Each week at TideNation we will speak with a writer who covers one of Alabama's 2012 opponents. Today we spoke with Dave Matter, who covers all things Missouri for the Columbia Daily Tribune. He's the co-author of The Mizzou Fan's Survival Guide to the SEC.
Question: It's the place everyone starts and I'll be no different: How do you see Missouri's transition to the SEC going in Year 1?
Matter: Missouri has the roster to compete in 2012, especially in the Eastern Division. Having a returning starting quarterback is crucial assuming James Franklin will be fully recovered from shoulder surgery he underwent in March. The Tigers return enough first-team talent and experience on both sides of the ball to compete with the best teams in the SEC East, —but I'’m not convinced they have the depth to win the division while going through the grind of the SEC schedule. There will be some adjustments against the typical style of offense in the league, but Missouri has historically played better against physical, run-first, pro-style offenses, on the rare occasion it faced that kind of attack in the Big 12. Texas would be the best example of late, and MU had its best defensive game of the year last season against Texas.
Question: For those that don't already know, James Franklin has been a prolific passer for the Tigers. What kind of year do you expect for him in 2012?
Matter: It all depends on his recovery from shoulder surgery. He suffered a tear on his labrum in his right throwing shoulder during the first week of spring practices and opted for surgery a week later. At last check, Gary Pinkel said Franklin should be available for the start of the season. As a first-year starter last year, he was more accurate and efficient than MU’'s offensive staff expected, especially with the deep ball. His passing numbers were better in most categories than Blaine Gabbert (first-round pick in 2011) from the previous season. He'’s got a soft touch on the short and intermediate throws and rarely makes poor decisions, especially against pressure or on the run. Lots of unanswered variables with Franklin this year in the SEC, starting with the health and strength of his throwing arm. But when healthy, he's a genuine dual threat weapon who can be tricky for defenses.
Question: The defense lost quite a bit on the defensive line from last year. How do they rebound?
Matter: Missouri must replace three starters from the line, but the silver lining is that the D-line underachieved for stretches last season, the pass rush especially. Replacing the production of nose tackle Dominique Hamilton won’t be easy. He was the line'’s best run-stuffer and a first-team All-Big 12 pick. Departed defensive end Jacquies Smith made his share of clutch plays on one edge, but the depth at end is still strong. Brad Madison, a preseason All-Big 12 pick last year, played the entire season with a torn labrum that needed offseason surgery. He should be more productive this fall. Ends Michael Sam, Kony Ealy, Brayden Burnett and Shane Ray should all see time, too. The interior positions are where MU lacks depth. Sheldon Richardson, a former heralded high school and junior college recruit, played well in stretches last season, but he’ll need a big year to live up to all the promise that surrounded his recruiting.
Question: Give me your argument for Missouri beating Alabama?
Matter: A lot, if not everything, has to go in Missouri'’s favor, starting with a home crowd that'’s capable of creating an electric environment, especially at night. Also, Missouri’'s defensive front seven must match Alabama'’s physical play in the trenches and force the Tide to throw more than they’'d like. Offensively, MU needs some production out of its running game so James Franklin isn'’t forced to throw all day and doesn'’t become a sitting duck against Saban'’s blitzes.
Question: And, now, what are some obstacles that might keep that from happening?
Matter: The Tigers don'’t have a chance if they become one-dimensional on offense or struggle in pass protection. Few Big 12 defenses could consistently cover all five receivers in MU'’s empty backfield formations, but that won'’t matter in this game if Missouri doesn’t keep Franklin safe from a lethal Bama pass rush. Dave Steckel’s defense usually plays better against pro-style offenses, but any key injuries to Missouri'’s front seven during the first six weeks of the season could cripple a group that’s not very deep with experienced players.
Question: Just for fun, give us a primer on Columbia. What should fans do, stay away from, etc.?
Matter: A first-time trip to Columbia will not be complete without a slice pizza at Shakespeare’'s, wings at CJ’'s and a burger at Booches. For nightlife, I'’d recommend Shiloh Bar & Grill or Harpo’'s, both downtown locations.