Nebraska's fade in football fortunes in recent years is, not coincidentally, related to the rise of Missouri's fortunes. Missouri has now won four out of the last six games between the two programs, with the winner of the last three games advancing to the Big XII Championship game. The last two games were total romps by Missouri, as the Tigers scored early and often to put the game away in the first half.
But 2009 will be different for both squads. On offense, both schools need to replace quarterbacks and their top two receivers. Chase Daniel leaves Columbia as Mizzou's all time leading passing quarterback, and Chase Coffman and Jeremy Maclin rank #2 and #3 all-time on the Tiger receiving charts. Maclin's numbers are even more impressive when you consider he only played two seasons in Black and Gold. All in all, only ten starters return to Columbia this fall. Not all was lost from the Tigers offense; junior running back Derrick Washington returns to build on his 1,078 yard, 17 touchdown season in 2008.
Daniel will be replaced by one-time Husker recruit Blaine Gabbert, another in a long line of Bill Callahan quarterback recruits now attending school elsewhere. After struggling through an injury-plaged senior season in high school and seeing spot mop-up duty as a true freshman in 2008, Gabbert will be the man in the spotlight for the Tigers. Going by Gabbert's spring game numbers only, Gabbert looks like a project. But that's the danger of looking solely at spring numbers; spring games aren't necessarily reflective of what players and teams will do in the fall. Gabbert's spring game numbers were further hampered by injuries to the top receivers; a week prior, Gabbert scorched the Tiger defense in a scrimmage.
Danario Alexander, if he can finally shake off injuries that have hampered him the last two seasons and this spring, should be Gabbert's top target in the passing game. Husker fans who didn't give up on the last two Missouri woodshed beatings might remember Alexander's third quarter touchdown receptions in each game. Alexander was held out of spring practice to try and clear up lingering issues in his knee. Jared Perry, who was injured as well this spring, is expected to start alongside Alexander at receiver. Tight end Andrew Jones caught 20 passes in 2008 as an understudy to Coffman; expect bigger things from Jones this fall.
As Pinkel's program has progressed, so has the depth on the offensive line, led by right guard Kurtis Gregory, a second-team all-Big XII player in 2008. All told, three starters return up front as well as true sophomore Dan Hoch, who played quite a bit in 2008.
Missouri's defense gave up a lot of yards and points in 2008, even for a Big XII team: ninth in the conference for total defense, last for pass defense (third worst in the nation!). Some of that, no doubt, was because the offense scored so quickly. In defense of the defense, the Tigers were third in the conference in scoring defense last season. From that unit, the Tigers lose seven starters, including all-Big XII Ziggy Hood and second team Stryker Sulak on the defensive line.
Up front, the Tiger defense will be led by defensive tackle Jaron Baston. Hopes are high for defensive ends Aldon and Jacquies Smith (no relation) to rejuvenate the defense. Cconsensus all-Big XII linebacker Sean Weatherspoon returns for his senior season. Named third team all-American last season, he'll be the centerpiece of the Tiger defense. In the secondary, only starting cornerback Carl Gettis returns. Cornerback Kevin Rutland got a hattip from ESPN's Tim Griffin as an emerging playmaker this spring. RockMNation expects Kenji Anderson to be an impact player in a secondary that some feel can't help but improve in 2009.
Even the coaching staff is undergoing some turnover in 2009. Offensive coordinator is now the head coach at Wyoming, replaced by quarterback coach David Yost. Defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus is now the Cleveland Browns' linebackers coach, replaced by Tiger linebackers coach Dave Steckel.
With all the changes in Columbia, nobody is predicting the Tigers to repeat as Big XII North champions in 2009. In fact, many are predicting the Tigers to finish third. Phil Steele went so far as to predict a losing season and fifth place for the Tigers. That's the fear of the unknown facing the Tigers; if the Tigers have the answers for their critics, they could find a Big XII North ready for picking. Looking in at mid-summer, those predictions of middle of the division seem on-target at this point. More question marks than Nebraska and Kansas, and more solid foundation to build on than the rest of the division.