South Dakota State (0-0) at (24) Missouri (0-0) (ET)
GAME NOTES: The 24th-ranked Missouri Tigers will get their season underway Saturday when they host the visiting South Dakota State Jackrabbits of the FCS level to Memorial Stadium.
This will be the first-ever meeting between South Dakota State, which plays in the Missouri Valley Football Conference, and the Southeastern Conference's Missouri. The Tigers are coming off a strong 12-2 campaign (7-1 SEC) that included a run to the SEC championship game (which they lost to Auburn) and a 10-point win over Oklahoma State in the Cotton Bowl, 41-31.
Missouri head coach Gary Pinkel is entering his 14th season with the program, and will be trying to get his squad back to the postseason for the fifth time in the last six years. His Tigers reached as high as No. 5 in the country's Associated Press poll in 2013. They start the 2014 campaign ranked 24th in the nation.
South Dakota State started the 2013 season off strong, but ran into some tough opponents later in the season to finish at 9-5 overall with a 5-3 conference record. Head coach John Stiegelmeier is in his 18th season with the Jackrabbits, who start the 2014 season ranked No. 10 in the country in The Sports Network poll.
Offensively for South Dakota State, the Jackrabbits nearly live and die with the run game. Led by senior Zach Zenner, South Dakota State averaged 168.1 rushing ypg in 2013 and managed 28.9 ppg as a unit. Zenner (351 carries, 2,015 yards and 23 touchdowns) became just the second player in FCS history to have back-to-back 2,000-plus rushing yard seasons. If he completes the feat again, he'll be the only player in FCS history to rush for 2,000-plus yards in three campaigns.
Quarterback Austin Sumner returns for his senior season after just missing out on the 3,000-yard club in 2013 (2,999 passing yards, 19 touchdowns, eight interceptions). Sumner was named to the preseason All-MVFC Team, along with his backfield partner Zenner.
Sumner returns his top target in senior Jason Schneider (78 receptions, 1,088 yards and 10 touchdowns), and also gets some weapons in Dom Wright, Trevor Wesley and tight end Cam Jones. The offensive line is a veteran group that can do a serviceable job blocking for Zenner.
Defensively, the Jackrabbits will be without one of the top cornerbacks in the FCS in Winston Wright, but retain safety Jake Gentile and cornerback Je Ryan Butler. SDSU forced 33 turnovers and gained a plus-15 turnover margin in 2013, but will likely take a few steps back this season.
The linebacker duo of T.J. Lalley (89 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss, two fumble recoveries) and Charles Elmore (67 tackles, eight tackles for loss, three interceptions) will be the heart of the defense for the Jackrabbits, who allowed 23.6 ppg to opponents last year.
Defensive ends Jack Sherlock and J.R. Plote and tackle Cole Langer will try to better the 162.6 rushing ypg the defense allowed last year to the opposition. As a whole, South Dakota State sacked the opposing quarterback 33 times, but opponents recorded 47 sacks against SDSU.
Missouri boasted one of the better offenses in the nation last season, ranking 13th nationally in scoring (39.1 ppg) and 16th in total offense (490.7 ypg). That might be a difficult feat to replicate, since the Tigers return just four starters on offense, and quarterback James Franklin is not one of them. Franklin (2,429 passing yards, 19 touchdowns) will likely be replaced by Maty Mauk (1,071 yards, 11 touchdowns) under center after filling in for Franklin while he was injured in 2013. Mauk won three of his four starts and threw just two interceptions in his freshman opportunity.
"We've got a lot of work to do," Pinkel said. "We're doing a lot of good things, but to get as efficient and consistent as we can, we've got a lot of work to do."
Henry Josey will be one of the top players that Mizzou must replace on offense after the tailback gained 1,166 yards and scored 16 touchdowns on the ground. Russell Hansbrough (685 yards, four touchdowns last season) and Marcus Murphy (601 yards, nine touchdowns) both saw significant time at the position last season, and will take the reins as a dual-threat committee. Add in Morgan Steward and the Tigers have a formidable attack on the ground.
The three top pass catchers for the Tigers from a year ago, who accounted for 25 combined receiving scores, are gone. That leaves the door open for stand-in seniors Bud Sasser (361 yards, one touchdown) and Darius White to earn Mauk's trust.
Missouri finished fourth in the SEC in scoring defense a year ago (23.1 ppg), but lost many valuable contributors to graduation. Only four starters return, but that won't discourage a unit led by safety Braylon Webb (89 tackles, seven pass breakups, three interceptions). He and Ian Simon (42 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss, five pass breakups) will patrol the secondary and will help provide experience in what could be a youthful backfield.
After losing Andrew Wilson, the team's leading tackler, the linebacking corps seems thin. Kentrell Brothers had a standout season with 70 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss and three interceptions, but he'll be flanked in 2014 by sophomores Michael Scherer and Donavin Newsom.
Up front, two seniors will stuff the middle of the defensive line in Matt Hoch (41 tackles) and Lucas Vincent (34 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss). Markus Golden (13 tackles for loss, 6.5 sacks, eight quarterback hurries) could slide into one of the end spots left vacant by stars Michael Sam and Kony Ealy.
"I think overall it's been very competitive - the defense has been winning more than the offense (in camp)," Pinkel said. "It's been going down to one or two plays at the very end, and the defense has been making the plays. Overall, we're doing okay, we just keep getting better."
After a spectacular year that resulted in a trip to the SEC championship game and a bowl win for the Tigers, things seem a bit more uncertain heading into the 2014 campaign. There's no question this offense will be able to score points, especially once the unit jells with more playing time. As long as the defense can contain Zenner, the South Dakota State offense as a whole will be slowed.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Missouri 37, South Dakota State 18