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Resetting the Table Part II: Let’s talk about the quality of the Missouri Football team

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Last year’s team was fun but not good. Eat your vegetables.

West Virginia v Missouri Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images

If you missed Part I you can read it here.

As a reminder, we’re discussing my takes on this interaction...

...and whether I am reassessing this based on the transfer portal acquisitions from the past month.

Reader, it doesn’t change my assessment at all. I don’t see Missouri winning 10 games in 2021. I also don’t foresee them winning 9 games this upcoming season.

But let’s take a step back and look at this from the 5,000-foot view to figure out just where our beloved Missouri Tigers are currently situated, today looking at the quality of team that we currently have.

Neat!
mutigers.com

Team Quality

You all remember the LSU upset from last year. And finally beating Kentucky. And taking down Barry Odom’s Arkansas in a shootout. All good things! All lots of fun!

Do you remember getting dump trucked by a Tennessee team that won only 3 games and fired their coach? Or barely beating a terrible South Carolina squad that had every talented player sitting out (and also fired their coach)? Or getting boat raced by a Mike Leach Mississippi State team that ran the ball for 151 yards?

The 2020 team was fun but they were not good. I know not everyone subscribes to SP+ but as a forward-facing quality metric it’s a great indicator of how good a team is and what you can expect from them.

The 2020 team was, essentially, an average team, ranking 68th overall. The offense was 88th in the country and the defense was 50th.

As a comparison, the 2019 team was a touchdown better than the average team, ranking 39th overall. The offense was 90th in the country and the defense was 17th.

So...you’re telling me that the 2020 team that went 5-5 last season while going 3-0 in one possession games is going to not only get better but win 10 games while losing NFL draft picks at running back, offensive tackle, linebacker, and two of the three safety spots?

And, yes, some of those issues came from guys missing games because of COVID or injury, but now you’re introducing “haven’t played in a real game in a year” levels of uncertainty.

Before the season starts I like to continue the Bill Connelly tradition of “counting the ‘Ifs’” of the current team to see how well they can do; the more “ifs” that require something, the less likely it is to happen. If this team is to maintain their quality of last year then every returning player needs to match their production from 2020 while Connor Wood needs to be as good as Larry Borom, Blaze Alldredge replicates Nick Bolton, Trajan Jeffcoat repeats his All-SEC performance, and the backup safeties from last year turn into Josh Bledsoe and Tyree Gillespie.

And that’s just to be as good as last year.

To actually improve on last year’s performance, you need every impact transfer to make the same impact as the guy they are replacing; Connor Bazelak must find a deep-ball passing game and improve his yards per attempt by at least two yards (6.4 last year). The Tyler Badie/Elijah Young duo must be as reliable as Rountree was to grind out close games, with Badie most likely seeing double the touches he’s seen during any prior season in Columbia. Mookie Cooper must be a touchdown threat whenever he gets the ball and the rest of the receivers must be more reliable in the downfield passing game. The defensive line must be better at rushing the passer, meaning Kobe Whiteside must repeat his 2019 performance where he benefited from playing next to Jordan Elliott. The linebackers must be as havoc-inducing as they were last year, and the secondary must be better at breaking up passes and grabbing interceptions.

That’s 13 things that all must improve between last year and this year. I know the schedule is a little bit easier but that’s a lot of things going right all at once just to get a record above .500, let alone try to win 10 games.

So, other than trying to make everyone sad, what’s my point?

I want 10 wins as bad as you all do. Is it possible? Sure, I guess. So is a run at the Playoff or even zero wins for 2021, if you want to just look at all possible outcomes. My point is that I just don’t see 10 wins as a reasonable expectation here: Drinkwitz is bringing in talent but they’re all freshmen and last year’s team was just not that great. The difference between the 2020 team and the 2019 team is their performance in close games: Eli Drinkwitz went 3-0 in one-possession games, matching Barry Odom’s total career record in one-possession games (Barry was 3-9 in his career at Missouri). In his short time as a head coach Drinkwitz is #blessed with a 6-1 record in one-possession games and, at some point, he’s going to start losing a few of those games. But going undefeated in one-possession outcomes helped mask the lack of quality this 2020 team had.

I want you to look closely at this chart, it’s the SP+ rankings of every Missouri team since 2000:

Missouri SP+ History since 2000

This is a great way to show how a single recruiting class affects the team trajectory overall. Let me break it down for you:

  • The 2004/2005 recruiting classes were not highly ranked nationally (46th and 39th, respectively) but contained the transcendent talents that we grew to love - Tony Temple, William Moore, Will Franklin, Ryan Madison, Stryker Sulak in ‘04; Darnell Terrell, Chase Daniel, Chase Coffman, Jaron Baston, Brock Christopher, Kurtis Gregory, Ziggy Hood in ‘05. Those recruiting class redshirted (or got rotations) in the ‘05 season, finally took over in ‘06 when the team made a noticeable jump in quality, then were experienced starters in ‘07 and ‘08 when they won 22 games and two Big XII North Championships.
  • 2008’s 25th-ranked recruiting class got some experience in ‘08, were thrust into starting positions in ‘09 when the senior-led ‘08 team left and took their lumps (but maintained quality), then took off in ‘10 with another 10-win season.
  • 2010’s recruiting class (now the second-greatest ever) featured seven blue-chip talents and ten other recruits as 5.7 3-star recruits and still needed to redshirt and acclimate in ‘10. They were extremely talented but glitchy as hell in the 8-win 2011 campaign, then were all injured in the 2012 disaster season. They all came back in ‘13, won the East, and then the remnants came back in ‘14 and did it again.
  • 2015’s recruiting class (the third-greatest of all time) were pushed into starting roles as freshman on a flawed (and injured) 2015 squad. They weathered the coaching change of 2016, put together a massive losing streak and massive winning streak in ‘17, and then were incredibly unlucky to only win 8 games in 2018 (third-best SP+ ranking in Missouri history, behind the ‘07 and ‘08 squads).

This is my point with recruiting: one elite class surrounded by three mediocre classes can guarantee you one or two elite squads about two to three years down the road, dependent on how good the coaching staff is: that’s what happened with the 2010 recruiting class and it’s what happened to the 2015 recruiting class. It’s the four-year cycle that we got used to under Gary Pinkel’s tenure and it was what Barry Odom defenders - myself included - pointed out during the extremely lean Odom campaigns, where you take your ugly lumps while building towards an upperclassmen-lead, talented, experienced team. Recruiting multiple elite classes cuts that cycle down a bit as, now, you have multiple waves of elite recruits filling out the depth chart (which can cover for any recruiting “misses”) and extend the run of elite play a little longer. It’s why Alabama, Ohio State, and Clemson are national contenders every year and TCU, Washington, Oklahoma State, and Wisconsin are not.

But, most importantly, you can “see” the successes coming as the elite recruits get older and more experienced. Yes, some teams “make the jump” and break through in the win column earlier than expected but the quality of the team will tend to be a more gradual build. The current trend the Missouri Tigers are in right now is two years of regression after hitting one of the highest highs of team quality we’ve seen, with the 2019 season crashing without the offensive weaponry of the ‘18 team and then Drinkwitz taking over and repeating the 2019 season in terms of record while the team regresses in quality.

Elite recruiting classes simply gives a team a ton of talent on their 2nd and 3rd-string rosters that year. Sure, maybe a receiver or a corner is ready to play and gets a starting spot but you’ll never see the majority of a recruiting class take the field as freshmen. A single recruiting class needs at least a year, maybe two to get their feet under them, and then we can start figuring out if 10 wins are on the table.

Missouri has been in regression for two years and, yes, a jump in improvement can happen, but expect it to hit the ‘06/’09/’11 range, not the ‘07/’08/’10/’13/’14 double-digit victory range, and don’t look to the 2021 recruiting class (or the equivalent transfers) to be the driving force behind that improvement. A team with an SP+ rating of 10.0-12.9 would probably win around 7-8 games in the SEC. And that is an excellent year we should all be happy with.

My concern is that we get all amped up about recruiting and start getting pie-in-the-sky expectations for this team that they can not meet. Not meeting expectations will start some grumbling about “well he can recruit but he can’t coach” regarding Drinkwitz and we could easily go down a path where we chase out an awesome coach who isn’t meeting unrealistic expectations. Again, I want 10 wins every year but, realistically, if this team gets 7-8 wins and goes to a bowl that’s a net-win of a season. Because, when it comes down to it, winning games in college football means consistently recruiting at a high level, consistently developing that talent, consistently being tactically sound, and getting lucky every once in awhile.

Lastly, if, after all these words, you do still think 10 wins are possible, here’s the easiest way to get there:

Win all the games that are likely wins, no losses allowed:

  • SEMO
  • North Texas
  • at Vanderbilt
  • South Carolina

Next, win every single toss-up game, or lose one and win one from the next grouping:

  • Central Michigan
  • at Kentucky
  • at Boston College
  • Tennessee
  • Arkansas

Then, either beat one or two of these three elite recruiting teams that will be heavily favored, and/or win a bowl game for the first time since 2014:

Is that possible? Yes, it’s college sports, technically anything is possible. Is that a reasonable expectation from a mediocre team that benefited from close-games luck, lost a lot of talent, and are replacing it with transfers and freshmen? No, no I don’t think that is reasonable.

Eat your vegetables.