So here we are, with Eli Drinkwitz’s squad sitting at 2-3 through the first half of the season, an objectively successful first half. Now comes the hard part. Now comes the half of the schedule where the expectations rise a bit. What needs to happen for Missouri to live up to those expectations?
Let’s take a look.
Week 6 - Nov. 14: Georgia
- Offensive rankings in SEC: T6th in points per game (29), 8th in rushing yards per carry (4.2), 10th QB Rating (125), 6th in 3rd down conversion rate (47%), 10th in red zone touchdown rate (58%), 11th in giveaways (9)
- Defensive rankings in SEC: 1st in points per game allowed (16.2), 1st in rushing yards per carry allowed (2.5), 1st QB Rating allowed (119), 3rd in 3rd down conversion rate allowed (36%), 1st in red zone touchdown rate allowed (43%), 5th in takeaways (9)
Let’s not get it twisted - Georgia is really good. Really, really good. The Bulldogs are currently sixth overall in Bill Connelly’s SP+ rankings. The offense is middling, but the defense is probably the best in the country. There is no real reason to believe the Tigers should win this game against the Bulldogs. That’s not a shot against what Drinkwitz’s accomplished. It’s just reality.
Week 7 - Nov. 21: at South Carolina
- Offensive rankings in SEC: T6th in points per game (29), 7th in rushing yards per carry (4.5), 9th QB Rating (126), 9th in 3rd down conversion rate (41%), 3rd in red zone touchdown rate (72%), T2nd in giveaways (6)
- Defensive rankings in SEC: 9th in points per game allowed (30), 10th in rushing yards per carry allowed (4.3), T6th QB Rating allowed (142), 5th in 3rd down conversion rate allowed (37%), 4th in red zone touchdown rate allowed (57%), T7th in takeaways (8)
South Carolina is when things get interesting again. The Gamecocks are 65th overall in Connelly’s SP+ rankings. The Tigers are 74th. South Carolina had a really poor performance against LSU, but otherwise has performed admirably this season. The Gamecocks have mirrored the Tigers in some ways, with an upset victory against Auburn and a moral victory against Tennessee.
South Carolina isn’t particularly dominant in any one area. They don’t give the ball away offensively, and they’re good on third downs and finishing drives in the red zone on both sides of the ball.
This is the type of game I would like to see Larry Rountree really come through in. South Carolina has given up at least 200 yards on the ground in each of its last two games. This isn’t a must-win, but it’s the type of game that can get the momentum swinging back in the Tigers’ direction for the stretch run.
Week 8 - Nov. 28: Arkansas
- Offensive rankings in SEC: 9th in points per game (24.6), 12th in rushing yards per carry (3.2), 6th QB Rating (145), 13th in 3rd down conversion rate (33%), 9th in red zone touchdown rate (61%), T5th in giveaways (7)
- Defensive rankings in SEC: 8th in points per game allowed (28.8), 12th in rushing yards per carry allowed (4.55), 2nd QB Rating allowed (121), 4th in 3rd down conversion rate allowed (37%), T8th in red zone touchdown rate allowed (58%), 1st in takeaways (13)
This might be a must-win. Arkansas isn’t a bad team; they’re 70th in Connelly’s SP+ rankings. But the Razorbacks are living on razor thin margins right now. The offense isn’t very good, the defense is in full bend but don’t break mode, and their real saving grace thus far has been their ability to force takeaways.
That’s great, until you face teams that don’t turn the ball over often. This is another game Rountree should impose his will in. Auburn, Ole Miss and Texas A&M each ran for at least 180 yards against Arkansas. Run the ball, don’t put the ball in harms way and win this game 23-17. That’s the type of game this is going to have to be, because that’s how Arkansas wants to play.
Missouri can’t lose to Barry Odom. Please don’t lose to Odom. Arkansas and South Carolina are swing games. If the Tigers can only win one of those two, I would absolutely Arkansas.
Week 9 - Dec. 5: at Mississippi State
- Offensive rankings in SEC: 13th in points per game (14.8), 14th in rushing yards per carry (1.7), 14th QB Rating (112), 12th in 3rd down conversion rate (33%), 14th in red zone touchdown rate (25%), 14th in giveaways (19)
- Defensive rankings in SEC: 8th in points per game allowed (29.6), 2nd in rushing yards per carry allowed (3.4), T6th QB Rating allowed (142), 1st in 3rd down conversion rate allowed (35%), 7th in red zone touchdown rate allowed (59%), T9th in takeaways (7)
Guys, Mississippi State is bad. Really bad. The Bulldogs are 74th in Connelly’s SP+ rankings, but that ranking is propped up by an outlier performance in the opening week against LSU. Mississippi State’s offense has scored a combined 30 points in four games since its 44 point barrage in the first week of the season.
Yeah. It’s been ugly. Their running game is non-existent. The defense has been solid against the run, and they get off the field well on third downs, but they can be had through the air when they’re not playing Arkansas or Kentucky.
If South Carolina and Arkansas are dependent on the running game, this game is dependent on Connor Bazelak. This is the week when Bazelak needs to prove once again he’s capable of leading the Tigers to victory. I don’t have much doubt that he can. Mississippi State is a must-win for this team to accomplish what we believe they’re capable of doing.
Week 10 - Dec. 12: Vanderbilt
- Offensive rankings in SEC: 14th in points per game (11.8), 13th in rushing yards per carry (3.0), 12th QB Rating (121), 10th in 3rd down conversion rate (39%), 13th in red zone touchdown rate (40%), T11th in giveaways (9)
- Defensive rankings in SEC: 13th in points per game allowed (38.3), 14th in rushing yards per carry allowed (5.9), 14th QB Rating allowed (178), 8th in 3rd down conversion rate allowed (44%), 10th in red zone touchdown rate allowed (67%), T11th in takeaways (6)
This is the one game that the Tigers simply can not lose. Vanderbilt isn’t just the worst team in the SEC. It’s one of the worst football teams in the country. SP+ ranks Vandy 121st out of 127 teams in the rankings. Their offense does nothing well. Their defense can’t stop a nose bleed.
Mississippi State is a must-win for the Tigers to meet expectations. Vanderbilt is just a must-win. Period. This is the game the Tigers have no business losing. It’s not about expectations. It’s about preventing the disaster game. This would be a disastrous loss, especially going into the offseason. Drinkwitz needs to make sure the team is ready to play, but there’s no real reason to believe he won’t.
What does it all mean?
Missouri is off to a good start. If you told me coming into the year the Tigers would be 2-3 with wins against LSU and Kentucky in the first half of the season, I would have been thrilled. Those wins are what have the ability to set this season over the top. The second half of the season is where the foundation is built.
Tigers fans had two main complaints about the Odom tenure. First of all, he didn’t pull off enough upsets. It never felt like there was a reason to believe there was a ceiling to what Odom offered. His teams also seemed to have an implosion game every season. There would be a week here and there where the team just didn’t show up to the field, and they lost games they had no business losing.
Drinkwitz has already done the former. LSU is a massive victory for this program, no matter where that team is right now. Kentucky is the same team Odom never beat. The second half of the season offers an opportunity for Drinkwitz to prevent the latter. Mississippi State and Vanderbilt are teams the Tigers shouldn’t lose to. Vanderbilt has no business winning that game. Mississippi State would just be a disappointing loss.
The floor for this team should be three wins. Four wins is a successful year. Five wins is where you start getting excited. Anything more is nothing short of fantastic.
Drinkwitz has already created a believer out of me. The second half of the season he has another opportunity to prove the first half was no fluke.