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2021 Mid-American Conference Football Week 1 Game Preview: Central Michigan Chippewas at Missouri Tigers

Two teams in the midst of changes take each other on in the hopes of starting the season off on the right foot.

NCAA Football: Missouri at Mississippi State Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports

For the first time since 2019, CMU will venture outside of the Mid-American Conference to play football, taking the trip down to Columbia, Missouri, to face the SEC’s Missouri Tigers on Saturday afternoon.

The Chippewas are in a unique spot going into this game; head coach Jim McElwain went under the knife for appendicitis on Wednesday evening, so that leaves them in the hands of assistant head coach/linebackers coach Tim Skipper for the foreseeable future.

Skipper, who would be making his head coaching debut if McElwain doesn’t recover in time for the game, has never held a head coaching position in his two decades of coaching experience, which could make for a fascinating storyline to watch.

Missouri, on the opposite side, will be looking to notch their first season-opening victory against an FBS-level team since 2011, when they sweated out a win against the Miami RedHawks. They’re hungry to show improvement under promising second-year head coach Eli Drinkwitz, as the Tigers continue to rebuild from the end of the Barry Odom era.


Game Info

  • When: Saturday, Sept. 4, at 4 p.m. Eastern time.
  • Where: Faurot Field at Memorial Stadium in Columbia, Missouri
  • Watch/Stream: SEC Network (a valid cable subscription is required.)
  • Weather: 76 degrees, with a 24 percent chance for scattered thunderstorms at kickoff, and winds going north-south at 5 mph, per Weather.com. Humidity at 86 percent, with clouds and precipitation clearing as the game advances.
  • Odds: Missouri is a 14-point favorite, with an over/under of 60 points, per DraftKings Sportsbook.

Series History

This will be the first-ever meeting between the Tigers and Chippewas. Missouri is 15-3 all-time vs. MAC schools, while CMU is 0-9 vs. the SEC and 2-4 vs. the Big 12 (which Missouri was previously a member of.)


The Chippewas

Quick Facts (Stats current as of Dec. 2020):

  • Points per game: 31.33
  • Points allowed: 30.17
  • Total yards: 420.5 (202.33 passing, 218.2 rushing)
  • Yards allowed: 427.7 (297.17 passing, 130.5 rushing)

The Chippewas suddenly have a number of questions on an offense which was previously thought to be one of the most elite units going into the fall camps.

Kobe Lewis, CMU’s lead back who rushed for 468 yards and six touchdowns in six starts last season, tore his ACL two weeks ago in the ramp-up to game prep, thrusting the responsibility of feature back to Lew Nichols III. Nichols III was actually CMU’s leader in rushing yards in 2020, with 508 yards and four touchdowns on 78 carries in six appearances. His ability is unquestioned; a three-down back with good hands to compliment his outside speed, Nichols is more than capable of carrying the offense.

The question is who will tote the rock behind Nichols. Darius Bracy slots in as the default RB2, and the former cornerback is certainly capable, displaying natural running ability, especially in space. But his in-game experience is very limited, with only a handful of carries logged. Behind him are a number of true and greyshirt freshmen, including Marion Lukes, DJ Stephney and Myles Bailey.

The quarterback situation is also a question mark, with interim coach Skipper stating that “multiple quarterbacks” will get game time, with the starting spot said to be a “true competition” between Washington transfer Jacob Sirmon, incumbent starter Daniel Richardson and the highly-touted local boy freshman Tyler Pape. Whoever the quarterback is will have an important effect on what the offense can do, as all three play fairly differently. Even understanding CMU is a primary run-first offense, the passing attack is still vital to the Chippewas’ play designs. We won’t know until they take the field how it’ll all blend together.

Thankfully for the Chippewas, the defense looks to be a unit to lean upon going into the 2021 season, and should be a vital help to the offense as they get their legs back under them.

The line is the strength of the Chippewa defensive effort, with a five-end rotation which will give tackles fits. MAC co-defensive player of the year DE Troy Hairston returns to his starting spot after a campaign with 12 tackles-for-loss and 5.5 sacks in six games in his first season at the position, with Valdosta State transfer Thomas Incoom, a first-team all-conference selection in 2020, expected to start on the opposite side. LaQuan Johnson, a starter in 2019, returns after tearing his ACL in the first game of the 2020 campaign, and will split duties with both 2020 starter Amir Siddiq and Fred Stokes.

That’s just at the ends, as rising star DL Tico Brown (14 tackles) and the dependable Jacquez Bristol (two tackles-for-loss, one sack) reprise starting roles at tackle, with intriguing freshman prospect Jason Williams and Buffalo transfer Tyrece Woods expected to rotate in.

The linebackers are led by first-team all-MAC linebacker Troy Brown Jr., a former converted safety. Brown accumulated 42 tackles, eight tackles-for-loss and 4.5 sacks in 2020, making him a formidable presence. Battery mate George Douglas also returns with his team-leading 45 tackles, while Michigan State transfer Marcel Lewis will get a lot of play as a situational linebacker.

The secondary was, admittedly, CMU’s Achilles heel in 2020, as they were a bottom 10 team in pass defense. That said, they’ve gone through a lot of turnover at that position over recent years, so it’s understandable how that could happen.

This season once again sees some tinkering, as Dishon McNary, a “Last Chance U” alum, is the only starting corner to return to their original position, with converted safety Rollian Sturkey and freshman Donte Kent (who finished with 18 tackles in six games last season) expected to rotate on the other boundary. CMU has adjusted to a three-safety look in the offseason due to the depth at the position, with the versatile Willie Reid (personal reasons) replaced this week by special teams ace Gage Kreski, while Devonni Reed and Alonzo McCoy take their usual starting roles. How this new look will benefit the Chips is yet to be seen.

For CMU to have any chance of success,


The Tigers

Quick Facts (Stats current as of Jan. 2021):

  • Points per game: 31.3
  • Points allowed: 30.3
  • Total yards: 402 (266.8 passing, 135.2 rushing)
  • Total yards allowed: 408 (245.8 passing, 162.2 rushing)

The Missouri Tigers finished 5-5 overall in 2020 in the SEC’s 10-game conference schedule in their first year under Eli Drinkwitz, who came over from the reputable Appalachian State program, where he led the Mountaineers to a 12-1 record in his lone season in Boone.

Drinkwitz made his bread as an offensive savant, and the results were pretty evident in Columbia last season, as his passing offense was ranked #32 in the country in his first season. The rushing offense, however, was a bit of a work in progress, coming in at #91. That should improve as the system continues to install in year two, and the pieces are certainly there for success.

Redshirt sophomore Connor Bazelak returns at quarterback after getting SEC Freshman of the Year honors for a 2,366 yard, seven touchdown, six interception campaign in his first full season as a starter. He’ll have a lightly experienced receiving corps to depend upon, with graduate WR Keke Chism (35 receptions, 458 yards, one touchdown in 2020) and redshirt senior Barrett Banister (27 receptions, 252 yards in 2020) leading the returnees. The Tigers do sport Ohio State transfer Mookie Cooper, a four-star prospect from St. Louis, as a potential option in the rotation as well, and he could get some run in the game on Saturday.

The offense is built around talisman RB Tyler Badie, a three-down back who rushed for 242 yards on 48 carries for four touchdowns, and also hauled in two touchdowns via reception, with 333 yards on 28 catches. Badie should get most of, if not all the carries for Mizzou, save for injury. Mizzou rosters only two other running backs, with Elijah Young and Simi Bakare in reserve.

The defense excelled at defending the run, which happens to be CMU’s bread and butter, ranking 27th with 130.5 yards per game on average in 2020. But there will be a weakness to expose in the aerial attack if CMU can settle on a QB, as Mizzou was exceedingly average in pass defense, finishing 84th in the country with 245.8 yards per game allowed on average.

Columbia, South Carolina’s Trajan Jeffcoat is the defensive player to watch for Mizzou, lining up at the defensive end spot. He picked up 23 tackles, sox tackles-for-loss and six sacks in 2020 to help pace the line. Battery mates Isaiah McGuire (18 tackles, four tackles-for-loss, three sacks) and Akil Bayers (15 tackles, 2.5 tackles-for-loss) should also provide issues for CMU’s offensive line.

Detroit native Devin Nicholson will play a key part in putting away the Chippewas offense, centering the linebacker corps. Nicholson had 82 total tackles (second on team), 3.5 tackles-for-loss and an interception in the 2020 campaign, notching 13 tackles twice.

Martez Manuel (64 tackles, seven tackles-for-loss, 2.5 sacks) and Ennis Rakestraw Jr. (24 tackles, six pass breakups as a true freshman starter) highlight the secondary postions, with Manuel an NFL-ready safety, while Rakestraw projects as one of the better corners in the SEC, despite his relative youth.


Prediction

These teams are both in different phases of their rebuilds, and trying to figure out who they are and how they can play at present.

CMU is eager to prove last year’s 3-3 finish isn’t reflective of the talent assembled in Mt. Pleasant, while Mizzou wants to prove that their 5-5 finish wasn’t a first year fluke, but rather the first step back into the top of the SEC conversation. Both teams are in the middle of their respective divisions in the preseason predictions, and have a lot to prove to both themsevles and outsiders.

Mizzou proved a perfectly average team with their all-SEC schedule, so they’re certainly in a promising spot, and CMU, who was in the MAC title game two seasons ago, provides a great test of if another year under the Drinkwitz regime has taken hold.

CMU, meanwhile, will likely treat their first two games as testing grounds, with Coach McElwain unlikely to coach the team, and several questions at vital positions still needing to be answered. Mizzou is a team they can compete with, by all means. On paper, these teams are fairly close, talent-wise, making it an attractive pick for an upset.

While I don’t subscribe to score predictions, I do think there’s a good chance that CMU can at the least cover the spread, which sits at 14 as of publication. I’d also bet on the under, as both teams want to try and emhpasize the run, which means time off the clock.