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July 27, 2008
THE SCHEME: The Tigers operate in a pass-oriented spread attack, but they also have running capabilities. Missouri goes without a huddle and all plays are called at the line of scrimmage. The Tigers have averaged more than 30 points in each of the past three seasons.
STAR POWER: Senior quarterback Chase Daniel rarely makes mistakes and often makes big plays. That's an attractive combination. Last season, he earned Big 12 offensive player of the year honors as well as finishing as a finalist in the Heisman Trophy voting. Daniel set several school records in '07 while passing for 4,306 yards and 33 touchdowns. He threw only 11 interceptions in 563 attempts.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: The Tigers like to involve the tight end, so true freshman Andrew Jones will be a candidate for action as an understudy to starter Chase Coffman. A four-star prospect rated the No. 2 player in the state of Missouri, Jones has good size at 6 feet 5 and 230 pounds. He had more than 150 receptions in his high school career.
IT'S HIS TIME: Two years ago, wide receiver Jared Perry caught 37 passes for 429 yards and three touchdowns as a freshman. Last season, his stats slipped significantly. The Tigers are counting on him to bounce back and be productive again. Standout receiver Jeremy Maclin will draw double coverage, and Mizzou needs the other receivers to take advantage.
STRONGEST AREA: Daniel makes quarterback an easy choice. The Tigers also bring in freshman Blaine Gabbert, a five-star prospect who is the nation's No. 1 pro-style quarterback.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: The Tigers' biggest question is along the line, where all-conference center Adam Spieker and all-Big 12 left tackle Tyler Luellen must be replaced. They had 92 career starts between them. Junior Kurtis Gregory is moving from right guard in an attempt to replace Luellen.
OVERVIEW: Not many teams have a legitimate Heisman contender. Obviously, far fewer have two. Missouri, though, has Daniel and Maclin – who last season set an NCAA freshman record with 2,776 all-purpose yards. Coffman is a third All-America candidate. Sophomore Derrick Washington or senior Jimmy Jackson should prove more-than-able successors to departed tailback Tony Temple, who posted 1,000-yard seasons in '06 and '07. The Tigers also must replace the production of tight end Martin Rucker and wide receiver Will Franklin, who combined for 133 catches and 12 touchdowns a year ago. Still, Mizzou will be fine at those spots. The line is the biggest concern. If Spieker and Luellen are adequately replaced, the Tigers' offense again projects among the nation's most explosive. If not? It likely still averages at least 30 points, anyway.
THE SCHEME: The Tigers' base defense is a 4-3, but they go to a nickel package frequently. That strategy makes sense in the wide-open Big 12.
STAR POWER: In his first two seasons, free safety William Moore was regarded as the best athlete on the team. However, he was too inconsistent on the field. Last season, he raised his performance and earned All-America honors after leading the nation with eight interceptions. Even more impressive, he got better after strong safety Cornelius "Pig" Brown suffered a season-ending injury midway through the season. Moore had five interceptions and two forced fumbles after Brown's loss. The Tigers are counting on more of the same from Moore in '08.
IMPACT NEWCOMER: Defensive end Brian Coulter signed with Florida State out of junior college in 2007 but wasn't eligible academically. This time around, he signed with Missouri. Coulter has good pass-rush skills and the Tigers have an open end spot.
IT'S HIS TIME: Junior Jaron Baston has a big standard to live up to as he steps into the starting lineup at nose tackle. He replaces Lorenzo Williams, an All-Big 12 performer who led the Tigers with 6.5 sacks. Baston had 13 tackles and no sacks in a backup role last season.
STRONGEST AREA: The secondary will be sound, and the Tigers' safety tandem of Moore and Justin Garrett may be the best in the Big 12. Both have big-play ability and are good tacklers. Carl Gettis is a returning starter at one cornerback spot. Castine Bridges, who has great size (6-2/210) and started three games last season, is expected to be the full-time starter at the other cornerback spot.
BIGGEST PROBLEM: Last season's pass rush was decent, with 31 sacks in 14 games. But the Tigers will miss Williams, who provided a big push inside. Whether Mizzou can mount a consistent pass rush without him remains to be seen. And depth at linebacker is a point of concern, too.
OVERVIEW: The Tigers' offense drew almost all of the attention last season, but Mizzou's defense wasn't bad. Five opponents were held to fewer than 20 points, including usually high-scoring Texas Tech and Arkansas. The Tigers have Moore and weakside linebacker Sean Weatherspoon, both with All-Big 12 credentials, heading a list of nine returning starters. Last season's unit ranked among the nation's top 10 with 33 forced turnovers and among the top four in the Big 12 in scoring defense, rushing defense and pass-efficiency defense. The unit could be better this season.
The Tigers' special teams figure to be among the best in the Big 12. The electrifying Maclin is a threat to score on every kick and punt return. Last season, he averaged more than 12 yards per punt return and more than 24 yards on kickoff runbacks. The Tigers had good coverage units, too. Kicker Jeff Wolfert was a Groza Award semifinalist after hitting 21 of 25 field-goal attempts last season, so the Tigers figure to be solid there. But punter could be cause for concern. Junior Jake Harry, the probable replacement for departed Adam Crossett, averaged almost 39 yards per punt two years ago in junior college, but his consistency is an issue.
By rebuilding a mundane program, Gary Pinkel is on the verge of becoming one of the hottest coaches in America. Though enduring three losing seasons in his first four years in Columbia, Pinkel's past three teams are 27-12, including 12-2 last season. Offensive coordinator Dave Christensen and defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus also are getting more notice. The Tigers have averaged more than 425 yards of offense in each of the past three seasons. Meanwhile, Eberflus' defense showed marked improvement as the '07 season progressed.
Border rival Illinois, a likely preseason top-25 team, looms for Missouri in the season-opener. Should the Tigers triumph in that one, they don't figure to be tested until a visit to Nebraska on Oct. 4. Even though Missouri routed Nebraska 41-6 a year ago, that road trip as well as one to Texas on Oct. 18 and a neutral-site game against Kansas appear to be the biggest tests this season. But the Tigers have an open date before they play Nebraska and Kansas, and catch Texas the week after the Longhorns face archrival Oklahoma, so that could be an advantage. In inter-divisional play, Mizzou trades Oklahoma (the only team to beat the Tigers last season), Texas Tech and Texas A&M for Texas, Oklahoma State and Baylor.
Not since 1969, when Missouri opened the season ranked 10th, has there been so much expectation and excitement in Columbia. That season, the Tigers finished No. 6. The potential exists for them to finish five spots higher this season. With a Heisman-contending quarterback, a big-play receiver, an experienced defense and a favorable schedule, Missouri enters the season with a legitimate shot at the national title. Mizzou never has won a national championship nor had a Heisman Trophy recipient. This season, it's not out of the question to suggest the Tigers could get both.
Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.