What to watch when the Missouri Tigers play the Wyoming Cowboys at 6:30 p.m. Saturday (CBS Sports Network) in Laramie, Wyo.:
1. What can Bryant do in Mizzou debut?
This might be hard to believe, but when Mizzou and Wyoming kick off Saturday, Kelly Bryant will become the first quarterback to make his Mizzou debut in his first career start with the program since … Brad Smith in 2002. Every QB starter since Smith’s debut in St. Louis against Illinois appeared in games as a backup prior to his first start, from Chase Daniel to Blaine Gabbert to James Franklin to Corbin Berkstresser to Maty Mauk to Drew Lock.
The biggest question about Bryant’s Mizzou debut will focus on his legs, as in how much will he leave the pocket on designed runs and scrambles? He came to Mizzou to develop his passing skills in preparation for next year’s NFL draft, but he figures to do some running, too. As Clemson’s full-time starter in 2017, Bryant averaged nearly 14 carries a game for 48 yards.
“Certainly when a quarterback can make plays with his feet it brings you another dimension,” MU offensive coordinator Derek Dooley said. “You don’t have to be a football coach to understand that. How we use it is going to be the key. It’s easy to say, ‘Well, we just use his legs and we’ll be great.’ But how do you implement it? There’s a lot of quarterbacks out there who can make plays with their legs and they don’t win every game. There’s more to it than that. He’s got to make throws. He’s got to make good decisions. He’s got to be good with the ball. You can’t just go out there and run around and play rat-trap football.”
2. Can Mizzou dominate the trenches?
If there’s a mismatch in this game, it will be in the trenches when Missouri’s massive offensive line tangles with Wyoming’s defensive line. From tackle to tackle, the Tigers’ five offensive linemen average 324 pounds, compared to 255 pounds for Wyoming’s four defensive linemen. That’s an invitation for Mizzou to wear down the undersized Cowboys with a pounding running game, a plan that worked well for the Tigers down the stretch last season when Larry Rountree became the centerpiece to the running game. Wyoming has to replace five D-linemen from a strong 2018 unit and might not have the depth or muscle to hold off Mizzou’s front, especially gargantuan guards Larry Borom (6-6, 340) and Tre’Vour Wallace-Simms (6-5, 330).
3. Will Tigers discover an edge rush?
Wyoming isn’t expected to feature a dynamic passing attack behind redshirt freshman quarterback Sean Chambers, who was more of a running threat in his four-game cameo last season. The Cowboys turn back the clock on offense with a two-back system that favors long, methodical drives behind a power running game that sets up play-action passes. For the Tigers, on the few occasions Wyoming throws the ball, the defensive ends will be under the microscope as Mizzou looks to improve its weakest position group from 2018. Projected starter Trajan Jeffcoat is recovering from an elbow injury, vaulting Jatorian Hansford into the starting lineup for what should be his most extensive playing time. The Tigers need more from veterans Chris Turner and Tre Williams.
4. Busy day for Tucker McCann?
For the first time in his up and down career, Tucker McCann will pull double duty for the Tigers on Saturday as the team’s kicker and punter. He’s got a chance to finish his career as MU’s all-time points leader — especially if Mizzou leads the country in field goal attempts again this year — but now he’s the punter, too, after winning a camp competition with a couple of walk-ons. In a perfect world the Tigers won’t have to punt very often, but the coaching staff will have to monitor McCann’s usage, especially if he also handles the kickoff duties. The Tigers have room for growth across their special teams, especially in the return game, where they were one of the least productive punt return units last season.
5. Will altitude become a factor?
We can’t forget about the altitude. The most-asked questions at Mizzou’s media session this week focused on playing at 7,220 feet above sea level at Wyoming’s War Memorial Stadium, the highest elevation for any FBS stadium in the country. Will the thin air trouble the Tigers on either side of the ball? If anything, Missouri might need to rotate its defensive linemen more liberally if Wyoming mounts any extended offensive possessions, but otherwise the Tigers believe they’ll be properly conditioned for the unique environment. Wyoming hasn’t exactly capitalized on what’s supposed to be a home-field advantage, going just 30-26 in Laramie in the 2010s.
Prediction: Missouri 34, Wyoming 14