The Tigers have come to the end of the easy part of their 2007 schedule and must now test themselves against the powers of the Big 12 Conference. Frankly, I'm a little concerned.
MU squares off Saturday against Missouri Valley Conference member Illinois State and, barring some dramatic setback, should cruise to a 4-0 start on the 2007 season. Although it's nice to watch the Tigers drop bombs on Western Michigan and Mississippi, I'm worried that the defense will be unable to stop the supercharged offenses of the Big 12.
The Tigers are ranked 97th in the nation in total defense and have allowed an average of 160 yards rushing to their first three opponents. Breaking the defense down into components, MU is listed as 75th in rushing and, perhaps more problematic, 104th in passing yards. The team's bend-but-don't-break philosophy has worked well in the three victories, but it's obvious that the Tigers live and die by their offense.
Through the first three weeks, the Tigers have outscored their opponents by a total of 130-80 and are ranked No. 10 in passing and No. 19 in scoring offense. The team has amassed a staggering 1,036 passing yards and junior quarterback Chase Daniel has thrown 10 touchdowns to just two interceptions. The Tigers are a pass-happy team, as displayed in the number of passing plays compared to rushes. So far, MU has called passing plays on nearly 60 percent of its snaps, a fairly large amount resulting from an average margin of victory of 15.6 points. It appears as though the Tigers are either unwilling or unable to run out the clock using the running game.
Conference play is quickly approaching, and this season's schedule provides quite a test for the Tigers defense. Missouri has been presented with some fierce opponents, including Oklahoma, Nebraska, Texas Tech and Texas A&M, who all display explosive offenses capable of tearing the Tigers defense to shreds. Oklahoma and Texas Tech will be the greatest challenges. The Sooners are the nation's No. 1 scoring offense and rank third in the total offense category. Also, Texas Tech continues to display its yearly aerial arsenal and sits second in college football in passing offense and third in total offense. Nebraska and Texas A&M will also present unique match-up problems.
As the level of competition increases, MU can't continue to rely solely on the offense to win games. For the Tigers to have any chance to truly compete in the Big 12, the much-maligned defense will have to step up and avoid the problems that have bothered the unit through the first weeks of the season. They must reduce the amount of red-zone touchdowns allowed while figuring out how to stop the unit from fading in games. A big warning sign of a worn-out defense is MU's performance in the second half of games. Missouri has allowed opponents to score 71 percent of their points after halftime, suggesting relaxed play calling or fatigue.
The Tigers have the tools and the talent to continue their quest to become the cream of the conference. But with one non-conference game remaining, MU must work out the kinks and prepare for the true battle, a fight for the Big 12 title and a BCS bowl game.