Welcome to Rock M Roundtable aka Editorial Bored aka Pregamin’ (but in the Summer), a weekly Q&A where we’ll consult the editorial board on all the big questions facing Mizzou Athletics this summer.
Two years ago, the last thing on our minds was whether or not we thought Eli Drinkwitz was doing a good job.
Just a few months into Drink’s tenure at Mizzou, the COVID-19 pandemic changed the world as we know it. In the summer of 2020, we didn’t even know if we’d be watching football in the fall. The last thing any of us were concerned about — well, most of us — was whether or not we thought Eli Drinkwitz was doing a commendable job as the head of Mizzou Football.
Two years later and things have normalized. Mostly, that is. COVID is still around, but the sports world has adjusted to our new collective reality. That includes Drinkwitz, who has admirably guided the program and, in the process, revamped the recruiting expectations in the process. Ennis Rakestraw, Travion Ford, Sam Horn, Luther Burden... Mizzou fans are used to the Tigers winning recruiting battles now, and that’s almost directly attributable to Drinkwitz.
The on-field product, however, has been a bit more mixed. While Drink impressed in the SEC-only 2020 season, his team faded down the stretch in 2021 and failed to secure Mizzou’s first bowl win since 2014. Success is rarely achieved overnight, and there’s still plenty of reason to believe things are trending up. But we gathered some of our staffers to ask how we think Drink is doing and when it’s fair to expect on-field results to change.
When Eli Drinkwitz took over in late 2019, the perception of Mizzou was that of a program stuck in a rut of mediocrity. After two years, has that perception changed at all?
Brandon Kiley, Lead Football Writer: Nationally? No. Locally? Ummm, kinda?
This is a big year for the perception. Drinkwitz has completely shifted the expectations for fans and media alike on the recruiting trail. Recruiting rankings matter! But it starts to feel a whole lot less significant if the results on the field don’t follow. The obvious example of this is Tennessee under Butch Jones. The Vols had recruiting classes ranked fifth (x2) and 15th (x2) under Jones. It resulted in one season in which Tennessee finished with an above-.500 conference record. Then the bottom fell out, and the rest is history.
Drinkwitz isn’t there. Not by a long shot. There are still a couple years of wiggle room before we’re having the conversation of this being all sizzle with no substance. But the Tigers are now firmly Drinkwitz’s team. This is his roster that he created. This staff is starting to recruit over some of their players. Year one was an objective success with multiple “moments” fans could latch onto. Year two was more up-and-down. Year three is likely to be a bit of a transition year. Next year is when the winning really needs to start, but signs of progress in 2022 would be a welcomed sight.
Parker Gillam, Beat Writer: No, not in the slightest. They’ve pulled off upsets, but then they’ve also lost games they should not have. Their perception in the SEC is still that of a bottom-feeder, and most people are still expecting Mizzou to lose 6-7 games yearly.
However, if you dig a little deeper, you will find that one major thing has changed: recruiting. Mizzou had not ranked higher than 12th in a conference recruiting cycle since joining the SEC. They were 6th in 2022. That is a sign of emerging from the cellar of mediocrity; now this program just needs to develop that talent and string together one or two magical seasons to emerge from the basement. With Oklahoma and Texas looming, that needs to happen fast.
Josh Matejka, Deputy Site Manager: I think it depends on who you’re talking to.
Drinkwitz has given the fanbase a massive shot in the arm with his recruiting prowess (more on that later) and his ability to market himself and the program. It’s easy to get excited about regularly landing four-and-five star recruits. Post-Gary Pinkel, Mizzou has been mediocre in just about everything... Drinkwitz took a big first step by making sure the Tigers are addressing the talent deficiency.
But if you talk to anyone outside the fanbase, I’m not sure they would recognize Mizzou as a team on the rise. The Tigers are exactly .500 under Drink — excluding the bowl game in which their best player didn’t play — and followed up an impressive COVID year with a late-season stumble in 2021. None of that is necessarily back-breaking, but opposing fanbases tend to not put as much stock into their rivals’ recruiting rankings. In terms of what they care about, Mizzou is the same as it ever was.
COVID-19 has played a massive role in reshaping the college football landscape... from excessive rescheduling, to bonus years of eligibility and the emergence of the transfer portal. Do you cut Drink any extra slack because of the pandemic?
Brandon Kiley: Umm, not really? I’m not sure how much the COVID-19 season negatively impacted Mizzou, honestly. It affected them in the same ways it did everyone else, and the Tigers were able to have success despite those concerns both on and off the field.
Beyond that, the extra year of eligibility helped keep some players on campus an extra year while the staff recruited to add extra depth to the roster. The influx of transfers - and their immediate eligibility - has helped Drinkwitz more than it’s hurt.
So, no, I don’t look at COVID as a real “excuse.” But I also don’t think there’s much of a need for excuses. The job Drinkwitz has done thus far has been more than satisfactory, at least in my view.
Parker Gillam: 100% yes. It cannot be understated how strange and difficult it must have been for Drinkwitz to take over during the peak times of COVID-19 concern. I mean, you virtually threw out the normal rules of the coaching gig for a time and had to adjust to a whole new landscape full of remote recruiting, limited contact with players, and not knowing who would be available week-to-week. I did not judge a single new head coach in 2020 based off their performance, as I really did not consider it a true first year. I mean, think about it. This guy stepped up from one year of head coach experience at a Sun Belt program (yes, App State is a quality team) to join the toughest conference in college football at a place that has not experienced much on-field success in recent years. That was already an uphill battle in its own right. He really didn’t need anything else hindering him!
For him to go 5-5 in that 2020 season showed Drinkwitz’s ability to survive and adapt, something that is certainly needed in the times of NIL now.
Josh Matejka: I think the answer is yes mostly because there’s no knowing how things would’ve been different sans-COVID.
I agree mostly with what BK said above. The pandemic doesn’t seem to have negatively impacted the job Drinkwitz has done, and he’s been more than satisfactory given the circumstances. I think where we differ is the way we calculate the pure chaos factor. COVID flipped the CFB landscape on its head, and it’s impossible to know how things would’ve been different. Would Mizzou be dealing with this many incoming and outgoing transfers? Would the 2021 and 2022 recruiting classes have been different? Whether it would have been a positive or a negative, we don’t know. For that alone, I’m willing to give him a bit of extra rope.
One obvious thing we can’t fault Drinkwitz on is recruiting. In two full years, Drinkwitz has drawn the two highest-ranked classes Mizzou has ever had. That’s all well and good, but when is it fair to start expecting on-field results?
Brandon Kiley: I suppose I got a bit ahead of myself, eh?
It’s 2023, no doubt. This roster is in a bit of transition. The 2022 season should be about establishing the passing game. That’s been the biggest hindrance to the offense the past two years. For the first time in more than 15 years, Missouri has gone multiple years without a clear answer at the quarterback position. The wide receiver corps is rebuilt with a star in Luther Burden III and multiple exciting options behind him.
The offense has the potential to be exciting. Potential works for 2022, but fans will start getting restless if that’s all that exists into 2023.
Parker Gillam: 2023. The 2022 roster will still be a bit too young to do any real damage in the conference. After this year, this will be a junior and sophomore-led team. Now, a lot depends on what develops in the QB room (specifically with Sam Horn), but there will be too much talent on this team for them to continue hovering around .500. If some of these young guys show promise this upcoming season, then there will be some real hype surrounding this program entering next year. Living up to that is another thing entirely, but the improvement in talent alone will at least allow this team to be more competitive in the conference.
But, while talent can keep you in games, coaching and experience wins you them. That, my friends, will be the next step.
Josh Matejka: Yeah, it’s next year. Mizzou’s two highest-rated classes are currently sophomores and freshman. Tell me the last time you saw a team of sophomores and freshmen take the SEC by storm. I understand that’s a bit reductive — Mizzou has plenty of capable upperclassmen playmakers right now — but those classes won’t make up the core of the team until 2023. Do I expect Mizzou to be better this year, at least by the advanced metrics? Yes. Do I expect that to translate to wins and losses? Not as much.
Got a question for our staff regarding Mizzou Sports? Let us know in the comments and we’ll look at adding it to an upcoming roundtable!