AUBURN, Ala. — Yes, this is the first time this season the War Eagle Extra blog has posted its Q&A with an opposing beat writer on Friday morning instead of Thursday evening. (Not that it changed the format, though.) Regardless, we welcome in Tod Palmer (@todpalmer), who covers Missouri for The Kansas City Star, a sister paper in the McClatchy Company chain. He took time to answer five questions about the (other) Tigers before they arrived in Atlanta for Saturday's SEC Championship game.
Ryan Black: No team — not even mighty Alabama — has been able to find a way to stop Auburn's ground game during its eight-game win streak. Does Missouri think it will be the team to hit upon the right solution? Or do they seem to think they'll have to put up with Auburn gaining yards, while placing more focus on keeping points off the board?
Tod Palmer: Missouri likes its defense and with good reason. Missouri has been very good against the run in particular, ranking third in the SEC and 14th in the nation allowing 119.1 yards per game. Only two opponents have rushed for more than 134 yards against Missouri all season. Of course, coach Dave Steckel’s defense also hasn’t faced a ground assault quite like Auburn’s either.
Especially during the last eight games, Auburn’s run stats are amazing, but obviously Missouri believes it can succeed — or at the very least hold up better — than other teams have. There is a feeling that Auburn might pile up some yards, but Missouri has been terrific in the red zone. Still, I don’t think Missouri will simply roll over between the 20s and let Auburn beat it up physically. Missouri has some very talented, hyper athletic defensive ends — four of them, in fact, led by All-American candidate Michael Sam, who leads the SEC in sacks (10.5) and tackles for a loss (18). Kony Ealy, Markus Golden and Shane Ray are physical freaks and big-time playmakers too.
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That said, I think the key for Missouri is how it’s interior line holds up. Again, there is depth at defensive tackle and nose guard with Matt Hoch, Josh Augusta, Lucas Vincent and Harold Brantley — all of whom have had brilliant moments during the season. More importantly, that group, which gives up some mass week in and week out, has done a great job holding firm at the line of scrimmage. Those guys don’t get blown off the ball very often, which allows Missouri’s linebackers — most notably hard-hitting senior Andrew Wilson — to fill those interior gaps. In many ways, that’s where the game will be decided.
Black: Auburn's defensive players and coaches know the height of Missouri's receivers put them at a significant disadvantage heading into Saturday. And Auburn's difficulties defending the pass this season have been well-documented. So do you foresee Missouri implementing a pass-happy game plan this weekend?
Palmer: I don’t see Missouri changing its offense. Throughout the season, Missouri has been exceptionally balanced between the run and pass. Missouri has racked up 2,843 yards and 31 touchdowns on the ground compared to 3,031 yards and 27 touchdowns through the air. I don’t see Missouri abandoning its ground game because it’s been productive.
Besides, as a result of Missouri’s effectiveness running the football, teams often are forced to play one-on-one coverage outside against 6-foot-4 senior L’Damian Washington, who has 44 catches for 824 yards and 10 touchdowns, and 6-foot-6 sophomore Dorial Green-Beckham, who has 49 catches for 686 yards and 10 TDs. Senior Marcus Lucas, a 6-foot-5 brute who caught 50 passes for 596 yards during the regular season, provides a steady, sturdy target in the slot.
Obviously, Missouri’s first-year offensive coordinator (Josh Henson) is savvy enough to keep working the passing game if Auburn is going to let that trio roam free, but I don’t expect the game plan to suddenly shift from slightly predominantly balanced to exceedingly pass-happy. The run game has been good to Missouri and produced plenty of big plays, especially from junior Henry Josey.
Black: Name a player who isn’t a household name on both offense/defense for Missouri who could end up being the difference in determining Saturday’s outcome. Please explain your reasoning in a few short sentences.
Palmer: How about Josey on offense? He missed the entire 2012 season after recovering from a gruesome knee injury he suffered against Texas in November 2011. SEC fans probably won’t be familiar with his name as a result, but he’s a game-breaker — ask Texas A&M, which saw him burst 57 yards for the game-winning touchdown in the fourth quarter last Saturday. Josey, who had 1,168 yards and was averaging 8.1 yards per carry at the time of his injury, leads Missouri with 153 carries, 951 yards and 13 touchdowns. He’s a tough kid and a fun player to watch in addition to an inspiration for Missouri’s team and fans after an extensive recovery to return to the field.
Defensively, I’m going to presume that fans know Sam and senior cornerback E.J. Gaines, who shut down Texas A&M’s stud receiver Mike Evans for four catches and eight yards last weekend. Missouri’s leading tackler is Wilson, who seems to fly under the radar a bit more. He has 87 tackles on the season despite missing a game because of a targeting ejection. Wilson has won Missouri’s Hammer Award, given to the biggest hitter on the squad, all four years of his career. (The Tigers’ annual awards banquet was Sunday and he won it as a freshman despite playing primarily special teams.) Wilson drew spy duty against Johnny Manziel last week, helping to limit the Aggies star and reigning Heisman Trophy winner to the lowest total offense he’s produced in any start in his college career.
Black: How much did last season’s struggles surprise you? Obviously, no one expected Missouri to win the SEC East, but many felt they were the “better” of the two new additions to the conference, only to see Texas A&M become the new “it” team in college football. And as a follow-up, how did you forecast Missouri to fare this year when the season first started?
Palmer: Missouri had set the bar pretty high the last five seasons in the Big 12, going 48-19 and winning at least a share of the Big 12 North Division three times. People who think Missouri came from nowhere this year haven’t been paying close attention to the recent college football landscape. Obviously, going 5-7 and having its seven-year bowl streak snapped was a shock to the system. There were also some tough losses — versus Vandy by 5, at Florida by a touchdown and on a late drive by Syracuse — that made it an even more bitter pill to swallow.
However, considering the injuries the Tigers had, it wasn’t shocking. Quarterback James Franklin was hurt much of the season and Missouri opted not to pull Maty Mauk’s redshirt. Half of Missouri’s two-deep along the offensive line also got injured, which not only took talent of the field but creating an ever-shifting mix up front that never developed cohesion. Most objective folks around here thought 8-4 was realistic, probably the ceiling among fans and media types was a 10-win season with a little luck and a bowl victory. Obviously, Missouri blew that out of the water.
Black: I have to end on the hot topic of the week: Do you think this game should serve as a de facto “BCS semifinal game,” with the winner heading to the national championship contest? Or do you believe it would be unfair to keep Ohio State from punching its ticket to Pasadena, Calif., as long as it tops Michigan State to remain unbeaten?
Palmer: I don’t think the winner deserves an automatic berth into the BCS Championship, no. If Florida State and Ohio State win, under the current system with all its warts and flaws, perfection should be rewarded. That doesn’t mean Auburn or Missouri wouldn’t have a chance to beat either team in a title game. For that matter, Alabama could beat all four teams on any given day.
It’s easy to say — perhaps believe or even just know in your gut — that the Seminoles and Buckeyes wouldn’t have survived the SEC gauntlet. It’s a fair argument, but it’s also purely speculative. We might think those teams would have stumbled at least once in the SEC, but who’s to say Auburn or Missouri wouldn’t have been tripped up against Wisconsin or Michigan State. If the shoe was on the other foot, in an era where Michigan and Nebraska and Penn State were still elite programs, SEC fans would be outraged if their team was passed over for a one-loss team from another conference.
All that said, Sparty could squash a lot of arguments by beating Ohio State. If that happens, the SEC absolutely has earned the right for its one-loss champion to move to the head of the class.