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Breaking down Missouri vs. West Virginia

Missouri visits West Virginia Saturday at noon ET, the first Southeastern Conference foe to open a season in Morgantown in 54 years. To preview the game, college football reporters Sam Khan and Mitch Sherman offer analysis:

How to beat Missouri: Test the Tigers’ inexperienced offensive line by being aggressive and varied up front. Only one of Missouri’s five starting offensive linemen has started an FBS game, so it will likely take that unit time to jell. Pressure sophomore quarterback Drew Lock early and often and make him prove that he can beat you -- something he didn’t do last season when thrown into the fire as a true freshman. And capitalize on the handful of scoring opportunities that arise because Mizzou’s defense might not allow many. If West Virginia can hit 30 points, the Tigers likely won’t keep up.— Khan

How to beat West Virginia: Exploit the weak points of a young defense. The Mountaineers rebounded nicely on the defensive side a year ago, allowing 24.6 points and fewer than 400 yards per game -- good numbers in the wide-open Big 12. But WVU endured significant losses at all levels of the defense and may be ripe for a relapse to 2014, when it struggled to defend the pass. An August injury to junior safety Dravon Askew-Henry further leaves the Mountaineers open to sustain damage on pass defense. If Noble Nwachukwu can’t pressure Lock, the back eight defensively may not fare well Saturday. — Sherman

How Missouri beats you: By keeping the game low-scoring and winning field position. The Tigers have an elite defense, starting with a talented defensive line led by Charles Harris (18.5 tackles for loss last season). They have a pair of talented veteran linebackers (Michael Scherer, Donavin Newsom) who complement that front and an experienced secondary. Plus, there's plenty of defensive acumen on the sideline: head coach Barry Odom was Mizzou’s defensive coordinator last season and he brought over DeMontie Cross from TCU -- where the Horned Frogs were top 20 in the Power 5 in yards per play allowed -- to take his place. If the Mizzou offense shows some improvement, the Tigers can steal a win by keeping the Mountaineers under 24 points. — Khan

How West Virginia beats you: With offensive balance. A year ago, the Moutaineers and QB Skyler Howard threw for 251 yards per game and rushed for nearly 230. Gone is 1,500-yard rusher Wendell Smallwood, but Rushel Shell, who led WVU on the ground two years ago, is a solid runner -- and Howard’s top targets, Shelton Gibson and Daikiel Shorts, return. In fact, West Virginia returns so much offensively, including perhaps the Big 12’s best line, that’s it tough to envision anything but improvement on that side of the ball. — Sherman

Missouri X-factor: Can the Tigers get the running game going? When Mizzou has been at its best in recent years, it has had a steady, productive running game. That wasn’t the case last season when the Tigers averaged a mere 109 rushing yards per game against Power 5 conference competition (that was sixth-worst among Power 5 teams). Ish Witter, the Tigers’ 2015 rushing leader (518 yards), returns but is joined by Oklahoma graduate transfer Alex Ross, who is expected to make an impact immediately. Taking pressure off of Lock means the Tigers need to have success running the football. — Khan

West Virginia’s X-factor: Howard. The senior quarterback, of course, powers the WVU offense. But the Mountaineers need more consistency from him this year. Howard completed 54.8 percent of his throws a year ago, the lowest among starting quarterbacks in the Big 12, and he threw 14 interceptions, one off the league high. Alas, WVU expects its QB to build on the momentum gained in the Cactus Bowl as he carved the Arizona State defense to the tune of 532 yards and five touchdowns. That’s the guy who can lead West Virginia to its first nine-win season since 2011. — Sherman

Predictions

Khan: The Tigers’ defense is legit but West Virginia can score and I think they’ll do so just enough to keep the game out of reach for the Missouri offense. I expect some offensive improvement for the Tigers this season, but not enough to beat the Mountaineers on the road on Saturday. West Virginia 31, Missouri 20.

Sherman: Missouri’s strength is its defensive front. West Virginia’s strength is its offensive line. The Mountaineers are a man down, with guard Adam Pankey suspended for the opener, but Howard and Shell will find space and time to generate a bit of offense. And the Tigers aren’t refined enough to capitalize on WVU’s defensive weaknesses. West Virginia 23, Missouri 21