Mizzou's Dominant Defense As Difference-Maker vs. West Virginia

Missouri Tigers team getting ready to step into field

Thursday, September 1, 2016 3:21 PM GMT

Missouri, which fielded a top-10 defense last season, returns the unit nearly intact in 2016. It will be tested in the opener against high-flying West Virginia, kicking off as double-digit underdogs. NCAAF pick and betting preview inside.

Missouri Tigers
Last year's defensive coordinator and Missouri alum Barry Odom makes his debut as head coach in a rare road opener for the Tigers. It's the program's first Week 1 test outside of Faurot Field since 1996, and the first trip to Morgantown since 1993. It last faced West Virginia in 1998, winning 34-31 in the closely contested Insight Bowl.

Odom has spent the last four seasons as defensive coordinator at Memphis and Missouri, receiving high praise for his work. Last year's Tigers unit ranked ninth in total defense, yielding 302.0 yards per gameā€”the first time Mizzou has ranked in the top 10 nationally. It allowed a paltry16.2 points per game, and held opponents below oddsmakers' projected team total in 11 of 12 games. Mississippi State was the only program to score more than 28 points.

Expect the defense to be just as strong, if not stronger, in 2016. It returns 17 players, including eight starters. The defensive line is loaded with depth, anchored by projected first-rounder DE Charles Harris, who led the SEC in tackles for a loss last season. West Virginia head coach Dana Holgorsen said it's “one of the best” he's seen in his 20-plus years of coaching. DeMontie Cross takes over as coordinator, spending the last three seasons as co-coordinator and linebackers coach at TCU.

Offensively, the Tigers could barely sniff the end zone last season, scoring just 13.5 points per game, third fewest in FBS. In addition to veteran quarterback Maty Mauk getting kicked off the team midway through the season, the unit struggled everywhere and really lacked play making abilities at the skill positions. A pair of graduate transfers, senior wide receiver Chris Black, formerly of Alabama, and senior running back Alex Ross, previous No.2 rusher at Oklahoma, hope to make an impact. Former Heisman candidate Josh Heuple takes over as offensive coordinator.

Mizzou is 0-5 SU and 1-4 ATS in its last five games when spotted a touchdown or more by sportsbooks. This is its first regular season game against a Big 12 opponent since joining the SEC; it bested Oklahoma State 41-31 in the 2014 Cotton Bowl. Including the latter, the Tigers are 4-1 SU, 3-2 ATS against Power 5 opponents outside of the conference in this span.

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West Virginia Mountaineers
Holgorsen returns a veteran group with 14 senior starters on the depth chart, the most in the Big 12. Nevertheless, he will dress 10 true freshmen, and the majority is expected to see action.

Senior QB Skyler Howard, who averaged 14.2 yards per completion last year (ninth-best nationally), returns to run the altered air raid offense. It fields a highly touted and experienced O-line, led by NFL-caliber senior C Tyler Orlosky. Combined, the group owns 84 career starts, and may be able to hold its own against arguably college football's best defensive front in years. West Virginia averaged 34.0 points last season but lose Big 12 rushing leader Wendell Smallwood.

The Mountaineers defense was the best in the Big 12 against the run and ranked in the top five nationally in takeaways (2.6 per game). It came up huge in pressure-packed situations, too, holding teams to a sub-50 percent third down conversion rate in 25 straight games. It lost four starters to the NFL, and its best-returning player, FS Dravon Askew-Henry, is out for the season with a knee injury.

The Mountaineers are 24-25-1 SU all-time against the SEC, dropping its last five matchups in a row.

Final Analysis
Holgorsen is an offensive guy, and when the Mountaineers aren't scoring points, they ain't winning. Since taking over in 2011, West Virginia is 3-17 SU and ATS when putting up fewer than 30 points in a game. It will take many breaks and a perfect game plan to score that many against the veteran Tigers defense. Mizzou +9.5 is the NCAAF pick.

Free NCAAF Pick: Missouri Tigers +9.5 -105
Best Line Offered: at Heritage

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