For the second straight week, the Missouri Tigers face an opponent they should handle with ease. Let's hope Saturday's meeting with FCS member Furman features a little less anxiety than last week's slim win over Bowling Green.
This week's gracious guest on Enemy Intel is Mandrallius Robinson, a sports reporter for the Greenville News in South Carolina.
RF: Many people may not know that Furman is one of only four private institutions to have appeared in the FCS championship game. In fact, in 1988, it became the first such school to win the FCS title. Is there anything else regarding this Paladins football program that may surprise some people?
In other words, how about a brief historical overview of Furman football?
MR: Furman has a 5-18-1 record against FBS schools since 1982. Current head coach Bobby Lamb was also the starting quarterback at Furman in the early 80s. He led Furman to a win over Georgia Tech in 1983 and wins over North Carolina State in 1984 and '85.
Furman has won 12 Southern Conference championships, the most by any SoCon member, and the program has produced a Walter Payton Award winner (Louis Ivory, 2000) and a Rhodes Scholar (Bob Stillwell, 1967).
RF: Furman is off to a solid 1-0 start in conference play with a win over Chattanooga last week. How do you see the race for the Southern Conference title playing out? What do the Paladins have to do to win their 13th conference crown?
MR: Appalachian State was presumed again to be the team to chase, but they've started 0-2. However, it's still early in the season. Elon is solid, and Wofford always gives its SoCon counterparts fits with the triple-option offense.
Furman must improve on the defensive line, where they are currently rotating three true freshmen. However, throwing them to the wolves early in the season will presumably help them mature as they approach the heart of the conference schedule. Furman gets its three toughest conference games—Elon, Wofford, and Appalachian State—at home this season, and the team has the offensive firepower to post points on any defense, including Missouri. The difference will be in how well they stop the SoCon's equally powerful offenses.
RF: Besides the obvious financial implications, what motivating factors drive an FCS program to travel to play a BCS school?
MR: Kevin Higgins, coach of Furman's SoCon comrade The Citadel, said it best, after his team opened the season with a 40-6 loss to North Carolina. "These games really show your inadequacies," he said.
These FBS challenges really expose a FCS team's weaknesses and gives them a real picture of what they truly are. SoCon teams will not get that from playing D-II schools, just as FBS schools might not get that from stepping down against the FCS.
RF: Give us a name of a Paladin player from each side of the ball and tell us why Missouri would be wise to key on each of those players.
QB Jordan Sorrells is the heart of the Furman offense (Greenville News)
MR: Offense: Jordan Sorrells (QB)—In his second year as the starter, he's a calming force on offense who will control any nerves produced by playing in such a big-game atmosphere. He makes great decisions with the football and rarely attempts to force the play. That will help against Missouri's defensive pressure.
Defense: Max Lerner (rover)—Fans might remember Lerner from the MTV series "Two-A-Days." He is a high-wired product of Hoover High [in Alabama] and fills one of Furman's hybrid linebacker-safety positions, the Rover. He, along with the other hybrid, Julian Hicks (aka the bandit position), will be stretched all over the field as they attempt to contain Missouri's spread. Lerner can effectively defend the pass, but he's not afraid to stick his head in run support.
RF: Speaking of the Furman defense, what is head coach Bobby Lamb and his staff doing to prepare for the Tigers' offense scheme-wise?
MR: Because they face relatively potent spread offenses nearly every week in the SoCon, Furman has already crafted its 4-2-5 scheme to add some perimeter speed. The Paladins will send its two linebackers and play zone behind them. With five defensive backs, they hope to protect against the deep plays and relegate Missouri to chip shots.
If they can tackle solidly, they could put some pressure on the pass and force Missouri to run.
RF: Conversely, what will Furman do in an attempt to attack the Missouri defense? How closely is the staff looking at tape of the Tigers' struggles against Bowling Green last week?
MR: Furman loves to implement new wrinkles in its offense for FBS opponents, mixing in some triple-option or experimenting with new personnel. Coach Lamb said the biggest difference would be expediting the passing game. To protect against Missouri's over-sized linemen, Furman must get the ball out quicker, perhaps relying on a dink-and-dunk scheme as opposed to stretching the field. Furman is deep at wide receiver, and those players are used to catching quick passes and picking up yards after the catch.
RF: What absolutely has to happen for Furman to leave Columbia with a win?
MR: The biggest thing Furman has to do is compete. Lamb stressed after looking at the Bowling Green tape that the key to competing is to simply "get after it." Furman has nothing to lose in this game, but they hope to follow the upset recipe: 1) keep it close into the fourth quarter, 2) avoid giving up big plays, and 3) avoid turning the ball over deep in its own territory.
Furman really believes it can compete on this level, and the players are looking forward to the opportunity to prove that. The underdog label alleviates any pressure. Furman's coaches always throw out the playbook for these games, adding new wrinkles and testing new packages. That formula has yielded success in the past.
RF: And, if you would be so kind, could you give us a prediction? Or at least an idea of how you see the contest playing out?
MR: Furman has a quarterback who is poised and has experience playing on such a stage. Thus, the Paladins should expect better ball-control on Saturday, especially after two turnovers plagued them in the loss to Virginia Tech last season.
Furman has the talent to be competitive, and with a few fortuitous bounces, they could get some serious pressure on Missouri. However, I think the Tigers' overall team depth will wear on the Paladins...31-21, Missouri.
Mandrallius Robinson is a sports reporter for South Carolina's Greenville News, where he also writes his own blog and hosts "The Student Section," a popular show specializing in area high school sports.