As the saying goes, defense wins championships. The age-old adage may seem antiquated amid today's gridiron wars of unmitigated and wide-open offensive attacks, but the fact that we still use it suggests it's as relevant as ever.
For what good is a show-stopping spread offense that short-circuits scoreboards if your defense can't stop the opponent from doing the same?
Led by record-setting quarterback Chase Daniel and All-American receivers Jeremy Maclin and Chase Coffman, the Missouri Tigers were anything but starved for offense in 2008. But for every point that was produced by one of the nation's most prolific offenses, its defensive counterparts generously obliged opponents in allowing touchdowns just as easily.
Despite posting at least 10 wins for the second consecutive season, Missouri failed to exceed expectations in 2008. A defense that returned all but two starters from a 2007 unit that finished the season as one of the Big 12's best was expected to be the perfect complement to an offense that could score at will, prompting many to place Missouri in their small pool of national championship contenders.
But it didn't take long for the Tigers' defensive deficiencies to be exposed. The Missouri secondary was blitzed for 42 points by Illinois in the season opener, and a trend that would ultimately dash preseason expectations was set. As the season wore on, the defensive confusion that the coaching staff dismissed as mental breakdowns persisted, and Daniel and the offense found themselves pressured to score on nearly every possession.
The end result was an offense that could score on anyone, tempered by a defense that ranked dead last against the pass in a conference that wasn't exactly characterized by thunderous ground games.
The advent of the 2009 season has brought a period of transition to the Missouri program. Some of the most noteworthy players in school history have departed, but a crop of talented, albeit inexperienced, underclassmen appears ready to take over, determined to prove that Missouri has the resources to at least keep within arm's length of the nation's elite season after season.
Dave Steckel will no doubt bring discipline to the MU defense (Missourian)
Change has also gripped the coaching staff. No longer present is former defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus, who defected to the NFL to coach the linebackers in Cleveland. Eberflus caught a majority of the flack for last season's downfalls, but it's unjust to place too much of the blame on a man who entrusted his players to carry out the same scheme that had proved so successful in 2007.
Succeeding Eberflus is Dave Steckel, a former Marine and traditional disciplinarian who promises to carry over the same no-frills approach to his new position that he utilized while tutoring Missouri's linebackers for the past eight seasons. In the wake of his promotion, Steckel, who will retain his old title, said that he intends to institute more of a conventional scheme for 2009, reverting to more of a 4-3 alignment rather than upholding Eberflus' penchant for using five defensive backs.
With only four starters returning from 2008, the defense is certainly not immune to this turnover. But is that really a bad thing? Of the 120 Division I schools, Missouri ranked 70th in yards allowed last season, surrendering 411.5 per game, including 286.6 through the air, which spelled a recipe for disaster in a conference as pass-heavy and rich in quarterback prowess as the Big 12.
When it came to keeping the opposition off the scoreboard, the Tigers were just as inept. With a "bend but don't break" credo as its calling card, the Missouri defense in 2008 allowed 27.2 points per contest, which ranked 68th in the nation but was often overlooked with the offense spending most of its time sprinting up and down the field. And though the team recorded 14 interceptions last season, five of which were returned for touchdowns, that number was only six more than safety William Moore snatched all by himself in 2007.
Most of the players that made up the Missouri defense each of the last two seasons have departed, giving way to those who have spent the past few years soaking in the action from the sideline—and some that haven't. Of the 48 players listed on Missouri's spring defensive depth chart, 25 are either true sophomores or redshirt freshmen. Factor in the 11 defensive recruits who will arrive on campus in the coming weeks, and the Tigers' fall depth chart will resemble a day care of sorts.
Unlike past seasons, however, several years of solid recruiting efforts on the part of head coach Gary Pinkel and his staff have produced considerable and quality depth all across the board, with a significant portion of it existing on defense. Because of this depth, a slew of competitive battles should take place during August, which, in turn, should only add to the excitement that already surrounds Missouri's defense this season.
Pinkel has said repeatedly over the offseason that this is as athletic a defensive squad as he's had in his nine seasons in Columbia. And while only time will tell whether that's true or not, there's definitely reason to believe that this year's unit will enable Missouri fans to forget all about 2008's defensive debacle.
If Missouri is to capture its third straight North Division title, players on both sides of the ball will have to mature quickly. But with so many skill positions on the offense now manned by unproven youngsters, it will be up to the defense to keep the team afloat until those replacing Daniel, Maclin, and Coffman emerge and come into their own.
And that will mean reassuring the offense that it won't have to score every time it touches the ball, which is something the 2008 Missouri defense couldn't do.
In the two weeks leading up to fall workouts, I will preview the 2009 Missouri Tigers with comprehensive breakdowns of every position, as well as touch on what to expect from the players who will headline one of the more interesting seasons in MU football history.
Analysis of the MU defense will take place as follows:
July 20: Defensive Ends
July 22: Defensive Tackles
July 24: Linebackers
July 26: Defensive Backs
Each part of my comprehensive preview of the 2009 Missouri Tigers can be found at Examiner.com.