Here we go. The Biggest Game Ever is only about 30 hours away and I admit the stomach is starting to churn a bit.
Before we get to the game, I wanted to share how much I’ve enjoyed the conversations I’ve had with people from both sides of the rivalry this week. To be fair, it’s not like my extended group of friends is full of a-holes who treat their friends like shit on game day. For the most part, we’re all well-behaved, respectful of each other, and never forget that we’re friends first. It makes this week even more fun that our group of friends is able to go through it together. Still, with the stakes of this week’s game, I expected a little more trash talk than I’ve received. I hope the 80,000 people who fill Arrowhead tomorrow night can find the perspective my friends have come to: they all really want to win, beat their arch rival, etc. but are appreciating this incredibly special moment above all.
Unfortunately, for about the last ten years, the students of both schools have done little to inspire confidence that there won’t be issues tomorrow. Granted, with that many people (I heard one estimate that there could be as many as 100,000 in the parking lots), lots of time, and millions of gallons of liquor flowing, there are going to be a few issues no matter who is on the field. Let’s all hope any incidents are isolated and don’t evolve into mass abuse of opposing fans as we’ve seen all too often in Lawrence and Columbia recently.
I guess I’m on the hook for some kind of prediction, right? I’ve looked at numbers, read tons of previews, talked to people with and without rooting interests, and here’s what I can say are my biggest impressions.
This will be the best offense, by far, Kansas has faced all season.
This will be the best defense, by a little, that Missouri has faced all season. I can hear people shouting, “What about Oklahoma?!?!” Oklahoma is certainly more talented across the defense than KU, but KU is more consistent and adjusts better than OU does.
In that match-up lies the determining element of this game. I’ve seen KU adjust, time after time, this season to whatever opposing offenses have thrown at them. They get better over the course of each game as they tune into what the offense is trying to do. It’s difficult for me to see anyone pushing them around or consistently beating them.
At the same time, no one has stopped Missouri this year. It’s hard for me to see anyone covering all of their receivers and getting consistent pressure on Chase Daniel.
On the other side of the ball, Mizzou’s defense has been better than anyone expected this year. They’re physical and make plays. KU’s offense is so well-balanced and quick to adjust, that it’s difficult to shut them down.
I think it will be a lower scoring game than most of us expect. The emotion of the game, between the venue, the stakes, and the rivalry itself will make it a bit sloppy early on. The weather is supposed to be dry and chilly, but if memory serves, that Arrowhead turf is usually nice and chewed up by this time of year. I think that will slow both teams down a little as well.
Coaching will be a factor. I think Gary Pinkel gets a bad rap, mostly because he never found a way to fully harness Brad Smith’s abilities. But, in the small sample we can measure from, Mark Mangino has consistently shown he can create match-up issues on both sides of the ball for Pinkel’s staff. The second half blunders of last year are forgotten, and Mangino will pull the right strings throughout tomorrow’s contest.
The game will come down to two things: KU runs the ball a little bit better, and thus will be able to control the clock and grind out drives. And once they establish the run, Missouri will have trouble covering KU’s receivers. I think KU grabs the lead in the second quarter, and with the more balanced offense and ability to kill time, keep the lead.
And since I’m picking with the heart as much as anything else, it’s tough to pick against this team. They’ve answered every challenge they’ve met this season. People said they couldn’t win on the road, outside of Kansas, against a Big 12 South opponent, yet they proved that they could. The dream season will continue, but it will be the toughest victory of the season.