Game Time: Saturday, September 3, 12:00 p.m. ET
TV: Fox Sports 1
Odds: West Virginia (-10)
Barry Odom's first game as a collegiate head coach does not begin with your traditional cupcake, as he'll become the first SEC head coach to debut on the road against a Power 5 opponent since Joker Phillips and Kentucky defeated rival Louisville in 2010.
Odom's Tigers are coming off a disappointing 5-7 campaign that was more notable for what happened off the field than on it. The former Mizzou linebacker comes in with big expectations after succeeding Gary Pinkel, the winningest coach in Missouri history.
His opponent, the West Virginia Mountaineers, are coming off an 8-5 season capped off by a 43-42 victory over Arizona State in the Cactus Bowl, and an opening weekend victory against an SEC team would certainly help head coach Dana Holgorsen temporarily) quiet some doubters that have cropped up over his four seasons as the lead man.
Is the Missouri Offense Not Awful?
Predicting the first game of the season can usually be adequately summed up with a shrug emoticon. Every team has turnover each season, leaving open-ended questions at different spots across the field. That basic line of thinking goes to another level in this matchup, as Missouri's new coaching staff means we not only don't know what certain players will do when they get on the field, but we don't really even know the style they're going to play.
We can guess. Odom is a defensive guy, and he hired former Oklahoma quarterback and offensive coordinator to take the reigns of the offense. The units he lead at OU and Utah State were pretty varied, but we have nothing to go on as far as how his style will be adapted to Missouri's offensive talent.
What we do know is that Mizzou's offense basically can't be worse than it was last year, when it finished 124th (of 127) in yards per game. It would be more impressive -- but please no, last year was unwatchable -- if Heupel were able to make the offense worse than if he made it better.
But how much better? Will it be good enough to hang with a Big 12 offense, even if West Virginia has to throw and run against a very good Tiger defense? The answer to those questions, more than anything else, will be the key to this game.
How Does West Virginia Adapt to Attrition Suffered in the Preseason?
A rash of injuries and suspensions has weakened the Mountaineers since the spring. Starting guard Adam Pankey and kicker Josh Lambert (a 2014 Groza Award finalist) are suspended for this game, and injuries to several key defenders, including safety Dravon Askew-Henry, will force some inexperienced players into heavy playing time.
Askew-Henry was expected to be West Virginia's best defender in 2016, so his injury really hurts what was already an inexperienced back seven. If there's a silver lining for the Mountaineers in this game, it's that Missouri's passing attack shouldn't scare them until proven otherwise.
While not having Lambert is certainly inconvenient, because #CollegeKickers, Pankey is probably the biggest loss, as the strength of Mizzou's team is the defensive line. Redshirt senior Tony Matteo will be stepping into Pankey's place at left guard, and he'll have to contend with a deep stable of defensive tackles, even if he's on the other end of the line from star DE Charles Harris.
Strength vs. Strength: Who Wins When West Virginia Has the Ball?
This is undoubtedly the scenario when the most collective talent will be on the field at one time, and whomever gets the upper hand could very well decide this game.
West Virginia's offense fits the Big 12 to a T. They want to spread the field, run a lot of plays, and put a lot of points up on the board. They're lead by QB Skyler Howard who, while relatively inefficient, is definitely a home run hitter. He won't have 1,500 yard RB Wendel Smallwood to rely on this year, but Rushel Shell was productive as the backup last year, and should be again in 2016. WR Shelton Gipson only caught 37 passes last year, but they went for nearly 900 yards. The Mountaineers will rip off big plays if you let them.
Mizzou, meanwhile, was one of the best at preventing big plays last season, and they'll need to keep that trend up in this game to have any shot of pulling the upset. Despite losing Walter Brady and Harold Brantley, the Tigers go eight deep across the line, and should be able to get pressure on Howard. The Tigers will hope that that pressure can lead to turnovers and easy scoring opportunites for an offense that might need all the help it can get.
So, what happens?
There are too many unknowns about Missouri to feel comfortable predicting an upset in this one, though I do think they'll keep it closer than expected and cover the spread. I think the Mizzou offense will look better (bold prediction, I know) but will still have some kinks to work out. The Tiger defense will slow down the Mountaineers, but it won't keep them from reaching 30, which puts the game out of reach for Mizzou.
Prediction: West Virginia 31, Missouri 23