5'-9" he's a perfect fit for Missouri's stable of short RBs. I like power runners that can run low and I think a player like that would make Missouri even MORE dangerous in the red zone to complement a passing game that boasts some pretty tall receivers.
5. Prediction: Who wins, and how?
If you asked me this a month ago, I would have told you South Carolina and anyone who disagreed with me would have been nuts. Now, I'm taking Mizzou (yes, you can call me a homer now). By no means do I think Mizzou will run away with this game, but I do think this team has played consistently enough and taken control of games in the second half. From what I've seen this season, and maybe I'm wrong, South Carolina seems to have its share of problems after halftime. I think Clowney will make things quite a bit more difficult for our young quarterback than Florida did, but I also think we'll be able to run the ball with some success. Give me Mizzou 34-28.