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Missouri Tigers preview

Russell Hansbrough leads the Missouri ground game. Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Gary Pinkel doesn’t mind that the rest of us haven’t caught on about Missouri. The Tigers weren’t the popular pick to win the SEC East in either of the past two seasons, yet there they were in Atlanta both years. Yes, Pinkel is content just to keep his Tigers winning—and they seem poised to do just that in 2015.

Offense

How the Tigers beat you:The perception that Mizzou runs a finesse offense might have been accurate when the Tigers joined the SEC, but it isn’t the case anymore. They ran the ball 57 percent of the time last fall, riding a veteran offensive line and a three-pronged running game led by 1,084-yard rusher Russell Hansbrough. Mizzou didn’t need a big-play offense— with a plus-9 turnover margin (T-17th in the FBS), it rarely beat itself with big mistakes. With four senior starters back on the line, along with Hansbrough and Ish Witter in the backfield, the Tigers should be a run-heavy bunch again.

How you beat the Tigers: You never know what you’ll get from QB Maty Mauk. Take his performance in a 34-0 loss to Georgia, when he passed for 97 yards and 4 INTs and finished with a 1.8 QBR. Mauk must raise his 53.4 percent completion rate, and his coaches expect him to do so despite the loss of his top three wideouts (Bud Sasser, Jimmie Hunt and Darius White). “Maty’s really doing a much better job with maybe things you wouldn’t notice in the stands,” OC Josh Henson told the Columbia Daily Tribune. “More than anything, he’s really comfortable with his reads, so it’s allowed him to focus more on some little things that will make him more consistent.”

Defense

How the Tigers beat you: Missouri’s defensive end tandems were among the nation’s best in each of the past two seasons, but the star power this year will be in the middle. Harold Brantley is developing into the next great defensive player from “D-line Zou,” and Josh Augusta will be tough to move as well. With those two back along with the SEC’s top two returning tacklers, LBs Kentrell Brothers and Michael Scherer, running up the middle will be a difficult proposition. Making matters worse for opponents, Kenya Dennis leads a secondary that allowed just 6.3 yards per pass attempt in 2014, so opponents have few promising options for attacking against the Tigers.

How you beat the Tigers: In the past few seasons, Mizzou was able to overwhelm opposing offenses off the edge with defensive end combinations Kony Ealy and Michael Sam, then Shane Ray and Markus Golden. Last year Ray and Golden combined for 42½ tackles for loss and 24½ sacks. But the Tigers’ strength is now up the middle, so expect opponents to test less experienced Des like Charles Harris until the newcomers prove themselves. It will be difficult to replicate their predecessors’ production, so their immediate goal is just to prove that the position is not a liability for the Tigers.