Who invented bye weeks anyway?
Outside of the rest and extra preparation they present the players and coaching staffs around college football, what good are they? To a writer, a bye week is like a story idea wasteland; with the exception of the occasional injury report, a Saturday with no football means no enticing matchups to dissect and leaves way too much free time for exasperated fans to voice displeasure over any minute problem.
Struggling this week to conjure up material that would satisfy the Missouri faithful, I decided to take a comprehensive look at the Tigers' season through the first four games. And who better to assist me than Columbia Daily Tribune beat writer Dave Matter, who works tirelessly around the clock to provide fans with the most up-to-the-minute, in-depth coverage as one of the nation's best college football journalists and the foremost source for everything Missouri football.
Among other things, Dave and I discuss Missouri's perfect 4-0 record, the scintillating start of quarterback Blaine Gabbert, the areas in which the Tigers need to improve, and next Thursday's Big 12 opener against Nebraska. Plus, he fills me in on the criteria he uses from week to week to tentatively fill out his Top 25 ballot, which may or may not be constructed in pencil.
RF: Obviously, the first third of Missouri's season can be considered a ringing success. How have the first four games of the season played out versus your preseason predictions? And what, if anything, has surprised you the most to this point?
DM: Heading into Aug. 1, I figured Missouri would probably lose one of its non-conference games, but after a few weeks of preseason camp, the play of Blaine Gabbert and his receivers convinced me the Tigers could move the ball well enough to outscore all four opponents.
I'm surprised they haven't been able to run the ball very well outside of the second half against Bowling Green. And I'm a bit surprised the defense has played so well defending the pass—though it hasn't really faced a high-powered passing game that was at full strength.
RF: Pinkel acknowledged disappointment in the running game during his most recent teleconference this past Monday. Are he and offensive coordinator David Yost pushing the panic button yet with less than a week to go before the Big 12 opener, especially considering the offensive line was seen as a strength entering the season?
DM: Pinkel rarely, if ever, panics. And just about everything Yost has learned about coaching football was taught to him by Pinkel. They're probably doing what they always do after the non-conference portion of the schedule: Looking back on what worked well and what didn't, coming up with some ways to fix what's broken.
I'd sense some panic if all of a sudden they start moving players to new positions or benching upperclassmen for freshmen. I can't imagine either scenario playing out.
RF: Many fans, including myself, have suggested the Tigers need to incorporate at least a semblance of a conventional, power running game into the offense. Is such a move just wishful thinking, or is it possible Yost will throw in some wrinkles for conference opponents?
DM: I'd say it's wishful thinking. Unless it's something they planned to save for October, I don't envision the staff suddenly adding anything more than a subtle wrinkle or two. They didn't practice traditional power running formations in August, so I don't see them trying something new that they didn't bother working on when they had the time.
MU's running plays have proven to work when ran correctly and against the right kind of defensive alignment. The more comfortable the coaches get with Gabbert running the show, the more you might see them use the passing game to attack defenses designed to slow the run.
RF: How impressed have you been with Gabbert thus far? And do you expect him to sustain such wild success against the more athletic and talented defenses of the Big 12?
Missouri QB Blaine Gabbert is drawing impressive comparisons
DM: He's been sensational, especially coming out halftime when he seems to relax and get into more of a rhythm. His ability to throw deep and accurately while on the run is as good as I've seen from a college quarterback in some time. When it comes to playing Big 12 defenses, he's not going to have as much time as his line's affording him now.
I know the comparison has been popular the last few weeks, but he reminds me a lot of Ben Roethlisberger: Strong but agile with the ability to bounce off defenders, weave in and out of traffic in the pocket, and deliver the big throw downfield.
He's going to have faster athletes rushing him and better defenders covering his receivers—but not dramatically better. (Let's not forget, this is still the Big 12.) At some point, he's going to throw an interception. And at some point, he's going to get shaken up on a nasty blind-side tackle. So, we're going to learn a lot more about his toughness and instincts once the Tigers get into pivotal games against more talented defenses. But so far, so good.
RF: It goes without saying the Missouri defense has improved from a season ago. To what area do you most attribute the improvement? Or is the credit due all across the board, from defensive coordinator Dave Steckel and his staff to the players on the field?
DM: The gameplans are simpler, and that's allowing kids to worry less about where they're supposed to be. Steckel has a saying: Football is an easy game that's hard to play. That pretty much defines his philosophy for this team. Give them less to think about so they can focus on mastering all the fundamentals of playing good defense: reading keys, tackling, keeping the ball in the middle of the field, and eliminating big plays.
With that in mind, there seems to be less confusion on coverages and assignments. That's the biggest difference so far.
RF: Conversely, in what areas defensively do the Tigers need to get better as they head into Big 12 play?
DM: The Tigers can afford to be more physical up front and get more production from their interior linemen. I'm not seeing a lot of penetration by the defensive tackles, especially against the run. Plus, the defense needs to generate more takeaways. You can play a bend-but-don't-break soft coverage style as long as you're creating three or more turnovers a game.
RF: Are there players on this roster that haven't necessarily made an impact thus far that may emerge during the conference portion of the schedule?
DM: On defense, I'd look to [defensive end] Brian Coulter. He made the biggest play of the game at Nevada, stripping and recovering the [Luke] Lippincott fumble near the goal line. [Linebacker] Andrew Gachkar has made a few big plays, but I expect him to make more as he gets more comfortable with the No. 1 unit. The same goes for cornerback Kevin Rutland. In fairness, quarterbacks haven't thrown his way too often, but I suspect he'll make some plays on the ball once the conference season gets going.
On the other side of the ball, Missouri's not getting much production out of its tight ends, Andrew Jones and Beau Brinkley. Maybe that'll change soon, maybe not. If he ever gets 100 percent healthy, I'd expect De'Vion Moore to be a factor in the running game.
RF: What has to happen for Missouri to overcome preseason favorites Nebraska and Kansas to capture its third consecutive North title? Are you beginning to waver a bit from your preseason prediction of Nebraska finishing first in the division?
DM: Actually, I picked Kansas to win the North (ooops!), followed by Missouri and Nebraska. I'm sticking with that order for now. Kansas have done what they needed to do against a fairly soft schedule. Same goes for Missouri. Nebraska blew a golden opportunity to win at Virginia Tech, but a loss is still a loss. Otherwise, they've taken care of three Sun Belt teams, which does nothing to convince me they're good enough to win the North.
I thought this was a tight three-team race before the season and haven't seen anything to change that opinion.
RF: As far as game-planning goes, how are Pinkel and his staff approaching next week's game against the Huskers, which is a matchup that could very well determine the outcome in the North?
DM: Missouri has to protect Gabbert. I'm not expecting MU to suddenly break out a potent running game, so for the Tigers to score points, Gabbert has to stay on his feet and make plays with his arm. The offensive line cannot let him take a beating. If he stays on his feet and gets enough time to connect on some passes downfield, I like the Tigers' chances.
RF: On a daily basis, you are arguably closer to this program than any other media member. Can you give me an idea of what the mindset of this team is heading into the season's most perilous stretch of games? And how far does this team believe it can go?
DM: I'm always cautious about saying a team of 100 kids carries an identical mindset. Seniors approach games differently than sophomores and vice versa. There are probably some kids who think they have no chance of beating Texas or Oklahoma State; others who could never imagine losing any game on the schedule.
Either way, kids pretty much approach these games one at a time. They know who they play the rest of the way, but players don't practice or study for an opponent that's three weeks away. It sounds boring, but it's very much a tunnel-vision approach.
RF: Bonus question: As a voter in the AP poll, how do you approach filling out your ballot from week to week? And are you surprised by the utter madness that has characterized the polls during the first month of the season?
DM: The more weeks we get into the season, the less stock I put in any preseason notions. What happens on the field should matter most. That's why I had no problem putting Iowa in the top 10 this week after having them unranked the four previous weeks. I thought the win at Penn State was that impressive. I don't like dropping teams too much for playing ambitious non-conference schedules, and I especially don't believe in punishing a team for winning unimpressively on the road, like MU's win at Nevada.
As for the madness, I've stopped putting any stock in the coaches' poll. First of all, it's absurd that these coaches have a say in who plays for the BCS championship, yet they're unwilling to disclose their ballots. But we see why they don't want us reading their ballots when somehow California is ranked significantly higher than Oregon after Oregon's 39-point head-to-head win and Penn State is six spots higher than Iowa after losing to the Hawkeyes at home.
I'm less critical of fellow AP voters because, for one, I've learned that it's harder than it looks to come up with a ballot that free of any inconsistencies. (I really struggled a few weeks ago with where to vote Florida State, BYU, and Oklahoma after FSU destroyed BYU. Luckily, a week later FSU took care of my little conflict when it lost to South Florida.) Also, I give the AP voters credit for making their ballots available for the world to see—and the fact that our poll doesn't factor into the BCS standings.
Dave Matter is the Missouri football beat writer for the Columbia Daily Tribune, where he also maintains his own blog, Behind The Stripes. A graduate of the University of Missouri journalism school in 2000, Matter is currently in his second stint with the Tribune, having served as a reporter at the publication from 2000-04. After a brief hiatus, he returned to the paper and, in 2006, assumed his present duties covering the MU football team. Follow Matter on Twitter to receive the very latest in Tiger football news.
Make sure to come back the days leading up to Missouri's Oct. 8 clash with Nebraska. In addition to the very first Big 12 edition of Enemy Intel—where the plan is to feature a pair of Cornhusker writers—I hope to roll out some articles outlining in detail the anticipated matchup between conference rivals.
Photo credit: Chris Lee/St. Louis Post-Dispatch