Saturday's matchup in the Glass Bowl between Toledo and Missouri certainly doesn't lack for storylines. Both teams have conference title hopes, both squads are 1-0 to start the year, Mizzou is ranked (24th AP, 22nd USA Today), and Toledo will be looking for revenge after falling to the Tigers on the road 38-23 last season. What's more, Missouri coach Gary Pinkel will be making his return to face the team he coached for 10 seasons before taking the Tigers job in 2001.
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To get a feel for how Missouri is approaching this contest, we asked Mizzou blog Rock M Nation for some thoughts, and contributor Adam Cribbs (@AdamCribbs) graciously agreed to answer our questions.
Hustle Belt: Missouri lost a few big-name players from last year's squad. What are the key differences between this year's Tigers and last year's team?
Rock M Nation: This year's Tigers are going to be more explosive and less efficient on offense. Maty Mauk is a playmaker, there is no doubt about that. The passing game will stretch the field and hit receivers over the top of the defense with regularity but drives can stall when Mauk struggles to hit the short to mid-range passes. The running game is strong and can keep drives alive, but if it sputters at all Mizzou is feast or famine.
HB: Quarterback Maty Mauk has made quite a splash in his young college career thus far. How high is his ceiling, and what does he need to do to reach it?
RMN: This may sound like hyperbole to a lot of people, but Mauk's ceiling is a Heisman Trophy. He has that "it" factor people want in their QBs, he has a beautiful deep ball, he is an extremely talented runner and just seems to make the big play when the offense needs it. To get to that level, he has to improve his completion percentage. Like I said in the last answer, it often seems like he's going to throw for a 75 yard touchdown or go three and out on passes underneath to his tight ends and running backs.
HB: Mizzou's opener was similar to Toledo's - a battle with a top-tier FCS team that was closer than desired at times before ending with a substantial win. What did you learn about Missouri from game one?
RMN: We learned that Mizzou is pretty much exactly what we were expecting them to be. Youth on the defensive side of the ball may cause some problems this year, the offense will score a lot of points but may have trouble with time of possession, and that our defensive line is going to be pretty dang good once again. Markus Golden and Shane Ray promise to be another top tier duo of pass rushers.
HB: Missouri surprised a lot of fans and national media last year by winning the SEC East. How far do you think this year's Tigers can go - and how likely are they to get there?
RMN: My prediction for Mizzou before the season started was that they'd win 9 games and finish second in the East behind South Carolina. Now that Georgia has shown that they might be the best team in the SEC and South Carolina showed it may not be as good as we all thought, I have no clue where Mizzou finishes now. I think it's still a possibility Mizzou wins the East again, but Mauk is going to have to become a real star QB and the defense will have to mature quickly.
HB: Gary Pinkel spent 10 successful seasons as Toledo's head coach, earning induction into Toledo's athletic Hall of Fame and a place as possibly the top coach in Rockets history. Where does he rank all-time among Missouri's coaches?
RMN: This really depends on who you ask within the Tigers' fanbase. Personally, I think Pinkel is right up there with Dan Devine and Don Faurot. He has the most wins in Missouri football history, he consistently fields a top 30 team, he has helped grow the football program into a pretty well respected status, he gave the program enough value to join the SEC as well as improve facilities and expand the stadium... His list of accomplishments for Mizzou goes on and on. That said, many Mizzou fans think his teams underachieve (which is ridiculous if you look at the players he recruits), they think he is a terrible game manager, and they believe that we won't ever get to that next level of winning a national championship if he's our coach. I don't understand that as we've come one game within the NCG twice under Pinkel, but whatever.
HB: Last season's matchup between the Tigers and Rockets was tight in the third quarter before Mizzou pulled away at the end. How do you see this year's contest comparing?
RMN: I think the first half is going to be a wild one. I expect both teams to post a lot of points and I fully expect Mizzou fans to be peeing their pants at halftime. I (somewhat irrationally) believe that this is the game Mizzou kicks it into gear, and I think that happens in the second half. Toledo is a team NOBODY is overlooking on the Missouri side of things and I think the fans and the team see this as a big, must-win game.
HB: Finally, what's your prediction for Saturday's contest at the Glass Bowl?
RMN: I think at halftime the score is something like 21-21, with Mizzou pulling away and winning 45-28. That said, I won't be surprised at all if the Tigers' defense continues to struggle to slow down Toledo's offense in the second half and the score ends up a lot closer than that, I just think Mizzou finds its footing in this game.
A million thanks to Adam and Rock M Nation. To keep an eye on what Pinkel is up to these days, or just to follow the always interesting SEC East, be sure to pay the crew there a visit.