The Florida game marked the halfway point of Eli Drinkwitz’s first season at the helm of the Missouri Tigers, and I think most fans would say being 2-3 at this point is a very pleasant surprise, especially after the Vanderbilt game was moved. At this time, I think it would be appropriate to go back and see how this Tigers team has stacked up to their preseason projections.
There was a lot of uncertainty coming into the season on the offensive side of the ball at all positions other than running back. It was an easy consensus that the strength of this Tiger offense would be Larry Rountree and Tyler Badie, but the rest of the offense has definitely been surprising.
You can look under center to find the first surprise. Most had Shawn Robinson penciled in at Quarterback for the Tigers this year, but that experiment ended after the first 5 quarters of the season. Connor Bazelak has come in an inserted himself firmly as a legitimate SEC QB. In fact, heading into week 7, Pro Football Focus had Bazelak ranked as the 6th best quarterback in the conference. Through roughly 4 games of snaps, Bazelak is sitting at 69.1%, 1101 YDs, and a 4 TD - 1 INT ratio. He has also thrown for more than 200 yards in every game that he took majority of the snaps. That production from the QB spot comes as a huge surprise, especially since it isn’t from former blue-chip prospect Shawn Robinson.
The receiving corps has also been a pleasant surprise, and, although a go-to receiver hasn’t emerged, there has been no drop off from last season after losing key contributors. Jalen Knox leads the team after moving to the slot, but guys like Keke Chism and Damon Hazelton haven’t had the level of production they were predicted. Despite this, guys like Tauskie Dove, Barrett Banister, and Niko Hea have all filled this void of production throughout the year. As a whole, Mizzou receivers are averaging 11.1 Yds/Catch which is comparable to last year’s 11.8 despite losing multiple leading receivers and Albert O.
Larry Rountree and Tyler Badie have both been business as usual. Badie has been killing people catching balls out of the backfield as he averages 16.2 YDs/Catch this year, and Rountree has been a workhorse averaging 20 carries a game. They both are still averaging above 4 yards a carry, and this is definitely the unit that has performed most comparable to their pre season expectations.
The offensive line was expected to be the 2020 team’s biggest weakness, and while that probably is true, they have performed much better than expected. After losing 3 starters from a unit that struggled last year, the 2020 offensive line has only surrendered 9 sacks in 5 games or 1.8 sacks allowed/game compare to 27 in 12 games last year or 2.25 sacks allowed/game. The fact that this offensive is outperforming last year’s isn’t setting the bar very high, but with the loss of talent, it has to come as a surprise to those who follow the Tigers.
Overall, the Tigers are averaging 22.6 points per game and 384.2 YDs/Game after averaging 27.6 and 374.3 last year. However, I think anyone who watches the Tigers would say that the offense has improved this year and has outperformed Tiger expectations. Drinkwitz came in regarded as an offensive coach, but few people would have predicted averaging 384 YDs/Game against SEC defenses week in, week out. This offense still has work to do, but with the amount of overhaul from a team that was not very good last year and implementing a new system, I think the consensus would have to be that the Tiger offense is far bette this season than anyone predicted.
The Missouri defense was supposed to be the unit that carried this team this year. They returned a majority of a defense that surrendered less than 20 Points/Game including All-American Linebacker Nick Bolton and sacks leader Kobie Whiteside. Although this year’s unit isn’t able to boast the same stats as last year’s team, everything is relative. This defense has faced Alabama, LSU (with a healthy Myles Brennan), and Florida, three of the top four offenses in the SEC and the country in their first 5 games.
The biggest weakness of this year’s defense has to be the defensive line, however, that was predicted. After losing Jordan Elliot, there was sure to be a drop off on the line, and this year the Tigers have been pressuring the QB a lot less. They are averaging about half a sack less game than they did year’s previous and surrendering roughly 4 YDs/Carry. Although those numbers aren’t bad, when you watch the Tigers it feels like if the Tigers aren’t sending extra blitzers they have a hard time getting pressure in the backfield. This unit hasn’t been bad, but there is definitely room for improvement as predicted in the pre-season.
Another unit that has been par for the course has been the linebackers, however, their standard has been much higher. It seems like every week Nick Bolton makes a big play and keeps moving up draft boards. At this point, it would be hard to argue that he won’t be a surefire All-Ameircan come the end of the season. Devin Nicholson has been playing well, too, and improving every week. He has 38 tackles and an interception, including a big 13 tackle performance last week against a good Florida offense. Nick Bolton will always be the shining star, but Nicholson is proving to be a valuable sidekick. Performing like this is what was expected of this group, but meeting the expectations is a feat that shouldn’t be slighted.
A unit that was expected to be good and has possibly been even better is the secondary. The emergence of Martez Manuel has proved to be a huge help to this defense. He flies all over the field, and against one of the nations best offensive lines in Alabama he had 3.5 tackles for loss. Josh Bledsoe and Tyree Gillespie have both been as good as people predicted, but Bledsoe’s value might be even greater after making the game sealing play in both Tiger victories. Jarvis Ware has stepped up into the void left by Demarcus Acy, and a young Ennis Rakestraw has stood up strong against some of the SEC’s elite receivers. In the Tigers last game against Florida, Rakestraw had 3 PBUs and Ware had a pick 6 despite the Tigers struggling to contain a talented Gator offense.
It would be easy to say this defense hasn’t been as good as advertised coming into the year, but that would be a naive outlook. As opposed to years past, this defense has been through the gauntlet every week. Alabama and Florida are the two best offenses in the conference, and LSU with Brennan under center are no slouches either. Despite giving up 33 points/game, this defense has made big plays when needed like the goal-line stand against LSU and almost the whole game against Kentucky. In relation to the difficulty of their competition, this defense has played well and as was expected in the preseason.
When the SEC released their 10-game schedule, it didn’t look good for the Tigers. Most experts had the Tigers going 2-8 or 3-7. However, it looks like the Tigers will now win 3 games at a minimum, and probably more. The victories over LSU and Kentucky were both big upsets, and they still get to play Vanderbilt and Miss St. at the end of the year. Both of those games should be victories, but Miss St. is always liable to have a wild game with Mike Leach as the Head Coach. They also have winnable games against Arkansas and South Carolina and an almost sure loss against Gerogia. The game against South Carolina is on the road, but is probably more winnable than the Arkansas game, despite the Razorbacks coming to Columbia. When the season comes to an end it is likely the Tigers have some where between 3-5 wins, which would beat almost all preseason predictions. Five games in, this Mizzou team looks like they are actually much better than predicted in the preseason, and they are actually a middle-of-the-road SEC team as opposed to a predicted bottom feeder. This is surely a season that has brought hope and optimism back to football program that was looking for positives to come from a season full of unknowns.