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November 13, 2013

Stretch Run: Offense

No. 9-Missouri (9-1, 5-1 SEC) begins its stretch run to an SEC East championship next Saturday against Ole Miss. While the Tigers have answered nearly every challenge thrown their way over the first ten games of the season, key questions remain. When answered, these questions could determine whether the Tigers win out into the SEC championship game -- or stumble and spend the first weekend in December at home.

Today, we start with the biggest questions surrounding the offense.

5. Will Henry Josey continue to carry the load? Through the first six games this season, Missouri didn't have one running back that dominated the workload. Of the 157 carries among the top three running backs, Josey led the way with 41-percent of all carries.

In the time since, Marcus Murphy (concussion) and Russell Hansbrough (toe) have had spells where they were limited by injuries. So, in the last four games, Josey has 60 of Missouri's 114 carries -- 53%.

In two of those games, Josey's rushing average was bolstered by big runs, but in the middle two -- South Carolina and Tennessee -- Josey was a workhorse, carrying the ball 31 total times for 153 yards. His knee seems fine, of course, and now Josey is closing in on 1,000 yards for the season. But, should Hansbrough continue to get healthy and should Murphy deal with his fumbling issues (mainly on returns), will we see more of an even distribution in the backfield? Josey is closing in on the most carries of his career (145 in ten games in 2011), but so far, he's proven to be able to carry the load.

This question isn't the most pressing, but it will be interesting to see if the staff eases back a bit on Josey or goes the other way in the two most important games of the year.

4. Can the offense stay healthy? After the Kentucky game, Gary Pinkel said his team was pretty dinged up. L'Damian Washington has a toe injury -- "The Year of the Toes," Pinkel said, citing some sort of overlooked Chinese calendar. Dorial Green-Beckham sprained his ankle, although he said he'll be fine. There are a few more injuries on the defensive side of the ball, although that group has dealt with more missed starts than the offense this year.

Missouri's offense has clicked nearly all year, and that's because all the key players have largely been healthy, James Franklin notwithstanding. That health begins and ends with Missouri's offensive line. With two teams that can put up points, Missouri's offensive line has to stay that way. Again, so far, so good, but that will always be a question after what happened in 2012.

3. Will Dorial Green-Beckham continue to take over games? Something changed in Green-Beckham against Kentucky. It seemed like after a promising start the season in non-conference play, Green-Beckham hit a road block against Vanderbilt. The Commodores' secondary bodied him -- sometimes too much -- and it appeared that Green-Beckham became frustrated. Over the next few games, his production dropped.

Again, something changed against Kentucky. He dominated that game like he's never done before, finally using his size and strength to out-muscle (and out-jump) defenders for tough receptions.

Was that the turning point for the sophomore receiver, or just a great game? There's no doubting his natural ability, but seeing Green-Beckham put everything together against the Wildcats was truly impressive. If he continues to use every aspect of that talent, Missouri's offense will have a threat that few teams can match up against.

The more poignant question, however, may be this -- Will Missouri's staff let him dominate? Pinkel said the gameplan wasn't slanted toward Green-Beckham against Kentucky. His assistants said otherwise. If the staff continues its effort to get DGB the ball more often, his numbers could jump a good deal against two defenses that have been known to struggle.

2. What becomes of Maty Mauk? There doesn't seem to be any hesitation about who the starter will be at quarterback once James Franklin is 100-percent. Following the Kentucky win, Gary Pinkel said that Franklin will regain his starting job against Ole Miss.

However, that doesn't mean Mauk gets a pat on the back and a seat on the bench. His performance over four starts wasn't always great, but he showed remarkable poise for a redshirt freshman and is fresh off his best game in college. Early in the season, the staff tried to work Mauk in for a series a game. When it did happen, the results weren't always pretty. But now Mauk is much more seasoned, and there's no doubting that he can add significant value to the offense if his name is called. Like Franklin, he's a dual-threat player, but his dual-threatness (?) is of a different variety.

Missouri won't go to a two-quarterback system. But could we see Mauk in as a change-of-pace player in certain situations? After four starts, I don't see why that couldn't be an option. The threat of making opponents prepare for both players may be a benefit in itself.

1. How will Franklin play? This isn't necessarily a fair comparison -- and it's a small sample size -- but James Franklin struggled after missing games in 2012. He missed the Arizona State game last season with a shoulder injury. Against South Carolina the following week, Franklin completed 11 of 18 passes for 92 yards, a passer rating of 104.04. He missed the second half against Vanderbilt after injuring his knee, the entire game against Alabama and the first half against Kentucky after a bye week. When he returned against Florida, Franklin completed 24 of 51 passes for 236 yards and four interceptions, a rating of 70.24

Again, it's not necessarily fair, as there were plenty more injuries that contributed to those numbers. Franklin didn't look comfortable against Florida a season ago after missing basically two games with a bye week thrown in there, too. When Franklin starts against Ole Miss, it will be 42 days -- six full weeks -- since he last threw a pass in a game.

Missouri can't afford for Franklin and the offense to start slow against a team that can put up points in a hurry. Ole Miss has gone for over 525 yards in each of its last three games, and will likely come close to that mark against Troy this Saturday. Franklin's start could determine the game itself, and his continued success at running an efficient offense could separate this season from being "Much Better Than Expected" to something even more special.

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