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Count the “Ifs” 2021

How do the Missouri football Tigers go from bad to good to great? Here’s how I see it.

Welcome back to a Rock M Nation specialty! The Godfather Bill C. started this annual exercise years ago and, after a COVID-issued intermission, “Count The Ifs” is back, baby.

I will cite once again Bill’s 2013 “Ifs” list in which the Tigers achieved 13 of the 15 listed goals and had one of the greatest season in Tiger football history. The last time I did this was before Barry Odom’s doomed final season in which the Tigers accomplished a whopping one of the 15 goals I laid out; subsequently, they had one of the most disappointing years in recent memory and, now, Barry is Arkansas’ defensive coordinator. So, while I’m certainly not claiming to be the end-all-be-all of how a team succeeds, these pieces do tend to have some value as a roadmap to success.

Before we start, allow me to get this out of the way: if Connor Bazelak is injured then none of the rest of this matters. Yes, Brady Cook is a competent P5 quarterback and, yes, Tyler Macon has all the hype and potential in the world. But if the reigning SEC Freshman of the Year - and the most important piece on any football team - is lost for the year and one of the aforementioned backups gets thrust into the QB1 slot then you can pretty much chalk this season up to “just make a bowl game”. Quarterback is too important, and Bazelak is good enough, to warrant that statement. So, no, I won’t list “if Connor Bazelak stays healthy” because...yes, duh.

Ok, here we go!

The following must be achieved for Missouri to win 7 games in 2021

NCAA Football: Georgia at Missouri Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

1.If Connor Bazelak repeats his 2021 performance

I don’t care what his passing touchdown total was; the most important part of offense is that you score points, not how you score points. Yes, 20 passing touchdowns looks better than 7, but if your starting quarterback threw 3 touchdowns all year while the team scored 50 touchdowns on the ground you wouldn’t gripe at all, I promise.

Bazelak had a really good season last year; 67.3% completion percentage on 324 attempts with a 3.6% sack rate and only 6 interceptions (and 3 of those were in the last game of the year!) is incredible production for a first-year starter. It would be nice if he increased his 6.4 yards per attempt by a few points but, overall, if he churned out the exact same performance in a 13-game season this year (yes, I’m counting a bowl) that he did in a 10-game season last year his final stat line would read as 283-421 (67.2%), 3,075 yards, and 7.05 yards per attempt. Ignoring touchdowns, interceptions, and sacks, that is some solid quarterbacking.

NCAA Football: Tulsa at Memphis Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

2. If Akayleb Evans and Allie Green IV are in the Top 4 of the cornerback rotation

Ennis Rakestraw and Ish Burdine performed admirably last season but were pressed into consistent action much too quickly and, frankly, weren’t ready to be starting corners in the SEC; thanks to their inexperience and Ryan Walters’ insane insistence on only playing single-high man coverage, the Tiger defense ranked 71st in passing efficiency and 108th in passing explosiveness. Drinkwitz and his staff brought in a ton of young, athletic talent in the secondary but they’re not ready yet. It is imperative that the Tulsa Transfer Tandem at corner can eat up snaps and provide an impact on the field so that the young guys don’t have to get burned before they’re ready.

NCAA Football: Alabama at Missouri Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

3. If the defense finds a pass rush (other than Trajan Jeffcoat)

We all know the Trajan Jeffcoat story by now and it still rocks, especially considering he wasn’t even on the team for damn-near two years and then won All-SEC honors with last year’s 6-sack performance. It’s less fun when you realize the rest of the defensive line combined for 6 total sacks in 2020. One guy representing half of a defensive line’s sacks is cool but definitely not good. Someone else needs to step up and, with Ky Montgomery now out for the year with an ACL injury, either a vet like Elijah McGuire/Jatorian Hansford/Chris Turner OR one of the other new guys - Travion Ford, Arden Walker, Johnny Walker, Jr. - need to present some sort of threat on the opposite side to make sure Trajan doesn’t run head-first into double-teams all year.

NCAA Football: Vanderbilt at Missouri Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

4. The offensive line shakes the Larry Borom-blues

If you wanted to know just how much Larry Borom meant to last year’s line ,here’s a stat for you:

  • 8 Games with Borom: 4.63 yards per carry, 2.14 line yards per carry, 42% rushing success rate, 42% opportunity rate, 19% stuff rate, 10 sacks
  • 2 Games without Borom: 3.15 yards per carry, 1.45 line yards per carry, 34% rushing success rate, 38% opportunity rate, 23% stuff rate, 4 sacks

The number of games that Missouri will be without Larry Borom in 2021 is all of them because Larry is now a Chicago Bear. Last year’s offensive line was unprepared to handle life with out the pancake machine installed at right tackle but, hopefully, is in a better place this year with the return of Hyrin White and the addition of Connor Wood. If either of those two can can replicate the Borom-boom-stick, or, better yet, the line as a whole can gel as a unit to compensate the loss of an NFL-level talent at tackle, then we shouldn’t worry too much about performance drop off.

NCAA Football: Missouri at Mississippi State Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports

5. If Keke Chism holds his late-2020 form

Here’s another interesting data-dump:

  • Keke Chism first 5 games: 14 targets, 9 catches, 64.3% catch rate, 132 yards
  • Keke Chism last 5 games: 42 targets, 26 catches, 61.9% catch rate, 326 yards

Here’s how each of those performances averages out over a 13-game season:

  • First 5 games: 36 targets, 23 catches, 343 yards
  • Last 5 games: 109 targets, 67 catches, 847 yards

....yup, a late-2020 vintage of Keke Chism for a full season makes this wide receiving corps much more potent. Sign me up for that, please.

NCAA Football: Texas at Rice Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

6. Blaze Alldredge is 2018 Blaze Alldredge

I’m going to provide two stat lines for two different players in two different seasons. Take note of what you think:

  • Player A: 50 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, 1 sack, 6 run stuffs, 1 interception
  • Player B: 48 tackles, 6 tackles for loss, 2 sacks, 10 run stuffs, 4 passes broken up

Given the subject at hand you’re probably thinking one of these is Blaze Alldredge and you are correct! He is Player A and that stat line was his first season at Rice in 2018.

Player B is Nick Bolton last year.

Conference USA is not the SEC, I understand that. Still, if Alldredge’s first year at the FBS level and his first year starting can muster a stat line similar to the guy who was just recently drafted in the 2nd Round for the Kansas City Chiefs? Yes, I would take Alldredge’s 2018 performance as a good SEC season in 2021.

If the following are achieved, a 10-win season is on the table

NCAA Football: North Carolina State at Louisville Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

7. If Connor Bazelak transforms into 2018 Ryan Finley

Eli Drinkwitz has coordinated offenses for six years and only twice had a quarterback throw less than 3,000 yards on the season. The first was in his one year at Appalachian State where Zac Thomas threw for 2,718 yards and 28 touchdowns on a 62.7% completion rating and 6.9 yards per attempt; the second was last year. However, that 2019 Mountaineer team was powered by four dudes rushing for 2,647 yards and 26 touchdowns, most of which was done by current Tennessee Titan Darrynton Evans (1,453 yards, 17 touchdowns). In fact, despite being the most accurate of Drinkwitz’s six quarterback seasons, 2020 Connor Bazelak had the worst production of them all. Let me rattle off the stat line of the best quarterback performance Drink has overseen:

  • 326-484 (67.4%), 3,928 yards, 25 TDs, 11 INTs, 2.2% sack rate, 7.8 yards per attempt

Granted, Finley was a fifth-year senior in his fourth year as a starter for Coach Drinkwitz so I’m not assuming that Bazelak will simply flip the switch and replicate this type of season. However, if he did, that would certainly be enough to win a few more games.

NCAA Football: Arkansas at Missouri Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

8. If Tyler Badie and Elijah Young are 2011 Henry Josey and Kendial Lawrence

The 2011 Missouri offense is criminally underrated and remains one of my favorites. The Tigers weren’t super impressive through the air as they relied on slots and tight ends to move the ball that way but, instead, focused on a ground attack that ranked 19th in the country and 11th in success rate. Here’s the year-end rushing stats for that team:

2011 Rushing Offense Stats

I’m not saying Badie or Young are Josey and Lawrence incarnate but the early-aught Tigers built their running game on mighty-mite-type runners who were quick to the hole and deadly in the open field. Josey/Lawrence benefited from the mobile tank they had at quarterback but it would be extra helpful if the ground game behind Badie/Young can achieve those types of 2011-gains behind a much deeper, more talented offensive line than the 2011 team fielded.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch

9. If Mookie Cooper is MOOKIE COOPER*

*Keep in mind I’m writing this before we get the injury update from Coach Drinkwitz on Tuesday, August 24th. If he’s lost for the season just ignore this one :(

He didn’t play in his senior year of high school and never saw the field at Ohio State so we’ll almost hit our third calendar year without seeing Mookie Cooper in live action on a football field. But he was a blue-chip athlete for a reason and Jalen Knox transferred for a reason and Cooper was running with the 1s for a reason. Adding him to the receiver rotation creates a primary threat for defenses to address that frees up the rest of the receivers to do more damage with less attention on top of the fact that Cooper (again, in theory) is an explosive threat every time he has the ball in his hands.

NCAA Football: Arkansas at Missouri Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

10. If Jeffcoat/McGuire make the Sam/Ealy jump

Here’s a fun comparison: this is what Michael Sam and Kony Ealy combined to do in 2012 and what Trajan Jeffcoat and Isaiah McGuire combined to do in 2020:

Keep in mind Sam and Ealy had two more games in their 2012 season. But both made a leap in production in 2013 with Ealy developing into a disruptive run stuffer and Sam setting the single-season sack record and winning SEC Defensive Player of the Year.

You can see similarities between both duos. And with McGuire now established as a defensive end and not having to play both end and tackle, you can talk yourself into a scenario where they both improve on their previous season to wreck shop as Mizzou’s newest defensive end deadly duo, something the Tigers have not had since Shane Ray and Markus Golden left campus.

11. If Dominic Lovett is the new Emanuel Hall

Drew Lock didn’t become Drew Lock until Dimetrios Mason left the team and Emanuel Hall was finally given a shot halfway through the 2017 season. By doing so he created one of the most unstoppable deep-ball passing tandems in school history and helped the Tiger offense explode in production. It’s not fair to heap any sort of expectations on freshmen contributing immediately but, if the camp reports of Lovett’s speed and reliability down field are true, this offense will finally have the threat over the top they lacked all last year.

12. If the offensive line actually improves

The 2020 Tigers had a good running game last year, powered by a Larry running the ball and a Larry blocking the right side but, overall, were only “ok”. The line was 106th in getting short yardage and got stuffed 18.4% of the time but were decent at keeping the pressure and sacks away. If the line not only maintains their performance minus the Larrys but improves? Like, say, a stuff rate around 12% and a 70% success rate in short yardage while opening four-yard holes for the backs 50% of the time? That’s a great line, one that can make any running back look awesome.

13. If Blaze Alldredge is 2019 Blaze Alldredge

Do you want to know why Mr. Alldredge was such a highly coveted transfer? Certainly not because of the COVID-shortened 2020 season he played through. No, it was what he did in 2019, after a previously excellent (and looked at above) 2018 season. Behold:

  • 77.5 tackles, 21.5 tackles for loss, 4 sacks, 24 run stuffs, 2 passes broken up, 1 forced fumble

That will get you looks for All-SEC and certainly make the Tiger defense super havoc-y.

14. If Keke makes the “Danario Leap”

I’m not saying this is actually going to happen but it would certainly give the Tigers the potential for a magical double-digit win season. Keke and Danario are almost the exact same height/weight and have very similar styles so it’s worth putting out there.

As a reminder, here’s what the Danario Leap looks like: For 2009 as a whole, Alexander caught 113 passes for 1,781 yards and 14 touchdowns. Through five games, he had 35 catches for 447 yards and five scores; over 13 games, that’s a 91-catch, 1160-yard pace.

Over the last seven games, however, he went nuclear, catching 78 passes for 1,334 yards and nine scores; that’s a 13-game pace of 145 catches and 2,480 yards.

I feel confident that we would take either of those stat lines for Mr. Chism. But if he’s hauling in passes at that second rate - and with Cooper and Lovett and all the other weapons running around - what defense could possibly stop Missouri?

15. “Astral assistance”

This is part of every magical season. 2007 Missouri needed Colorado and Nebraska to stay down and beat kansas to win the North and, of course, needed every team in the world to lose one game (or two) to wind up at #1 heading into the Big XII Championship. 2013 Missouri needed to either beat Georgia and Florida or hope that they both slipped up twice: even with an unlucky last-second loss to South Carolina, the Tigers made it the SEC Championship and were 60 minutes away from a national championship game appearance. Hell, even Alabama has needed luck to make it in a few of the Playoffs that they’ve won. Or USC in 2004. Or LSU in 2007. Or Auburn in 2010. And Ohio State in 2014. All of these teams won it all, but needed teams around them to screw things up as well.

To win in college football you need to recruit an excellent team, win as many games as possible and hope for some luck. If we get to this point and don’t get the luck we need it’s still an excellent year regardless and would be a problem that, given the run of seasons over the past five years, we’d be happy to have.

So what do you think? Am I way off? How many of these are feasible? I can’t wait to bookmark this and view at the end of the season to see how smart/dumb I was. Until then.... LET’S GO TIGERS.