An impressive win over NAU was a good start. Dominating Illinois turned many skeptics into believers. Can a road win at Missouri turn Arizona State into a darkhorse contender?
It's very possible.
Once again, Missouri brings a very good team to the field, but this time, it's to the SEC. Their well-documented move to the nation's premier conference may temper their expectations but has done nothing to dampen their talent.
Saturday's battle in Columbia will be an early defining game for Todd Graham and the Sun Devils. They've been fantastic at home over the first two weeks, but can the team carry that success on the road, where ASU has been terrible over the last four years?
We'll of course be bringing you in-depth coverage of this critical game all week long leading up to kickoff, but let's first get to know the Missouri Tigers.
Missouri's Last Game: In their first SEC game since joining the conference, Missouri hosted Georgia on Saturday. After a sluggish start, the Tigers took a 17-9 lead early in the third quarter, thanks to two James Franklin touchdown passes. However, the Missouri defense collapsed over the final 16 minutes, as Georgia scored 24 unanswered to win 41-20.
Offense: The Tigers run a spread option attack led by quarterback James Franklin. The 6-foot-2, 228-pound junior is one of the most dynamic dual-threat quarterbacks in the nation, and is the heart and soul of the offense. He's a dangerous runner, having accumulated 981 yards and 15 touchdowns on the ground, but unlike many other dual-threat types, Franklin is becoming nearly as dangerous as a passer. He has a strong arm, and can make plays downfield. In last year's meeting against ASU, he threw for 314 yards, ran for 84 more and totaled three touchdowns. Stopping him will be priority number one for ASU, and Todd Graham knows it.
"Franklin really has command of what he's doing. I haven't really seen anybody stop them," Graham said during his press conference. "Franklin is the most dynamic player we've been against."
Despite losing some key playmakers from last year, the Tiger offense still features several dangerous threats.
Missouri's offense favors quick running backs, and they have a few good ones. Kendial Lawrence has taken over for the injured Henry Josey as the starter, and the speedy Lawrence can be a deadly open field threat. While he's not a 20-carry-per-game back, he's averaging a sterling 9.0 yards-per-carry in his role. Marcus Murphy led the team with 43 yards on six carries last week against Georgia.
Senior T.J. Moe is once again the team's top target. Moe excels at the shorter, underneath routes and will often be Franklin's first read. Juniors L'Damian Washington and Marcus Lucas are very dangerous speedsters and have had success downfield this year. The big name to watch is the nation's 2012 No. 1 overall recruit, wide receiver Dorial Green-Beckham. He is a match-up nightmare at 6-foot-6 with great speed.
The one concern for the Tigers comes on the offensive line. Their best player, left tackle Elvis Fisher, was lost for four weeks with a knee injury that thankfully will not require surgery. His injury resulted in the team shifting two starters around, and the end results were messy against Georgia, as the offense ground to a halt during the second half.
Defense: Once again, Missouri brings a formidable defense that operates out of a base 4-3 set.
The front seven has the potential to be very stout. The line is typically tenacious, and has the makings of being so once again with Brad Madison now healthy. He already has three sacks (including two against Georgia) and three tackles-for-loss from his defensive end position. They are strong up the middle with the 295-pound Sheldon Richardson and the 300-pound Matt Hoch, and are holding opponents to just 2.5 yards-per-carry.
All three starting linebackers return from last year, but ASU catches a big break with standout Zaviar Gooden out for the game with a hamstring issue. However, the outstanding Will Ebner remains in the middle and Andrew Wilson, the team's leading tackler from last year, can wreak havoc in the backfield. The unit isn't a major part of the pass rush, but is excellent flying to the ball.
Cornerback E.J. Gaines leads a very talented and experienced secondary. One of the elite corners in the nation, he forms a potent cornerback duo with Kip Edwards, and they should provide a stiff challenge for an ASU wide receiver corps that is still looking for a breakout performance.
Strong safety Kenronte Walker will have his hands full in trying to shutdown ASU's 3-back Chris Coyle. He's a great tackler and a stiff presence against the run, but questions persist about his coverage skills. Brandon Webb is the other starting safety, and brings a ton of athleticism to the secondary.