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October 7, 2008

Missouri winning despite defensive questions

LINCOLN, Neb. It's Missouri's dirty little secret. And it may end up being the Tigers' undoing.

It's the defense. It's average.

The Tigers' scoring defense sits at No. 44 (20.0 ppg), which is solid. But the Tigers are 84th in total defense, yielding 376.6 yards per game, and 115th in pass defense (281.6 ypg).

"Yeah, there's always things to improve on," said Missouri coach Gary Pinkel after he led the Tigers to a 52-17 win at Nebraska that saw the Huskers rack up 369 yards, including 290 through the air. "I thought we did some pretty good things out there.

"They scored on our No. 2 defense at the end, but that's OK. Our (No.) Ones held them to 10 points, and they're a good offensive football team. I think they average over 35 (points). If you do good against the run, chances are people are going to throw the football a lot more."

Still, the question begs: Is Missouri's defense good enough to backstop a national championship?

Probably not. No school since 1999 has won the BCS national championship with a defense that ranked lower than 23rd in the nation. That's where Ohio State's 2002 unit ranked. That Buckeyes squad, which toppled Miami in the Fiesta Bowl, allowed 320.9 yards per game. But Ohio State compensated by ranking second in the nation in scoring defense (13.1 ppg). Last season's LSU squad that won it all had the worst scoring defense of any BCS champ in the previous nine years, ranking 17th in the nation (19.9 ppg).

While LSU's defensive scoring numbers in 2007 are similar to Missouri's, know this: Mizzou's defensive numbers figure to get worse as they wade deeper into Big 12 competition, playing against some of the best quarterbacks and top offenses in the nation.

Next up is Oklahoma State (sixth in the nation in total offense, 530.2 ypg). Then it's Texas (12th, 471.8). A season-ending game with Kansas (14th, 465.6) also figures to be a shootout. And there's a possible Big 12 Championship Game with Oklahoma (fifth, 540.0), Texas or Texas Tech (second, 583.4 ypg). In the end, Missouri's hyper-speed offense may be able to cover for any defensive shortcomings. The Chase Daniel-led attack is one of the best in the nation maybe the best. In fact, it may be the best offense in college football this decade by the time the season ends. Following the domination at Nebraska, the Tigers rank third in the nation in total offense (568.8 ypg) and second in scoring offense (53.4 ppg).

It's not all about Daniel and his spirals. It's about wide receiver Jeremy Maclin and his electrifying catches and open-field wizardry. It's about tight end Chase Coffman and his sticky hands. It's about running back Derrick Washington and his bullish running. And any fears about an overhauled line have been quelled to the point that Pinkel calls this his best offensive front in eight years in Columbia.

Defense wins championships, right? The stats of the previous nine BCS kingpins say so. Missouri ranks 84th in the nation (376.6 ypg) in total defense and 44th in scoring defense (20.0 ppg). Here's a look at where the BCS champs from 1999-2007 ranked nationally in those categories:
Team, YearTotal defense Scoring defense
LSU, 20073rd/288.8 ypg17th/19.9
Florida, 20066th/255.46th/13.5
Texas, 200510th/302.98th/16.4
USC, 20046th/279.33rd/13.0
LSU, 20031st/252.01st/11.0
Ohio State, 200223rd/320.92nd/13.1
Miami, 20016th/270.91st/9.4
Oklahoma, 20008th/278.97th/16.0
Florida State, 199919th/304.610th/15.8

Still, there figures to be one Saturday when the offense struggles and will need a pick-me-up from the defense. That most likely will come during that Oct. 18 trip to Texas. It also could occur against Oklahoma, should the teams meet for a second year in a row in the Big 12 Championship Game.

The Sooners solved Daniel and the Tigers' offense twice last season. In the regular season, the Sooners totaled 384 yards (118 rushing, 266 passing) in a 41-31 victory in Norman. In a 38-17 triumph over Mizzou in the Big 12 title game, Oklahoma rang up 375 yards (166 rushing, 209 passing). And this season's Sooners attack, led by quarterback Sam Bradford, looks to be better than Oklahoma's 2007 edition.

What ails Missouri's defense, which was 60th in the nation last season (378.9 ypg)? Some feel coordinator Matt Eberflus gambles too much. The Tigers like to blitz and stunt along the front seven.

It's a good strategy that often creates negative plays. It's also a strategy that often leaves Mizzou vulnerable to the big play. Still, it's hard to fault Eberflus' scheme, when you consider this largely is a star-less defense.

If the defense has any stars, they are linebacker Sean Weatherspoon and free safety William Moore. Weatherspoon is a big-play guy who has run back two interceptions for touchdowns. He also ranks fifth nationally in tackles (11.4 pg) and ninth in tackles for loss (1.6 pg). Moore is a special talent, a big hitter and inspirational leader who covers a lot of ground. But Moore has been hampered by a foot injury that has limited him to three games this fall.

Add it all up, and Missouri's defense may not measure up to BCS championship standards.

Tom Dienhart is the national senior writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at dienhart@yahoo-inc.com.

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