Next week, the Rivals.com Big 12 Network will release its mid-season awards for the conference. With that in mind, PowerMizzou.com compiled its own awards list, though this one has a distinctly Tiger feel about it. The following are our thoughts on some of the best of the 2004 season so far.
Offensive Player of the Half-Year It's kind of got to be Brad Smith. The fact of the matter is, the Mizzou offense is still nowhere without Smith. Is he a serious threat to be a Heisman finalist like some thought he would be? Not right now. Will he top the 1,400 yards rushing he had a year ago? No way. But still, Smith is the offense for the Tigers. Not that he doesn't have some help, but without Smith, this is a car without an engine. His passing is better than last year and he is a legitimate dual threat. While he might not be racking up big numbers on the ground, opposing defenses still have to commit at least one player on every play to making sure that Smith doesn't run all over them. He changes game plans.
Defensive Player of the Half-Year This isn't nearly as easy. When I filled in my ballot for the mid-season all-Big 12 team, I had four Tiger defenders on it. Either of the big-time tackles could get this and Jason Simpson has probably been the best overall player. Still, we give the nod to cornerback Shirdonya Mitchell. The fact of the matter is that you don't have a good pass defense if your corners can't cover. Mitchell can do that. He also is tied for the Big 12 lead in interceptions with two more than any Tiger had a year ago. His pick against Colorado won the game and his pick against Baylor set the tone. Having Mitchell has allowed the Tiger coaches to do some things they couldn't do in the past because it might expose poor pass coverage.
Freshman of the Half-Year We have to include redshirts in this since only one true freshman has played. The guy that has played at a consistently high level in that group is tight end Martin Rucker. Many a jaw, including that of Victor Sesay, probably dropped when Rucker won the starting spot coming out of camp. He has proven he deserved it. Rucker's first college catch was a touchdown and three of his 12 grabs overall have gone into the end zone. What most people probably don't notice is his blocking. The 51-yard score by Sean Coffey that gave Mizzou a comfortable lead against Colorado doesn't happen without a block from Rucker. He's made a number of downfield blocks that have caught my eye. This kid will be a great one.
Surprise of the Half-Year The entire defense. It was supposed to be better, but the Chiefs are proving that just because everybody has another year of experience doesn't mean they'll play any better. I think it was reasonable for Tiger fans to expect improvement. I don't think it would have been reasonable to be expecting to lead the Big 12 in total defense through the first half of the season, especially after the first game. The pass rush is better, the run defense is better, there are more interceptions. Everything is significantly better than last year.
Disappointment of the Half-Year Without going with the obvious of losing at Troy, we'll say it's the running game. It's been fine. However, fine is not what the Tigers are used to in the running game. No Tiger has a run of more than 34 yards yet this season. Three guys had a 64-yarder a year ago. While much of it may be put on an offensive line that just now looks like its starting to adjust, the backs have to do their part too. Marcus Woods still hasn't shown much power or ability to get tough yards. Damien Nash doesn't seem like he's making a lot of people miss. Mizzou's running for 192 yards a game, about 45 less than a year ago. They're also averaging around four yards per carry since the opener against Arkansas State. It needs to get better.
Play of the Half-Year It's got to go to Coffey against Colorado. While Mitchell's play was potentially game-saving, Coffey's was something Tiger fans haven't seen in a long time. To find the last Tiger receiver that could have made that play, I think you have to go back to the days of Linzy Collins. Coffey turned a five-yard completion that was short of the first down into a game-changing 51-yard touchdown. If he doesn't score, Mizzou might lose the Big 12 opener to Colorado. If Mizzou loses, you aren't even entertaining thoughts of a North title; you're probably just hoping to squeeze into a bowl berth.
Overall Outlook First, the good: Missouri is the undisputed favorite to win the North. Even with a loss against OSU this weekend, the Tigers would win the division by sweeping their final four against division opponents. The Tigers control their own fate and you can't ask for more than that. The defense is good enough to win games and the offense is coming. Now, the bad: The Tigers have still been inconsistent. They haven't put together back-to-back great efforts yet this season (but they'll probably have to to win Saturday). While they're 4-and-2, they should be 5-and-1 and could be 6-and-0. With all that is still out there, the Tigers have had a stumble or two along the way. Defenses are making somebody other than Smith beat them and no single player on the Missouri offense has proven he's capable of doing that against a good team yet. Someone may, but it hasn't happened yet.
Projected Finish A sweep is possible. I won't say probable, but possible. However, this team has shown a penchant for stubbing its toe. I think it happens again. Whether it's this week against OSU, next week at Lincoln or the week after against K-State, I have no idea, but I think the Tigers drop one of those three. And still, I think they win the North. They have to make sure they win the right games, but Mizzou has a good shot at the tiebreaker. I see an 8-and-3 finish and a North title. And, by the way, cheer for K-State this weekend. That would help this come true.
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