Tigers bowl bound?

Trip to the Cotton Bowl
could be in the future
Thursday, September 2, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 4:46 a.m. CDT, Monday, June 30, 2008

The spotlight returned to the Missouri football program this season, with the team ranked in preseason polls for the first time since 1980. The team has a Heisman Trophy candidate at quarterback and nine starters back on defense, creating high expectations for the team.

Many questions remain, though, and here are 20 Missourian reporters have tried to answer.

1. Should Tiger fans worry about any of the three nonconference games?

Yes. Missouri could struggle playing against Troy University on a Thursday night. The Tigers will have four days of rest and with the game televised on ESPN2, it will serve as Troy’s chance to make a name for itself.

2. Can Missouri’s defense stop the run?

The Tiger run defense will be better than the 167.2 yards per game they allowed in 2003. They have changed base defenses from a 4-2-5 to a 4-3. Still, Missouri might struggle to stop Kansas State’s Darren Sproles who ran for 273 yards against MU.

3. Has the corps of wide

receivers improved?

Yes. With the emergence of true freshman William Franklin and sophomore Andrew Hoskins, the wide receiver corps is deeper than a year ago. Returning starters Sean Coffey, Thomson Omboga and Brad Ekwerekwu also appear to have improved.

4. With those receivers, can the Tigers pass for 200 yards a game?

Yes. Quarterback Brad Smith worked on his accuracy and strength in the offseason and the Tigers devoted the majority of scrimmage time to the passing game. The maturing of Coffey and Ekwerekwu and a deep tight end position should make this possible.

5. Who will rush for more yards, Damien Nash or Marcus Woods?

Because he is likely to get the majority of carries, Nash will take this one. Although Woods has shown good speed and an ability to explode for big gains, Nash has experience and played well during the preseason. If Nash’s knee injury from 2002 becomes a problem, Woods is more than capable of stepping in.

6. Will James Kinney become the Tigers’ alltime leading tackler?

Kinney, a senior linebacker, needs 94 tackles to pass DeMontie Cross’ record of 415. Considering Kinney had 147 tackles last season, he should easily surpass that number. If he makes 11 tackles a game like he did a year ago, Kinney should set the mark against Kansas State on Nov. 6.

7. Which Tiger has the best name?

For the second straight year, Ekwerekwu comes in second. Freshman defensive end Stryker Sulak’s name strikes fear in opposing quarterbacks’ hearts.

8. Which newcomer will have the biggest impact?

Although redshirt freshman Martin Rucker will get a lot of catches, sophomore David Richard will significantly improve the linebackers. He gives the Tigers their most athletic group of linebackers since coach Gary Pinkel started at Missouri. He also makes the defense more versatile against multiple formations.

9. Can the Tigers improve on the road?

Considering the Tigers went 2-5 away from Memorial Stadium in 2003, it’s not that difficult to go up from there. The Tigers have road games against Troy, lowly Baylor and Iowa State. That gives the Tigers at least three road wins. Winning at Texas and Nebraska, though, presents quite a challenge.

10. Can Missouri repeat an undefeated home season?

The main stumbling block will be the Kansas State game. Oklahoma State has lost some key players but remains a formidable opponent.

11. Will the Tigers snap an 11-game losing streak against Kansas State?

This looks like the biggest game of the season for the Tigers. Kansas State is ranked No. 12 in the AP poll. Stopping Sproles will be the key to this game, but after snapping a 23-game losing streak at home against Nebraska last season, Pinkel will look to end another ugly streak.

12. At what position are the Tigers the deepest?

Pinkel said he wants to see his tight ends get the ball more and this crew is capable of doing that. Rucker, Sesay and Clint Matthews played well in the preseason, and although the No. 1 spot on the depth chart went to Rucker, look to see all of the tight ends making plays.

13. At what position are the Tigers the weakest?

A long place kicker battle during the preseason displayed that there is no standout at this position. For the third straight year Alex Pettersen lost his job to a walk-on. Joe Tantarelli took the first position on the depth chart.

14. Who is the most likely freshman to shed the redshirt by the end of the year?

Besides Franklin, who is on the Tigers’ two-deep depth chart, Sulak and running back Tony Temple have the best chances to shed their redshirts. If the Missouri defense needs a boost in the pass rush, Sulak was constantly in the offensive backfield in the preseason.

15. What is the Tigers biggest concern?

No offense to Brandon Coleman, but Missouri’s high hopes are dependent on Smith staying in the lineup and causing nightmares for opposing defenses.

16. Who most resembles a professional athlete?

Freshman quarterback Mack Breed could do stunts for Kobe Bryant. Offensive lineman Tyler Luellen not only owns a Jeremy Shockey jersey, but his long hair makes him close to a dead ringer for the New York Giants tight end.

17. Will the defense force more turnovers?

The Tigers weren’t horrible last year here, with 24 turnovers, but they will force more this year. More athleticism at linebacker with Richard and Dedrick Harrington, along with an experienced secondary should produce more.

18. Should Missouri be mentioned in with BCS bowls?

Probably not, but a few big wins could change this. Taking a win from Texas in Austin and beating Kansas State would put the Tigers right in the middle of BCS talk.

19. Will Brad Smith win the Heisman?

Although Smith is one of the most dangerous players in the college game, he will need to have 2,000 yards passing and 1,000 yards rushing for the second time in his career to be considered. Smith accomplished this in 2002 and fell 23 passing yards short last season. Missouri will need some big wins to push Smith’s performance into the spotlight.

20. What will Missouri’s record be and will they make a bowl?

A big home win against Kansas State will improve the Tigers by one win from last season to 9-2 overall, 6-2 in conference and should put them into the Big 12 Conference championship game. Games at Texas and Nebraska will count as losses, and the Tigers will fall to Oklahoma in the Big 12 title game. Look for the Tigers to play in the Cotton Bowl on Jan. 1.

—S. Scott Rosenberg, Matt Schweiger, Jamie Wachter.

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