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Connor Bazelak’s debut performance against a Power 5 team was historic

Want some more context for how good the Tiger QB was against LSU? Just look back at Mizzou history.

NCAA Football: Louisiana State at Missouri Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

In the days since Missouri’s shocking 45-41 win over LSU, the national media have been pretty fixated on the performance of one guy in particular. That, of course, would be the fresh face of Connor Bazelak, the redshirt freshman who torched Bo Pelini’s defense like the sugary crust of a crème brûlée.

The numbers and accolades of Bazelak’s breakout performance speak for themselves, and it was immediately canonized as one of the best Mizzou quarterback performances of recent memory. But as crazy as it sounds... are we still underrating just how good Bazelak was on Saturday?

Consider this: While last week’s game wasn’t actually Bazelak’s first college start — that distinction belongs to last year’s Arkansas game, in which Bazelak notably tore his ACL — it was, in holistic fashion, Bazelak’s true debut. After all, week two’s game against Tennessee came only after a few chaotic series with Shawn Robinson, and the redshirt freshman only got a handful of chances against Alabama in week one. For all intents and purposes, October 10 was the first game in which Bazelak started and ended the game as QB-1. Not only that, it came against LSU, the defending national champions. (Did you know that LSU are the defending national champions? Figured you could use the reminder, in case you forgot.)

To get a better sense of Bazelak’s greatness on Saturday, I went back and looked at the Power 5 starting debuts of every QB that began his career in the 21st century. Yes, I know there were many great QBs at Missouri before the year 2000. However, it’s undisputed at this point that football has changed so drastically in the past two decades that it’s almost an entirely different game. So for the purposes of time and cohesion, we stuck with the past 20 years.

I did this seeking the answer to a singular question: Did Connor Bazelak just have the best Power Five debut of any quarterback in modern Missouri history? I think the answer is fairly clear.

Mizzou QB Power 5 Debuts

Player Comp. % Yds TD INT Rush Yds Rush TDs Opponent Result
Player Comp. % Yds TD INT Rush Yds Rush TDs Opponent Result
C. Bazelak 85 406 4 0 3 0 LSU Win
K. Bryant 68 150 3 0 0 0 West Virginia Win
D. Lock 75 136 2 0 0 0 South Carolina Win
M. Mauk 50 295 1 1 15 1 Florida Win
J. Franklin 62 319 2 0 84 1 Arizona State Loss
B. Gabbert 76 319 3 0 39 1 Illinois Win
C. Daniel 60 243 1 0 89 1 Ole Miss Win
B. Smith 58 152 0 0 138 1 Illinois Win

To be honest, the spreadsheet does most of the work here. There’s probably only one performance on this list that comes close to Bazelak’s thrashing of LSU, but we can’t just stop here can we? Of course not. So let’s examine what are, in my opinion, three of the worthiest contenders. We’ll start early in the 21st century and work our way back to the present.

Brad Smith (Fr.) vs. Illinois, 2002

Illinois v Missouri Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

This game has a strong hold on my mind because, simply put, I was there and I was young. Brad Smith’s debut wasn’t necessarily the stuff of legends in the wider scope of college football, but it does hold some sort of mythic sway in the ether of Mizzou Football. Smith solidified from the jump that he was a dual-threat through and through, combining for 290 total yards, 52 percent through the air and 48 percent on the ground. Most impressively, he averaged 7.7 yards a carry, easily the best of a Missouri runner for the day. And he did it all against the defending Big 10 champions who were favored by a touchdown.

As for the narrative significance of Brad Smith’s debut, it was the beginning of two legendary careers — Smith’s and Gary Pinkel’s. Pinkel wouldn’t see his greatest successes as the Tigers’ head coach for another five years, but Smith was his first big victory — a quarterback who broke 69 (nice!) records in his illustrious career.

Conclusion: Honestly, this is the one that first came to my mind when I considered this article. But on further inspection, it’s cooler because of what it would portend for the future of Mizzou Football. Don’t get me wrong, Smith was very good against Illinois, but the numerical significance of Bazelak’s performance is enough to make this fall short.

Blaine Gabbert (So.) vs. Illinois, 2009

University of Illinois Illinois Fighting v University of Missouri Tigers Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

OK, this is the big one, if you’re asking me. Gabbert’s numbers aren’t quite as good as Bazelak’s in a vacuum, but they’re still pretty damn impressive. In Before the Box Score, BK and Nate have discussed how few times Mizzou quarterbacks have notched an 80 percent completion rate against Power Five teams, and Gabbert was two completions away in this one. Sure, he was working with Danario Alexander, Michael Egnew and Wes Kemp, but you don’t knock a QB for the guys he’s throwing to.

What really sells Gabbert’s challenging case is the rushing situation. Derrick Washington was a good running back, but he was no Larry Rountree III. Even still, Washington had a mediocre day on the gridiron, rushing for 61 yards on 14 carries (a 4.4 YPC), that becomes less impressive when you consider 32 of those yards came on one play. Remove that play and Washington averaged 2.2 YPC on the day. Also consider that in college football, sacks are counted against quarterbacks rushing numbers. Gabbert was sacked twice on the day for a total of -16 yards. Remove those two sacks, and Gabbert rushed for 55 yards on eight carries, a YPC of 6.9. That’s pretty nice if you ask me. The lack of a reliable running game made the degree of difficulty for Gabbert a little greater, something Bazelak didn’t have to worry about.

Conclusion: In my opinion, you could make a case that Gabbert’s Power 5 starting debut was equally as impressive as Bazelak’s. But is there a case that he was better? Probably not. We won’t know for another few weeks if LSU is any good, but Bazelak’s performance came against the defending national champs, while Gabbert’s came against a falling Illini squad. Throw in the fact that Bazelak was working in a new offense, and I think he edges out Gabbert.

Maty Mauk (Fr.) vs. Florida, 2013

Florida v Missouri Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Probably the most controversial pick on this list is the starting Power 5 debut of Maty Mauk, who was called upon to lead the way after James Franklin was injured against Georgia the previous week. Was the Georgia game Mauk’s real debut? Perhaps, but there has to be some significance to Mauk being QB1 during practices and getting the call from the jump against a then-vaunted Gator team.

There are two things working against Mauk here, other than the fact that his numbers suggest he wasn’t actually all that great in this game. First, he was likely playing on the second-best Missouri team of the past few decades (and easily the best team of any player on this list.) At any given point, Mauk was throwing to targets like Dorial Green-Beckham, L’Damian Washington, Bud Sasser, Marcus Lucas, and others. Not only that, he was protected by a line full of future pros, and could hand the ball off to Henry Josey, Russell Hansborough or Marcus Murphy. God, that team was stacked.

Second, while the win against Florida was another Top 25 scalp the 2013 Tigers added to their collection, we know with the benefit of hindsight that 2013 Florida was Actually Not Good. They weren’t exactly awful, but played a bland, Will Muschampy kind of football that led to four one-score losses on the season and a seven-game losing streak to close the year.

But you have to give Mauk credit for stepping up and leading a hot Missouri team to a decisive victory against an SEC East powerhouse. While his numbers weren’t sterling, Mauk was good enough when being thrust into the spotlight, and hammered home his performance with an explosive touchdown run late to seal the deal.

Conclusion: I really just included this section for word count and flavor. Did you really read this far? If you did, hit me up on Twitter (@joshmajika) or in the comments, and I will personally thank you.

At this point, it’s probably pretty clear on where I stand, but I’ll say it out loud for posterity’s sake: Connor Bazelak just had the best Power Five starting debut of any QB of the past 20 years and maybe longer. Better than Drew Lock. Better than Blaine Gabbert. Better than Chase Daniel. Better than Brad Smith.

Does that mean Bazelak will be better than all those legends? By no means. But football scholars and writers are constantly calling fans to, “put things in perspective,” in order to dampen down their (sometimes irrational) feelings of excitement.

There’s no need to do that this time. Connor Bazelak was as good as he looked on Saturday, and history bears it out.