Let’s hit on six things about Mizzou’s 38-21 victory over Vanderbilt. With the win, the Tigers are 5-0 to start the season for the first time since 2013. And before I jump in, let’s get the usual qualifiers out of the way: it’s still relatively early, the Tigers have played only one SEC game, and the toughest portion of the schedule is ahead. That said, we can only judge this team by the games they’ve played so far. There’s no reason to downgrade Mizzou’s many positives.
1. Missouri is among the highest-graded Power 5 teams in the nation. And that’s based on offense, defense and special teams. Other respected metrics-based ratings systems may be less positive about Missouri. But my go-to most of the time are the metrics at Pro Football Focus. And with another weekend of games filed away, PFF ranks Mizzou No. 9 overall at the Power 5 level behind Miami (FL), Michigan, Washington, Oklahoma, Alabama, Oregon, USC and Ohio State. Subject to change, of course. Some difficult tests are coming, with the next four games coming against LSU, at Kentucky, South Carolina, and at Georgia. Mizzou will likely drop in the rankings. How much so? That’s the important question. But any way you parse it out, it’s still impressive to see Ol’ Mizzou elevated to such an exciting place. This just reaffirms something: Mizzou is off to a terrific start in 2023.
2. Missouri has one of the best offenses among the 133 teams at the FBS level. I expanded the sample size by going with all 133 FBS teams, and Mizzou is high on the list. Pro Football Focus has the Tigers rated No. 7 offensively behind Air Force, Washington, Miami (FL), USC, Michigan and Oregon. The Tigers are rated among the top 20 in the metrics for passing, pass blocking, and receiving. (And 45th in the rushing game.)
Praise to head coach Eli Drinkwitz for making the necessary – but correct – major move to hire offensive coordinator Kirby Moore. It didn’t take much time for the first-year OC to make a significant impact. This is a big, big change from the uninteresting and tedious offense we’ve seen in recent seasons.
3. The time has come to view quarterback Brady Cook in a different light. We can all agree on a few things here: (A) His right arm is much stronger this season in the aftermath of shoulder repairs; (B) He has an exciting unit of playmaking receivers; (C) Kirby Moore is putting Cook in better position to make plays and has opened the skies; (D) we didn’t believe that it could ever be this way again after Drew Lock moved onto the NFL.
But Cook has the athleticism, talent, physical and mental toughness and leadership. He now has the kind of coaching and cast that can bring out his best. Luther Burden III is preposterously good. And unlike last season, Cook is operating at full health. There’s no need to scale back the offense because of his physical limitations in throwing deep. It all came together – suddenly so, and to a surprising degree.
4. Cook’s performance through five games can hang there with the best we’ve seen at Mizzou. I’m referring to the Chase Daniel Era, which set the template for a procession of quarterbacks who provided so many thrills: Daniel, Blaine Gabbert, James Franklin, Maty Mauk (in 2014), and Drew Lock. This isn’t a career comparison. This isn’t even a full-season comparison. This is about the first five games of a season:
– Cook’s 187.7 passer rating through the first five games is second to Daniel, who had a 196.4 rating through five games in 2008.
– Cook’s 74.5 percent completion rate through five games is second to Daniel’s 76.3% after five games in 2008.
– Cook is the only Mizzou quarterback during this era who passed for at least 11 touchdowns without tossing an interception. That fits right in with Cook’s notable accomplishment: most consecutive passing attempts without being intercepted.
– With his 395 yards passing at Vandy, Cook now has three straight games of 300 yards-plus. And in Saturday’s win Cook established personal single-game highs in passing yards (395), touchdown passes (four) and completions (33). And his 80% completion percentage against Vanderbilt was Cook’s second-best in a game.
4a. Other notes from The Cook File:
– Cook ranks 5th nationally in Expected Points Added (EPA) by a quarterback. Ahead of him are Jayden Daniels (LSU), Dillion Gabriel (Oklahoma), Chandler Morris (TCU) and Michael Pennix Jr. (Washington.)
– He ranks 5th among Power 5 quarterbacks in adjusted yards passing per attempt, 12.0
– His 74.5 percent completion percentage is tied for eighth among Power 5 quarterbacks.
– Cook and Notre Dame’s Sam Hartman are the only Power 5 quarterbacks this season to have thrown 10+ touchdown passes without a single interception.
5. Luther Burden is a lightning bolt. Take shelter, defense. Following in the grand tradition of electrifying Mizzou wide receivers, Burden is bringing back fond memories of plays and days illuminated by (in no particular order) Jeremy Maclin, Danario Alexander, Victor Bailey, T.J. Moe, J’Mon Moore, Justin Gage and L’Damian Washington.
After scorching Vanderbilt, Burden has exceeded 100+ receiving yards in four consecutive games. He leads Power 5 wide receivers in catches (43), receiving yards (642), and yards after the catch (400.) He’s averaging 15 yards per reception. He’s caught five touchdown passes.
Pro Football Focus has Burden as its top-rated receiver in the nation among 133 FBS teams.
Through five games Burden is on pace for these numbers:
– 103 catches
– 1,545 yards receiving
– 960 yards gained after the catch
– 15 touchdowns
Mizzou can flood the field with fast, dangerous receivers in Burden, Theo Wease, Mookie Cooper, Marquis Johnson and Mekhi Miller.
Brady Cook has no problem finding open targets. And as I’ve noted many times, there’s a dramatic upturn in Cook’s performance this season passing attempts that travel 20+ yards in the air. Last season he hit on only 19 of 59 deep throws for a 32.2 percent completion percentage, 740 yards and three touchdowns. On attempts of 20+ air yards this season, Cook has completed 12 of 19 (63.2%) for 421 yards and five touchdowns.
This tells us all we need to know about Cook’s improvement as a deep passer: among Power 5 quarterbacks he ranks fifth in completion percentage and 8th in PFF’s QB rating on throws of 20+ yards.
6. LSU at Mizzou (11 a.m.) should be crazy. Points galore and all of that. LSU can overheat the scoreboard on offense, but this team’s defense is absolutely awful. If we needed confirmation of that, the defensive weaknesses were on full display Saturday in LSU’s 55-49 loss at Ole Miss. The Tigers couldn’t get out of Oxford with a victory despite rolling up 637 yards and leading by nine points with 8:34 left in the fourth quarter. LSU quarterback Jayden Daniels was sensational, passing for 414 yards and four touchdowns. But it wasn’t enough as Ole Miss tore up LSU for 389 passing yards and 317 rushing yards for 706 total yards. LSU’s defense had no sacks and applied little pressure.
Through five games LSU ranks 116th among 133 FBS teams in both average points (36.3) and average yards (456.8) allowed per game. According to PFF, coach Brian Kelly’s defense is rated 126th among 133 teams in pass coverage. The Mizzou defense has some issues, and the Tigers haven’t faced a quarterback that’s as good and dangerous as Jayden Daniels. But Pro Football Focus has Mizzou as the 23rd best overall defense in the FBS. And the Tigers have graded well in the pass rush (20th) and coverage (29th) and are solid (44th) in run defense. Mizzou should be able to score plenty of points but can MU slow Daniels and the LSU offense down to get the win?
6a. Missouri’s defense hasn’t been reliable in putting opponents away. Mizzou gave up 14 points in the fourth quarter at Vandy to allow the Commodores to twice cut the lead to 10 points. And in the week before that, a 24-10 lead over Memphis was reduced to a one-score margin on three separate occasions. In the 30-27 victory over Kansas State, Mizzou allowed the Wildcats to drive late for the tying field goal but saved the win on the record-setting 61-yard field goal by Harrison Mevis on the final play. (That said, K-State scored only three points in the fourth quarter.) And against Middle Tennessee State, MU opened a 23-10 lead and hung on to win 23-19. This type of thing can’t happen against LSU.
In their three games against FBS opponents Missouri has allowed a 44.4 percent conversion rate on third-and-fourth downs. Despite being a disappointing two-loss team, LSU is bringing a prolific offense to CoMo. The boys have to get Jayden Daniels off the field.
Saturday’s probable score-a-thon will match two Top 25 teams. In this week’s Coaches Poll, Missouri is ranked No. 22, one spot above No. 23 LSU. I can’t wait to watch this one.
Thanks for reading …
Bernie hosts an opinionated sports-talk show on 590 The Fan, KFNS. It airs 3-6 p.m. on Monday through Thursday and 4-6 p.m. on Friday. You can stream it live or access the show podcast on 590thefan.com or through the 590 The Fan St. Louis app.
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