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PREGAMIN’ ARKANSAS

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IT MAY BE THANKSGIVING WEEKEND, BUT HAM IS ON THE MENU. LET’S EAT TOO MUCH, PASS OUT, WAKE UP, GO TO FAYETTEVILLE AND FEAST SOME MORE

Drink Up!

Now this is the Drink I’ve come to know and love.

Drinkwitz followed up a death knell victory over Dan Mullen by landing a blue-chip 2023 recruit and going agricultural on him. Did my man seriously just deliver a mini-sermon on the values of reaping and sowing? Got his ass.

If you’re a recruit, I would have to think this sort of stuff is refreshing from the coach of Missouri. The Tigers may never be at the same level of Florida on an historic perspective, but it feels good that this era of being neck-and-neck with them will continue on... and continue on with some verbal flare!

Came Through Drippin’

Just in time for Black Friday, Mizzou is breaking out the all bl- wait, what’s this?

Well, the black jersey is back, so that’s nice. And the Oval Tiger is also back which... OK, sure. And then white pants?

As I said last week, I’ll stand by the Oval Tigers against monochrome jerseys. They’re a nice accent logo, and don’t do too much to distract from the overall design of the threads themselves. But once you start introducing different colors, they’re too much. A black helmet with a white M or even a white helmet with a Black M would’ve been so slick.

What the “Experts” are saying

Wouldn’t you know it, the Tigers are bowl eligible for the second time in two years under Eli Drinkwitz. After an early season stretch where we all seemed to bury the Tigers, how impressive has the run to six wins been in your mind?

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 20 Florida at Missouri Photo by Rick Ulreich/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Nate Edwards, Football Editor: Drinkwitz has done a great job of keeping this team bought in and winning games against the 35th toughest schedule in the nation. It’s very easy for a team to completely check out when things get tough and you lose games you shouldn’t lose (just ask Florida!), so he gets credit for keeping the team together and engaged. It’s also been impressive how, at the beginning of this year, this team won games with a timely passing game and the heroics of Tyler Badie that put up 35 points per game and hoped that the defense only gave up 34; now, a defense that finally figured everything out is crushing offenses into three touchdowns and hoping the offense can muster four.

Part of that is on Drinkwitz and this staff for not having a quarterback that’s better than a one-legged, noodle-armed, third year player, but this isn’t some Odom smoke and mirrors mirage: Central Michigan and South Carolina are bowl eligible while North Texas and Florida are both one game away from doing so. Odom won against teams that sucked in SP+ and had losing records. Drinkwitz, while getting flattened by any team with comparable athletes and a pulse, has beaten teams that are at least competent and able to make it in the postseason. That’s a noticeable difference and definitely something worth giving credit to.

Brandon Kiley, Lead Football Writer: It’s interesting, I was asking someone about this recently. Let’s travel into a hypothetical world in which Missouri beats Arkansas on Friday. Will we look back at this season and say, “You know what, given the circumstances, that was a pretty darn successful year to finish the year 7-5.” Or are we more likely to say, “Wow, if they took care of business against Kentucky and Boston College, that team had a real chance to finish the season 9-3?”

Both are fair ways to view the season. I think I fit into the former category more than the latter because of the way the season played out. This isn’t the same defense we watched earlier in the season; they’ve progressed. Maybe it’s just a matter of sequencing and it shouldn’t matter, but it changes things for me to see how that unit has improved from week one to where we are at the end of the season.

Regardless what happens against the Razorbacks, this season has ultimately met or been close to meeting expectations. The on-field product gave Mizzou fans enough to stay optimistic about while the recruiting side of things has given fans plenty of reasons to believe the program is in good hands. I don’t think it’s fair to evaluate this coaching staff in one of those categories without mentioning the other. Overall, it’s been an impressive season from Drinkwitz and his staff to get his team to bowl eligibility with a game still remaining on the schedule.

Josh Matejka, Deputy Site Manager: It’s been massively impressive, especially when you consider that Drinkwitz did something that’s seemingly impossible: he got his team to flip a switch. Missouri is certainly at a talent deficit from some of the SEC’s best, but it was obvious early on that the deficit wasn’t quite as massive as it seemed in October. There as a myriad of issues, but the main one that seemed evident was the effort. The Tigers seemed to quit on themselves early on, and as we’ve seen at schools like Florida, it’s hard to stop that train.

But somehow Eli Drinkwitz got the Tigers to believe in themselves again. Be it through constant personnel juggling or maybe some grand speech we missed, Drink found something deeper in his roster and pulled it out. That’s encouraging, especially with how quickly he’s upping the overall talent level. If six-win seasons are the new floor at Missouri, especially with flawed rosters like this one, things are looking up in Columbia.

Steve Wilks has had a wild first year at Missouri, resurrecting his fledgling Tiger career from the ashes in a manner of weeks. Are you fully bought in on Wilks now, or do you still need to see more before making the leap?

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 09 North Texas at Missouri Photo by Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Nate Edwards: I’m not fully bought in yet because he was the dude in charge of... whatever the hell defense we saw in the first seven weeks. But, at the same time, he’s also the dude in charge of the defense that we’ve seen over the past month, one that held Georgia to season lows on the ground and wiped out any hope of a consistent rushing attack from Vanderbilt, South Carolina, and Florida. The Arkansas game is going to be a huge test for this defense, but also keep in mind: this defense was going to stink in 2021 regardless of coordinator. The fact that he’s gotten the 2020 leftovers into 2018-levels of stoutness, and will be returning every edge rusher and every member of the secondary in 2022, is a reason for me to be a “not bought in yet but trending there” vote.

Brandon Kiley: I’ll let Nate and Josh be the pessimists here and I’ll take the eternal optimist point of view: Yeah, I’m on board. I don’t know what the ceiling is for his defense, but I know the floor shouldn’t be what we saw early in this season. Wilks is a better coach than the product we were watching on the field.

I still have some questions. The personnel decisions, especially early, were wonky. Akayleb Evans went from starting the season on the bench to being arguably Missouri’s best defensive player. It took half the season to give Chad Bailey consistent reps. There was that weird game plan against Tennessee in which Missouri suddenly went to a 3-3-5 with a defensive lineman lined up at middle linebacker. That was the mark of a desperate team, not one getting close to turning things around.

So it’s fair to have some skepticism. But his unit has shown more than enough to buy into the fact that Wilks should be back next year and there should be some expectations for his unit. It’s also been nice to see players seemingly improve under his staff’s watchful eye.

Josh Matejka: I’m not even fully “bought in” on Drinkwitz yet, so we probably need to hedge just a little. But I also don’t see how you can look at the job Wilks has done and think he doesn’t deserve another year. We spent weeks theorizing what the issue was as Mizzou continually got pummeled on the ground — was it talent, or was it Wilks’ system? The answer seems to be the system, mostly because that’s what the players are saying. Again, that’s encouraging because this unit still has holes to fill. And with the talent coming from the recruiting trail, it’s hard to not get excited about what could be next if Wilks’ scheme continues to translate. That’s an if not a when, but it’s certainly more possible than it seemed just a few weeks ago.

It’s hard to call Mizzou vs. Arkansas a true “rivalry” when the Razorbacks can rarely ever find a way to topple their neighbors to the north. But Sam Pittman has the Hogs playing well in 2021, and Arky will be favored to win their first Battle Line game in six years. What’s the key to stopping the Razorbacks?

NCAA Football: Arkansas at Alabama Gary Cosby Jr.-USA TODAY Sports

Nate Edwards: It’s a Briles offense so everything is predicated on the zone running concepts. Trelon Smith and KJ Jefferson - despite playing two different positions - have nearly the same amount of carries and same amount of yards on the ground. The Hogs love to run on every down so if Mizzou can shut that down then they only have to worry about a solid, explosive passing game. Jefferson to Treylon Burks - Arkansas’ power-forward receiver - is an effective passing duo and one that the Tiger secondary will absolutely be challenged by.

Barry Odom’s defense is not what Missouri wants to see right now: excellent against the run, spotty against the pass, and a nightmare in passing down situations. Drink is going to have to get creative in his Tyler Badie usage and hope someone else can step up and make some plays. If they can be efficient through the air they’ll have a chance at consistently moving the ball, but former Tigers Tre Williams and Markell Utsey are going to happily be in Bazelak’s face all day so this could be another low-scoring affair.

Brandon Kiley: Good luck! This is going to be tough. Arkansas is legitimately good. I panned the Pittman hire when it was made, but he’s impressed the heck out of me with the coordinator hires he’s made and the way he’s been able to rally that fanbase behind his team.

Arkansas is one of the best rushing offenses Missouri has faced this season. K.J. Jefferson, Trelon Smith, Raheim Sanders and Dominique Johnson are all a threat to run it at any time. And if they’re not, the ball is probably going to end up in Treylon Burks’ hands. He’s one of the best receivers in the country for a reason.

The spread is what it is for a reason. Arkansas is the better team coming into this game. How does Missouri win? It’s going to be tough. It would require another impressive performance against the run much like we’ve seen the last few weeks. Force Arkansas into third and long situations, and double the heck out of Burks. Arkansas tends to put the ball on the ground (19 fumbles this season), and a couple turnovers could prove crucial. If you do all of that, you give yourself a chance.

The real key, of course, is Connor Bazelak. Arkansas has a very good run defense. Tyler Badie will get his, but Missouri simply can’t win this game without multiple big-time plays from Bazelak. Here’s to hoping.

Josh Matejka: ESPN’s efficiency numbers grade out Arkansas and Florida’s offenses very similarly (25th and 26th, respectively), so Missouri fans should have some confidence that the Tigers can get it done. But there will be some new challenges to hurdle. For one thing, the Tigers haven’t seen a receiver quite like Treylon Burks in a minute. Someone will need to be strong on him, and that task becomes much more difficult if Akayleb Evans truly is going to hang up the cleats until the NFL workouts (we don’t know that for sure, but...)

On top of the passing game, which has been pretty strong for Arkansas, the Tigers will have to contend with two Razorbacks who can run. Trelon Smith is a strong enough back in his own right, but KJ Jefferson has been the preferred runner for Pittman, with 10 more attempts and one more TD than Smith on the season

PICK ‘EM! Arkansas is more than a two touchdown favorite against the Tigers in Fayetteville, but these games always tend to be close. Does Missouri have a shot at pulling the upset? If so, who’s the star that makes it happen?

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 20 Florida at Missouri Photo by Rick Ulreich/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Nate Edwards: It’s simple: Missouri is undefeated when Tyler Badie runs for more than 100 yards and un-win-feated when Tyler Badie runs for less than 100 yards. So get Tyler Badie 100 yards, please!

I’m not sure that happens, though. Missouri has a five-game winning streak against the Razorbacks and much better Arkansas teams have lost to much worse Missouri teams in the past. But given the strengths that Pittman’s boys have and the obvious limitations of the offense, I’m going to say that Missouri loses but covers, 34-24. Prove me wrong, gents.

Brandon Kiley: I’m with Nate. I just think this Arkansas team will prove to be too much for the Tigers. I like Arkansas to win at home 37-27. I hope they can prove me wrong. It would be one heck of a story for the Tigers to win four of their final five games, including wins against both Florida and Arkansas. A win on Friday likely locks up the fourth best record in the SEC East. I’m guessing Texas would settle for that right about now.

Not bad for one of Missouri’s “down years.”

Josh Matejka: Sure, they have a shot. I’ve seen enough from this Missouri defense to think they could keep the Razorbacks close and know enough about the offensive pieces to think they could keep up. The issue is getting those two units on the same page... and doing it in a hostile environment. I could see this being a one score game into the last few minutes with the Hogs forcing a key turnover to ice things... let’s say 34-28.

If Mizzou does win, I have to think Connor Bazelak will be the reason. Mizzou won’t win this game without a good or at least passable version of Bazelak. Last week’s version won’t cut it. In fact, most of this season’s versions won’t cut it. But it’s in there, and Bazelak could prove a lot of people wrong in his final regular season game of the year.