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Well, what did we learn from the 2021 season?

It was a season of ups and downs and not much in between. Let’s decipher what to take away from it all.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 13 South Carolina at Missouri Photo by Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

What a ride it was. From starting out with two nail-biting losses, to two blowout losses, to then rallying with a couple of key divisional victories down the stretch, this Tigers team experienced it all. Pile on coaching changes, defensive struggles, and recruiting success, and there is a lot to digest. Here’s what I took away from the 2021 season:

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 22 Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl - Missouri v Army Photo by Jevone Moore/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images
  1. We were too quick to throw Steve Wilks under the bus.

So yeah, beginning your stint at a new program by fielding the worst rushing defense in the country is not ideal. The Mizzou fan base was more than right in blaming Wilks (mostly) for the early losses this season. However, it will always be a bit presumptuous to call for a guy’s job four games in.

Blaze Alldredge and many other players spoke on it many times during the season: this defense needed time to really grasp Wilks’ system. Once they did, we saw the results. They began to play like a unit, attack the line of scrimmage, and manufacture a pass rush. The difference in watching the defense play against Tennessee as opposed to South Carolina or Florida was night and day. Personally, I was stunned that we got to the point late in the season where I actually had confidence in this defense going into a game.

The even better news is that with how this team is recruiting, the talent level at Wilks’ disposal will only improve. In addition, the defense likely (fingers crossed!) will not have a slow start like they did this season because they already have a year under their belts with Wilks and the scheme. So, let’s give the former NFL coach a bit of credit. He was on the ultimate hot seat, he made adjustments, and he came out on the better end of things.

2. Drinkwitz can recruit with the best of them.

A lot of people will point to it as the turning point of the season. The Luther Burden commitment came at a time where nobody had any faith in this squad holding a team under 300 yards rushing, much less making a bowl game. Sometimes, however, even a recruiting win can shift the whole momentum of the season. Burden’s dramatic announcement seemed to toss away all of the negative energy surrounding the program.

Ousting UGA and Alabama for his signature was incredible and not something Mizzou fans are accustomed to. In the past, the Tigers generally got the underrated 3 or 4 star prospect that major programs don’t take a hard look at. This season, they were competing with the Sabans, Jimbos, and Dabos of the world and winning some of those battles.

Drinkwitz currently has the 12th ranked recruiting class in the country and the 5th best class in the SEC, both of which are far and away the best the Tigers have done since joining the conference. He has successfully accomplished his first goal of locking down the state by signing nine players from the greater Missouri area, signed big names (Burden, Horn, Jones, etc.), and has even found some success in the transfer portal.

Recruiting is clearly Drinkwitz’s strength, and pretty soon the talent level in Columbia will be unlike we have seen in years.

3. Tyler Badie is a bonafide star.

“How will Badie do as the lead back?” “Can he handle getting the majority of carries in a backfield?” “How durable will he be in the middle of the SEC schedule?”

Very well, yes, and very durable.

These are just some examples of questions people were asking about Tyler Badie going into the season following the departure of Larry Roundtree to the NFL. He answered them all, and rather quickly I might add.

Right out of the gate against Central Michigan, it was clear that Drinkwitz and this staff were going to let Badie get the ball as many times as he physically could. We all saw why. The slightly undersized back became a sensation after a couple of games, and you really can’t pinpoint just one reason why. He has elite vision, breakaway speed, solid hands, and is a lot harder to take down than he looks.

His 2021 highlight reel will go down as one of the best Mizzou has seen in a while, and his stats back it up. 268 carries is a lot for any running back, especially one in the SEC. He took that in stride and proceeded to rush for over 1,600 yards, and even managed to lead this team in receptions and finish third in receiving yards. There were games where Badie just put this team on his back, and it was beautiful to watch.

His leadership on this team was very apparent as well. In every press conference, no matter if it was after a win or loss, he was smiling and upbeat. He was one of the main voices in the locker room game in and game out.

He’ll attribute most of it to his approach. One of the biggest themes in all of his press conferences was how, amidst all the outside doubt, he had the ultimate confidence in himself going into the season. A Mizzou great through and through.

NCAA Football: Armed Forces Bowl-Missouri at Army Andrew Dieb-USA TODAY Sports

4. Drink is still searching for the right QB and WRs for this offense.

The quarterback spot was a weird and touchy subject all season long, with people not knowing whether Bazelak was banged up, in his own head, or just plain struggling. The wide receivers did not help him out all that much either. Mookie Cooper had a disappointing season and the young guys showed some promise but never really asserted themselves. Keke Chism was reliable, but he was not nearly enough.

Drinkwitz is an offensive mind. He wants to score a lot of points. However, I don’t think he has had the personnel that he wants on offense yet. We saw with Tyler Macon and Brady Cook, when they were in, that the quarterback run game was much more involved. With Bazelak, that was never the case.

4-star quarterback Sam Horn will enter the fold this offseason, and with Bazelak transferring, this is now a 3-man competition. Regardless of who wins the position, I can see the offense changing more towards what Drinkwitz wants to run with a new face under center.

The wide receiver play will also improve. The East St. Louis, homegrown aspect was big in Mizzou targeting Burden, but Drinkwitz also knows that he could be a program-changing talent. We saw what he could do with a playmaker like Tyler Badie, just imagine what he can do with 2-3 guys like that (toss in Ja’Marion Wayne, Mekhi Miller), where a defense can’t just key in on a star like Badie every game.

5. Outside of Georgia, the Tigers can hang with anybody in the East.

Let’s go ahead and establish this, Missouri is closer to winning an SEC title in basketball this season than they are to beating Georgia in football within the next three years.

With that out of the way, you have to like how the Tigers competed in the division this season. Even early in the year, amidst the defensive struggles, Mizzou still took Kentucky (arguably the 2nd best team in the East) to the wire on the road and could have come out on top. They also proved again that they are a step ahead of South Carolina, miles ahead of Vanderbilt, and can potentially take Florida’s place in the East standings if both teams continue of their current trajectories.

The Tennessee game is something we don’t like to talk about, but if Mizzou plays the Vols in late November, I believe it is a much closer game. They at least would not score 28 first quarter points and essentially seal the game after 15 minutes of action.

Who knows when Oklahoma and Texas are officially going to join the conference, but until then, Missouri is sitting pretty in the division. Outside of Georgia, no other program is light years ahead of anybody, which means we will see plenty more tightly-contested divisional matchups like Kentucky and Florida were this year.

With that being said, Drinkwitz and this staff can not get complacent. Shane Beamer is doing great work at South Carolina, and they will only improve. Mark Stoops has manufactured a machine in Lexington that guarantees at least 7-8 wins a year. Billy Napier is an elite recruiter who will build Florida back up to national contention sooner rather than later. And perhaps most surprising of all is that Tennessee has the brightest future outlook under new head coach Josh Heupel.

Moral of the story: this is going to continue to be a tough division where games are won by inches both on and off the field. This program has to continue to push the limits, or else they risk falling behind.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 30 Missouri at Vanderbilt Photo by Matthew Maxey/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

6. Harrison Mevis is a god among men.

I won’t go into an incredible amount of detail here, because we all saw what he did. That kick against Boston College will go down in legend, but throughout the season Mevis was just so reliable. There was no kick that was out of his range, and every time he went up there it was almost an automatic three points. The two kicks he missed honestly left me speechless when they happened.

On top of his on-field success, Mevis became a campus legend. Campus Bar and Grill, a popular gameday spot in Columbia, named a burger after him through an NIL deal, the “Thicker Kicker Burger”. 573 tees, owned and founded by Miki Merritt, printed off t-shirts with Mevis featured in another NIL deal.

The sophomore kicker had a new nickname and multiple business deals come to him within a couple of months. Oh, and he was also arguably (Badie has a great claim to this too) the most liked player by the Mizzou faithful.

The only thing he was missing was a Lou Groza Award. No disrespect to Gabe Brkic (Oklahoma), Jake Moody (Michigan), or Noah Ruggles (Ohio State), but if Mevis played on a team that got the same attention that they did, he would’ve been a finalist.

So, there’s still one more thing the Thiccer Kicker needs to check off his list. We shall see if it comes next year.

7. This fan base wants a lot out of this program. They need to start supporting their end of the deal.

Even Drinkwitz knows that it is tough to sell out a stadium and keep fans happy when you start out the season how they did. They did not give fans a product worth watching in person (or even on TV at times), therefore even when the season turnaround did occur, the stands were still lacking spectators.

However, when the Tigers entered this league, while many people pointed at talent, coaching, and depth as issues a team like this would face coming into the SEC, another big part of it was the fan base. Yes, Alabama, Georgia, and Texas A&M have plenty of reason to want to sell out their stadiums every week. But do you ever think that their fan support plays a role in their success? Even Tennessee, Auburn, Mississippi State, Ole Miss, Kentucky, and Florida have packed houses when they are down.

Faurot Field was unfortunately rarely an imposing venue this season, and that cannot continue to be a trend. We all have seen what the stadium can be like, just look at the Texas A&M game from 2013 as an example.

For this program to compete at a level fans want in this conference, they have to do their part, both in showing up to games and supporting the team in general.

Yes, as this team improves, the stands will fill up. But I saw a lot of hypocrisy in fans criticizing this team and players yet not showing up to games and then jumping on the bandwagon late in the year. Usually when you hear “culture change” it is about a coach arriving at a new program. In Columbia, the fan base may need to experience that kind of culture change.