Mizzou-Vanderbilt Game Preview

SECThe 4-0 Missouri Tigers begin their Southeastern Conference schedule on Saturday at Vanderbilt University in Nashville.

It’s an exciting time to be a Mizzou fan, with the program really finding its stride going into its second season of SEC play. Compared to last season, the Tigers have improved on the non-conference performance in almost every statistical measure.

The proof: Missouri rushed for 1,049 yards in its past four games, up from just 596 yards against non-conference opponents last season. The Tigers’ 6.2 average per rushing attempt casts a shadow over their 3.9 nonconference average from a season ago, and in terms of total offense, Mizzou’s 2,196 yards against nonconference opponents trumps the 1,600 yards of 2012.

These improvements have catapulted the Tigers onto the national stage. Senior quarterback James Franklin has Mizzou’s offense ranked eighth in the NCAA in total offense (549.0 ypg), eighth nationally in scoring offense (45.5 ppg) and sixth nationally in third-down conversion rate (57.4%).  The Tigers rank ninth in the nation in fewest penalties per outing. In all, Missouri is the only school in the country with four players who have rushed for 215-plus yards (Franklin and tailbacks Henry Josey, Russell Hansbrough and Marcus Murphy).

Hansbrough almost secured the third 100-yard performance of his career last week against Arkansas State when the sophomore ran for 96 yards on eight carries. As usual, the other members of the Tiger backfield also contributed. Josey ran for 52 yards, Murphy added 45 more, and Franklin combined 33 yards on the ground with 255 in the air and four total touchdowns.

The 41-19 defeat of Arkansas State was the 94th win for Gary Pinkel as Missouri head coach. With the victory, Pinkel moved into sole possession of No. 2 in Missouri history, passing the legendary Dan Devine, who won 93 games from 1958-1970. Pinkel is just seven wins shy of tying Don Faurot (101 wins) for the most wins in school history.

The next opponent in Pinkel’s way of history is the Commodores, who improved to 3-2 overall with a 52-24 win at home vs. UAB on Sept. 28. Saturday’s matchup will be the sixth meeting between Missouri and Vanderbilt in a matchup that dates back to 1895 (Mizzou won 16-0 in its sixth season of football that year). The series has been historically knotted, with both teams splitting 2-2-1 records against the other.

To get a win, Vanderbilt will have to deal with Missouri’s defense, which hasn’t been easy for anyone in 2013.  The past two SEC Defensive Line Players of the Week have been Mizzou Tigers: Kony Ealy grabbed the award two weeks ago, and Michael Sam earned it this past week. Sam, a senior, notched a career-high 3.0 sacks against Arkansas State and also forced a fumble. The 3.0 sacks ties the NCAA single-game high through Sept. 28 this season, and Sam leads the SEC in tackles for loss average per game.

The relentless Tiger attack had led also to spectacular play in the secondary. Missouri has recorded 10 interceptions so far this season, which is the second most in the NCAA and already three more than last year’s total of seven. Eight different Tigers have snatched down a pick this season, with senior cornerback E.J. Gaines leading the way with three. Gaines’ interception against Arkansas State was the sixth of his career; he is the active leader in that category. His interception on Saturday night pushed Missouri’s consecutive games streak with a turnover to 34, which is the longest active streak in the country.

Conversely, the Tiger defense made its living in 2012 by jarring the ball loose from opponents, as Mizzou recovered 16 fumbles in 12 games. That trend should resurface again if linebacker Andrew Wilson continues his tackling crusade.  As Mizzou’s leading tackler the past two seasons, Wilson recorded a career-high 17 tackles against Arkansas State. That total ties the second-highest single game tackles in the Gary Pinkel era, right behind linebacker Sean Weatherspoon’s 20 stops registered in 2008 against Buffalo.

All this firepower on defense has cleared the way for the Tigers’ offense and given them the opportunity to put points on the board. The offense has not disappointed. Much of this can be contributed to the ascension of sophomore Dorial Green-Beckham into the heights of elite wide receivers. The former number one recruit in the nation has blossomed this season, scoring four touchdowns in five games. Green-Beckham set multiple career highs against Indiana on Sept. 21, including the 105 yards on eight catches he reeled in. Green-Beckham caught four balls for 95 yards and two touchdowns against Arkansas State. He is quickly becoming one of Franklin’s favorite targets.

A win against Vanderbilt would make Mizzou 5-0 for the seventh time in 13 seasons under Coach Pinkel.  The last time Mizzou started 5-0 was 2010, a year that brought the Tigers a Big 12 North Co-Championship and a 10-3 record.

The victory would propel the Tigers to a 1-0 conference start and drop the Commodores to 0-3 in the SEC.

Kickoff is set for 6:30 p.m. CT and will be broadcasted on KQFX in Columbia.