Missouri cruised to a 40-13 victory over Wyoming last season in the first-ever meeting between the two schools. But the challenge will be steeper on Saturday night, as the Tigers will be just the second SEC team ever to venture into Wyoming’s oxygen-starved War Memorial Stadium, which sits 7,215 feet above sea level. Ole Miss was the other SEC squad to make that trip back in 2004. A matchup that ended poorly for the Rebels in a 37-32 loss.
Unfortunately, a lack of oxygen isn’t the only obstacle facing Missouri heading into Saturday night’s season opener in Wyoming. The possibility of a postseason ban still hovers over the program like a dark cloud and star quarterback Drew Lock has moved on to the NFL.
That said, Mizzou has managed to overcome its share of adversity in recent years, improving each season under the direction of head coach Barry Odom. A trend that is likely to continue thanks to the addition of Clemson transfer Kelly Bryant at quarterback to go along with a wealth of returning talent on both sides of the football.
Wyoming head coach Craig Bohl, who previously took FCS powerhouse North Dakota State to unprecedented heights, is now attempting to take the Cowboys to the top of the Mountain West. So far, the results have been promising. Wyoming certainly had its struggles last season. However, a four-game winning streak to close out the 2018 campaign produced a 6-6 finish and provides both optimism and momentum entering the new campaign. Question marks remain, particularly on offense, but a strong nucleus returns for a defense that ranked 19th nationally last season.
Missouri at Wyoming
Kickoff: Saturday, Aug. 31 at 7:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Missouri -17.5
When Missouri Has the Ball
All eyes will be on Kelly Bryant in his first start for Missouri at quarterback. While Bryant will be hard-pressed to match Drew Lock as a prolific passer, he is more than serviceable in that regard. He’s also far more dangerous with his feet than Lock. But Bryant’s best asset for Saturday night’s matchup against Wyoming comes in the form of a talented supporting cast.
Pass protection should not be an issue playing behind a strong offensive line that returns three starters from last season. Quality targets will be plentiful with Johnathon Johnson and Jalen Knox headlining a stacked group of wide receivers. Arkansas transfer Jonathan Nance should help fill the deep-threat role vacated by Emanuel Hall. And Bryant has an All-American-caliber tight end at his disposal in Albert Okwuegbunam. The cherry on top is a potent complementary ground attack, spearheaded by junior running back Larry Rountree III, who rushed for 1,216 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2018.
Of course, there will be some legitimate challenges for Bryant and company to overcome on Saturday night as well. In addition to contending with the altitude and thin Wyoming air, the Mizzou offense will be paired against a pretty stout Cowboy defense, led by talented four-year starter and leading tackler Logan Wilson at linebacker. Tyler Hall and Antonio Hull provide the Wyoming secondary with an experienced pair of defensive backs to help combat the Tigers through the air.
When Wyoming Has the Ball
Wyoming enters Saturday night’s matchup in search of answers on offense. Running back Nico Evans, who led the Mountain West in rushing last season, has exhausted his eligibility. Speedy sophomore Xazavian Valladay will look to fill the void, along with Louisville transfer Trey Smith and true freshman Titus Swen.
The Wyoming offensive line is anchored by sophomore center Keegan Cryder, who earned Freshman All-American honors last season. But the Cowboys' young O-line features just one upperclassman in the starting five. That doesn’t exactly bode well against the Missouri defensive front.
The biggest question mark for the Wyoming offense lies in the passing game, which was almost non-existent last season. The good news is that the Cowboys think they have the answer in redshirt freshman Sean Chambers. Chambers took over the starting quarterback job late last season, sparking the Cowboy offense with three consecutive 100-yard rushing performances before breaking his leg against Air Force. He also helped jump-start a four-game winning streak to close out the season.
The only problem is that we only got to see a small sample of Chambers' passing abilities. He attempted just 25 passes but did post a stellar 60 percent completion rate for 266 yards with three touchdowns and zero interceptions.
While Chambers may just be the cure-all for Wyoming's lackluster passing attack, the Missouri defense is going to make him prove it on Saturday night. Look for Mizzou to stack the box to stifle the Cowboys' ground attack, forcing the young signal-caller to rely on his arm to carry the Wyoming offense. Chambers' success (or lack thereof) in that regard will go a long way in deciding just how competitive the Cowboys will be in this matchup.
The long road trip to Laramie, coupled with the high altitude of War Memorial Stadium will likely have some adverse effects on Missouri. But it will not be enough to narrow the wide gap in talent and experience between these two teams. Wyoming simply has too many question marks on offense, and it's a lot to ask of a redshirt freshman quarterback to carry the load against an SEC defense, even if he is extremely gifted. The Cowboys are solid defensively, but that was also the case last season, and the Missouri offense still torched them for more than 600 yards and five touchdowns.
Prediction: Missouri 37, Wyoming 16
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.