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September 4, 2013

Powered Up: Still searching for answers

There are reasons to feel good. We saw things that you should like in Missouri's 58-14 win over Murray State.

But I said going in that I didn't expect to learn much if Missouri beat the Racers by six touchdowns. The only things you really, truly learn in games like this are negative. Kansas State learned some things last weekend. So did Iowa State and South Florida and Connecticut. Absolutely none of them were good.

Yes, the gap between FCS and FBS teams is as small as ever. Maybe not as small as the one letter in the alphabet that separates the two, but it's consistently closed over the last few years. Still, there's a gap.

Missouri shouldn't have been challenged by Murray State. It wasn't. And that's good. The discussions you're having this week are different than the ones they're having in Manhattan and Ames and Tampa and Storrs.

But still, we don't know a whole lot more about Missouri than we did before the game kicked off. That was to be expected.

For this week's commentary, I figured I'd highlight five things to feel good about and five that we're still wondering about. Keep in mind, four of the five things on the first list aren't really definitive answers in any way. But hope springs eternal in early September and the Tigers did provide some reasons to hope.

Five Things to Like

Henry Josey is back. This one has been discussed ad nauseum. It was, no matter what happened, the biggest story of Saturday's game. I had already made my mind up to write my post-game follow story on Josey's return to action. His 68-yard touchdown just made it a lot easier and a lot more fun to write. Let me be a wet blanket for a second and say that I don't know if he scores on that run against Georgia or Florida or even Vandy or Tennessee. Murray State has a different level of athlete than those teams and maybe an SEC defensive back uses the angle to bring Josey down. But no matter what, it showed Josey has the home run swing he had two years ago. For most of the second half, I was thinking that the Tigers just had to find a way to get Josey in the end zone. But the way he did it was so much more fitting than a plunge over right guard from the two-yard line. That run was just like the ones we got so used to seeing in 2011.

It's not just Josey in the backfield. Yes, again, it's Murray State. But we didn't see that kind of performance out of Russell Hansbrough at all last year. There's no doubt that Josey is the starter. But Hansbrough's a pretty nice two in the one-two punch. Marcus Murphy ain't too shabby either.

James Franklin is healthy. Probably more so than he's been at Missouri in at least two years...and maybe ever. Franklin showed everyone what those of us who watched the scrimmages knew: He's the best option at quarterback for Missouri, 2012 be damned. But let me offer up some caution here: Most of us felt pretty similarly a year ago at this time. Franklin looked good. Now he needs to do it against a Division One defense...and he has to stay on the field.

The talk about the wide receivers is more than talk. Pretty much everybody that suited up caught a pass for the Tigers. If they'd have put Justin Britt in on a tackle-eligible play, he might have caught one. Dorial Green-Beckham looked great. Jimmie Hunt scores just about half the time he touches the ball. Jaleel Clark and Darius White looked better than the sixth and seventh receivers on a team. I've had some skepticism about Gary Pinkel saying he has the best skill position group he's had since 2008. Saturday night made me believe him a little bit more.

The offensive line played well. Really, this should probably be number one. Last year, against Southeastern Louisiana, I thought the line struggled far more than it should against a middling FCS team. That didn't happen on Saturday. The Tigers dominated up front to the tune of 694 yards and eight yards per play. We never saw Mizzou's offensive front do that in 2012. Long way to go, but perhaps I've been too skeptical on this front.

Okay, I've made you feel good. But I told you I didn't think I learned much. So what questions still need answers?

Five Concerns Going Forward

The first 20 minutes of defense. Missouri was dominant in the final 40 minutes. But Murray State scored two touchdowns and missed a field goal on three drives that all reached the Tiger 20-yard line to start the game. Which segment of the game means more? I can honestly say I don't know.

How about the safety position? Braylon Webb had one interception and should have had two. But the secondary remains my biggest question mark on the team. I didn't see anything that tells me it's a major problem, but I also didn't see anything that tells me I should have no questions.

Where was Andrew Wilson? For a significant portion of the first half, Mizzou's leading tackler from last year wasn't on the field. As far as we know, he wasn't hurt. Was it just an off night? Did the Murray State scheme simply call for different personnel? Again, I'm asking the questions, which means I have no answer.

How many fourth downs will the Tigers go for? After that game, I'd say quite a few. Andrew Baggett has a big leg. He showed that on the kickoffs. But he needs a little better sense of direction right now. Pinkel said the blocked PAT was simply booted too low and a missed field goal from 30 yards is concerning. In a league that puts a premium on points, there are bound to be a couple of games that come down to a kick. Right now, there can't be much confidence Missouri would make that kick.

Was it more about Missouri or more about Murray State? Ultimately, this is the question. We don't know. Sure the Tigers looked good. But Tennessee beat Austin Peay every bit as badly and nobody expects the Vols to be a great team this year. The Racers are, most likely, the worst offensive and the worst defensive team Missouri will face all season. Does beating them by 44 points mean anything? We'll start to find out on Saturday afternoon when Toledo comes to town. The Rockets aren't world-beaters, but they're a lot better than what the Tigers saw last weekend.

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