The Big 12 and SEC preseason rankings weren't giving these two teams much props after both programs lost top-flight quarterbacks in Drew Lock and Will Grier, respectively. But both teams want to prove that they’ll be better than the preseason prognostications would indicate.
Admittedly, neither team did themselves many favors to support their cause in week one as the Mountaineers escaped an upset bid by FCS opponent James Madison, 20-13, and the Tigers got beat at Wyoming 37-31. Both teams broke in highly-publicized transfer quarterbacks, to mixed reviews.
While there are no panic buttons being pushed just yet, this game could be a big springboard to whoever can pull a W here.
West Virginia at Missouri
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 7 at 12 p.m. ET
Spread: Missouri -12
When West Virginia Has the Ball
First off, the Mountaineers have got to hone in on their running game. With talents like Kennedy McKoy, Martell Pettaway and Leddie Brown all returning after combining for 1,871 rushing yards a year ago, this is a stable of backs with a ton of potential. But the offensive line got dominated by James Madison as the Dukes held the Neers to just 34 yards on the ground last Saturday. By contrast, Wyoming ran for 297 yards on this Tigers defense. It will be interesting to see if the 'Neers can exploit that.
WVU also has to unleash Austin Kendall. The Oklahoma transfer didn't have a terrible opener vs. JMU (going 27 for 43 passing), but despite having a strong arm the play-calling kept him close to the vest. Kendall’s longest completion of the game was 41 yards, but it came on a five-yard crossing pattern which Tevin Bush turned into a big gainer. Other than George Campbell’s 28-yard touchdown, there were no other completions that went 20-plus yards. Look for fewer dink-and-dunks and more stretching of the field from the Mountaineers on Saturday.
I know this doesn’t exactly fall under the heading of "when West Virginia has the ball" but the Mountaineer special teams played a huge part of the win over James Madison, including pouncing on a muffed punt, blocking a field goal (Darius Stills), and clogging up the Dukes’ returners all game long. As you know, these early-season games are notorious for having the special teams part of the game being integral in deciding who wins.
When Missouri Has the Ball
Numbers-wise Bryant had a decent debut for the Black and Old Gold, going 31-for-48 and 423 yards. The former Clemson starter distributed the ball well with seven different receivers finishing with three catches or more. His comfort level was pretty good too, despite a few poor decisions and all the hype that went with his transfer from the defending national champions. I’m sure Bryant and his coaches have taken note that James Madison threw for 300 yards on that Mountaineer defense, so excuse Kelly if he is licking his chops in relation to Saturday's matchup.
As mentioned above, the Dukes controlled the lines on both sides for most of the game vs. the Mountaineers. Despite the passing prowess it also stands to reason the Tigers will look to establish some dominance up front as well. Larry Rountree rushed for 1,216 yards last season and Tyler Badie added 437. But against Wyoming, the two backs gained just 94 yards on 31 carries. All Mizzou five O-linemen weigh 310 pounds or more, including All-SEC guard Tre’vour Wallace-Simms, so getting a push on the WVU defense should be a given, right? We’ll see if the Tigers' front can make adjustments and exert its will on the ‘Neers front seven.
After one quarter last week, Mizzou had a 14-0 lead and had outgained Wyoming 144-28. But then the turnover bug hit, receivers got the dropsies and the Tigers blew some defensive assignments. Next thing you know the Cowboys busted TD runs of 61 and 75 yards and went into halftime with a 27-17 lead despite running just 24 offensive plays. The Tigers need to stay disciplined, both offensively and defensively. It seemed almost as if Mizzou would’ve won that Wyoming game going away if they just played fundamental football.
It's hard to discern which team had the worse opener. There is no big disgrace to beat James Madison in a dogfight since the Dukes are the No. 2-ranked team in the FCS. And losing at Wyoming isn't good but the Tigers put up dominant stretches during the game when they played smart football.
My hunch is that Kelly Bryant will take better care of the offense and the Tigers will play a better brand of football this week to make amends for the opening game ills.
Prediction: Missouri 35, West Virginia 14
— Written by Eric Sorenson, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. He is a college football, college baseball and college hockey addict... and writer. Follow him on Twitter @Stitch_Head.