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New Year, Same Result: Season No. 3 Under Drinkwitz Ends in Disappointment

Through three seasons, is it time for the Missouri Tigers to start questioning the Eli Drinkwitz experiment?

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

A tearful, defeated Eliah Drinkwitz capped his season-ending press conference with these eight words.

“I love these’s my responsibility to...”

Unable to complete the second half of that phrase, Drinkwitz lowered his head in dejection after losing a second consecutive bowl game and finishing with a 6-7 record for the second year in a row.

“For them to fight the way they did tonight, those seniors are successful,” Drinkwitz said. “Me as a coach? No, I got to do better. Me as a coach, I got to get better. I got to get more results out of this, but for them, they gave us everything they got.”

Through three seasons, the Eli Drinkwitz experiment remains a work in progress.

Mizzou is 17-19 under the former Appalachian State head coach, who joined the Tigers amidst a coaching class that included names like the late Mike Leach, former FAU and current Ole Miss head coach Lane Kiffin as well as Florida State head coach Mike Norvell and Arkansas head coach Sam Pittman.

Each of those names, with the exception of Pittman, looked like possibilities for the Tigers at the time, but they invested in a head coach who inherited an impressive Appalachian State program constructed by Scott Satterfield and built upon that success for one season.

That decision has culminated in zero bowl victories, only three total road victories and a pair of 5th-place finishes in the SEC East after securing a 3rd-place mark in the first year of his tenure. Yet, despite the lack of results, the University of Missouri Board of Curators chose to extend Drinkwitz through the end of the 2027 season.

It’s no secret, however, that the focal point in that extension decision centered around the topic of recruiting. Though the Tigers have yet to break through in the standings, Mizzou has made national noise in the recruiting department, finishing with back-to-back Top 25 recruiting classes in 2021 and 2022 as well as a Top 40 finish for 2023.

A few of the marquee names from the 2021 class — Dominic Lovett (4-star), Tyler Macon (4-star), Travion Ford (4-star) and Mekhi Wingo (3-star) — have all found new homes though, leaving Connor Tollison and Daylan Carnell as the two main names from the class to remain Tigers.

The 2022 class, or this year’s true freshman core, showcased potential with the headlining name of Mizzou football—Luther Burden III. Armand Membou, Mekhi Miller and Tavorus Jones all heard their names called at times as well, giving hope for positions.

Next year’s group, the class of 2023, ranks lower than either of these previous two classes. It does flash a quartet of four-star players—tight end Brett Norfleet, wide receiver Joshua Manning, safety Marvin Burks Jr. and quarterback Gabarri Johnson. Those names will soon become synonymous with Mizzou as the spring quickly approaches.

Drinkwitz has also established success through the transfer portal, rebuilding the defense from the SEC cellar into a unit that ranked in the top-50 of several defensive categories throughout the course of the 2022 season.

This recruiting and transfer portal success has yet to translate into victories, however, with yesterday serving as the latest example of teams continuing to outshine Mizzou when it matters most.

Wake Forest, who defeated the Tigers 27-17 and finished its season at 8-5, has yet to recruit a class in the top-50 throughout these past three seasons. In fact, the Demon Deacons’ closest recruiting class to top-50 was all the way back in 2015, when they posted the No. 51 class.

Despite its lack of success on the recruiting trail however, Wake Forest has made seven consecutive bowl games, including victories in five of those. The Demon Deacons’ success revolves around the topic of development, which is something Drinkwitz continues to work at.

Perhaps the greatest indicator of this debate is the revolving door at the quarterback position, a skill group that has consistently held Mizzou back from becoming one of the elite SEC programs. These past three seasons have primarily featured Shawn Robinson, Connor Bazelak, Macon and Cook at the position, indicating the need for a signal caller for the future.

Each of these quarterbacks struggled to match up against SEC-level competition, calling into question Drinkwitz’s ability to prosper these gifted athletes into All-SEC caliber talents, or at least players with enough upside to gift Mizzou a season above-.500.

Cook, out of all these names, has come the closest to meeting that expectation. The sophomore quarterback may have led Mizzou to a 6-7 record this season, but four of those losses came by one possession, including a four-point defeat to No. 1 Georgia.

He showed immense progress late in the season, throwing for 714 yards, rushing for 315 more and adding eight total touchdowns in his final three regular season games. Cook totaled 253 total yards and a touchdown in yesterday’s bowl loss, as he finished his first full year as the Mizzou starting quarterback.

Those statistics indicate a step forward, but the knowledge that former quarterbacks coach Bush Hamdan called plays for the first three of those games leaves questions swirling about whether Drinkwitz is the offensive mastermind behind the playing success.

“I’ve got to do a lot of reflection to get this thing moving offensively,” Drinkwitz said

It’s concerns like those that indicate how crucial it is for Drinkwitz to finally begin transitioning this team from rebuild mode into a win-now team that is focused on making noise in the SEC. The first steps to answering those problems will likely be through the hiring of an offensive coordinator as well as another effective showing in the transfer portal.

The Tigers represent a program in dire need of growth and positivity, and with a plethora of talented recruits waiting in line for development, it’s safe to say the 2023 season will be a make-or-break year for Eli Drinkwitz and the Missouri Tigers.