The Missouri Tigers
enter the final stretch run of their season this weekend, traveling to Baylor
to take on the Bears and their ultra-talented young quarterback, Robert Griffin
. (I know, it's actually Robert Griffin III, but that's a real pain in the ass to type.) The Tigers are coming off their best win of the season, a huge comeback victory over Texas A&M
last week in College Station
Currently sitting at 4-4 on the season, the Tigers will need to step up their play down the stretch if they hope to win enough games to gain bowl eligibility for the season. Luckily for them, Baylor is the last road game on the schedule, though the neutral-site season finale against Kansas is a home game in name only. Going 2-2 in their final four games is definitely doable, but by no means a sure thing.
We all knew it would be a transitional season for the Tigers, coming out of the Blaine Gabbert era and starting a sophomore at quarterback, but it has proved even tougher sledding than expected for Mizzou at times this year. Losing a heartbreaker to Arizona State wasn't in the program, and coming up short in a very winnable game at Kansas State didn't help matters either.
James Franklin was the story coming in, and he has largely remained the story throughout. So entering the do-or-die stretch run, now seems like a good time to take an updated stock of how Franklin has done in his first season at the helm of the Tiger offense.
It hasn't been all smiles for Franklin this year.
Any analysis of the Tigers' successes and failures this season -- or any other season, really -- has to begin with the play of the quarterback. The Missouri system is as heavily QB-driven as any in college football; a mediocre quarterback just can't win playing in Columbia
There's been good and bad with Franklin this season, and in roughly equal measure. On the plus side, he's proven to be as dynamic a threat with his legs as advertised, and has combined with Henry Josey to give Missouri an explosive running game they haven't had since at least the departure of Brad Smith. (And maybe not even then. Smith was a marvel, but he never had a back flanking him with the kind of talent Josey possesses.) Franklin's scrambling ability is top-notch as well, and has allowed him to extend plays over the course of the season in quite a few tough situations.
On the downside, my initial concerns about Franklin's throwing ability have largely proven correct. He's fairly accurate, and isn't particularly mistake-prone, but the arm strength is a definite black mark. Franklin lacks the ability to fit the ball into tight windows, and puts too much air under the ball quite often. While I say he's accurate enough, his completion percentage is still well below 60%, a number that reflects his struggles at finding the spaces between defenders and will have to improve if the Tigers hope to compete consistently in the future.
Multiple times this season opposing defensive backs have jumped routes on Franklin, picking off the pass or knocking it away, and the issue isn't bad routes or even bad location on the throw. The ball just simply takes too long to get there. Franklin throwing, especially over the middle of the field, is not going to work very often. The extra fraction of a second his ball takes to arrive gives defenders just enough of a moment to make a play more often than not.
Unfortunately, I'm afraid the issue of arm strength limits the Tigers' options for improving their passing game. Watching the Tigers this season, I've often thought how effective a quick slant route here or there would be, given the spacing defenses often affect against the Mizzou attack. But with Franklin's lack of zip on the ball, I'm not sure those fast underneath throws would be feasible.
I will say Franklin has a nice touch throwing fades routes and working the seams. He has a great feel for lofting the ball out in the intermediate route area, and he can even get the ball over the top of a defense to a defender running downfield, which does give the Tigers options deep. The lack of arm strength actually shows up more on shorter throws, when he's unable to fit the ball into tight spaces or traffic than on those throws which need more distance and loft.
Franklin did do some of his best work of the season just last week in leading the comeback against A&M. His overall day wasn't brilliant, perhaps, but in crunch time he operated smoothly, and his game-winning touchdown pass in overtime was perhaps his best of the year. A throw to Marcus Lucas that had the ideal combination of touch, distance, and location, it showed off Franklin's feel for the ball perfectly. His performance against A&M was remarkably encouraging overall, coming off the worst game of his career, when he threw four interceptions against Oklahoma State, at least two of which were of the bad decision variety.
As much as anything, I still feel the coaching staff is missing opportunities in their use of Franklin. They've added in a fair number of plays to the playbook that take advantage of Franklin's mobility, but the overall offensive philosophy hasn't changed as much as I believe it should have. Gary Pinkel and David Yost could do more in modifying their playbook to take full advantage of one of the most dynamic combos in all of college football in Franklin and Josey. I'm not advocating a full switch to an option system or anything like that, but putting even one extra body in the backfield on some plays (and avoiding empty-backfield sets entirely), could open up the field even more by forcing defense to account for a third potential ball-carrier.
Overall, it's been a solid, successful season for Franklin. He inherited some rather enormous shoes, and has done well absorbing the playbook and making plays with his feet. There have been times when he's been very effective throwing the ball, but the path to victory with Franklin at quarterback is likely always going to come by way of the ground.
Franklin represents both a unique challenge and a huge opportunity for the coaching staff at Missouri. He isn't capable of running the offense they've won with the past half-dozen years the same way their previous quarterbacks have, but the talent Franklin possesses is unique and dynamic enough that finding a way to utilize it on a consistent basis could very well take Mizzou to the same heights they've briefly tasted in recent years.