College football is a week-to-week sport. The team we see in week one is often vastly different than the team we watch in the bowl game. But that doesn’t mean the first game of the season is meaningless. In fact, it’s been quite the opposite in recent years for Missouri. The Tigers’ first game has often been a harbinger of what’s to come since the end of the Gary Pinkel era.
What does that mean for the season-opener against Louisiana Tech? Let’s allow history to be our guide, shall we?
2016: Mizzou loses 26-11 at West Virginia
The first game in nearly two decades without Gary Pinkel patrolling the Tigers’ sidelines did not go particularly well for the Tigers. A young Drew Lock threw for 280 yards... but he did so on 50 attempts. Missouri’s offense, with Josh Heupel in his first season as the offensive coordinator, ran plays at a frenetic pace, but they held the ball for less than 70 seconds on five of their eight first half possessions. The offensive numbers looked impressive due to volume, but the end result was 11 points. That’s not good enough to beat any team worth its salt.
That would become the theme of the season. Drew Lock posted excellent numbers against teams like Eastern Michigan and Delaware State, but the offense sputtered against SEC opponents and the first season under Barry Odom ended in a disappointing 4-8 record.
2017: Missouri beats Missouri State, 72-43
The 2017 opener did not portend good things for Missouri’s defense. The Tigers gave up nearly 500 yards of total offense and 43 points against Missouri State. Sure, the Tigers racked up more than 500 yards through the air and 72 points on the day, but the defense was the story of the day... and eventually the story of the first half of the season.
Missouri’s defensive coordinator DeMontie Cross was fired after the Tigers lost in week two against South Carolina, 31-13. The infamous “I’ve seen dark days” speech came after a 51-14 loss at home against Auburn in week four. The Tigers found themselves in a 1-5 hole six weeks into the season. Mizzou finished the regular season on a 6-game winning streak against lesser opponents, but it was simply too little too late. The offense, led by Lock and J’Mon Moore, posted strong numbers but the defense was too much to overcome to compete for anything meaningful, just as many would have believed after that first game against Missouri State.
2018: The Tigers dominate 51-14 against UT-Martin
Drew Lock and the Tigers started strong in Lock’s final season on campus, led by new offensive coordinator Derek Dooley. The offense, no longer running plays at quite a rapid rate, put up numbers on efficiency against UT-Martin as opposed to the volume necessary under Heupel. The real star against UT-Martin was Emanuel Hall. His deep ball prowess was on full display, finishing with four receptions for 171 yards and a couple touchdowns. The Lock-Hall connection would become a theme of the season. When healthy, Hall was among the nation’s top deep threats.
If there was an issue on full display for the Tigers in their 2018 season-opener, it was the pass rush. The only players to record a sack in the game were Terez Hall and Jacob Trump. Tre Williams and Nick Bolton also combined for another. Missouri did not have a single defensive end finish the 2018 season with more than three sacks, an issue that plagued the team at the end of the Barry Odom era.
All in all, though, the game left you with more reasons for optimism than pessimism. And that was, really, the theme of the year. The Tigers finished the regular season 8-4 in Lock’s final season at Mizzou. All things considered, it was Odom’s most successful season at Mizzou, with a couple bad breaks at South Carolina (the monsoon game) and Kentucky (it still wasn’t pass interference) ruining what could have been a special season.
2019: Mizzou is stunned 37-31 on the road at Wyoming
If ever there was a game that felt cursed, it was Mizzou at Wyoming in 2019. To this day, I still can’t fully explain how things went so badly, so quickly. Missouri had a tremendous day out of Cale Garrett and Nick Bolton, a combo that would go on to be one of the best in the country when Garrett was healthy, but the defense gave up two touchdowns of 60+ yards in the first half and the offense couldn’t get out its own way with three turnovers, one of which was returned for a touchdown and another was returned 79 yards to the Wyoming 6-yard line right before the half.
This weird juju seemed to follow the Tigers through the season. Missouri won its next five games, including an outstanding victory at home against Ole Miss, but then everything fell apart. The Tigers were outscored 100-27 over the next four weeks against Vanderbilt, Kentucky, Georgia and Florida. A 5-1 start to the season gave way to a 5-6 record going into the final game of the season. Nothing about it made sense. Kelly Bryant fell apart. The offense lost all momentum. There were no wide receiver threats to speak of. The defense did its best, but there simply wasn’t enough offense to get through.
The first game of the season proved prophetic, as Odom’s team trailed off in the second half of his final year at Mizzou.
2020: The Tigers cover, but lose 38-19 against Alabama
The pandemic-shortened 2020 season began with Missouri attempting to keep Alabama at bay. It went about as well as anyone could expect. The Tigers were carved up by Jaylen Waddle, but he did that to every defense he faced in 2020. The story of the game, though, was Missouri’s inability to gain any footing offensively with Shawn Robinson at quarterback. Eventually, Eli Drinkwitz made the switch to Connor Bazelak, a move that would eventually become permanent.
The most impressive aspect of Missouri’s game was their ability to (mostly) keep Robinson and Bazelak upright against a highly impressive Alabama defensive line. The Tigers’ new offensive line coach, Marcus Johnson, was doing this with a unit devastated by both injuries and COVID-related issues.
This would become another theme of the season. The offense mostly outperformed its talent, and that was enough to pull off a huge upset against LSU, and other big victories against Kentucky, South Carolina and Arkansas. Eventually the lack of talent and the COVID-19 issues caught up with the Tigers and the final two weeks of the season resulted in the Tigers being outscored 100-46 against Georgia and Mississippi State.
2021: Missouri wins 34-24, but the defense gives way to Central Michigan’s offensive line
The most recent season-opener was maybe the most prophetic of them all. We didn’t want to make too much of it at the time, but Missouri’s issues defensively were immediately on full display against Central Michigan. The Chippewas’ running backs racked up more than 200 rushing yards against the Tigers. Mizzou simply had no answers, and that wouldn’t change for quite some time. The Tigers had a historically poor rushing defense through the first seven years of the season before both personnel and schematic changes were made.
On the other end of the spectrum was Tyler Badie. He finished the first game of the season with more than 200 yards on the ground, another 40 through the air and a combined three touchdowns. Sometimes it’s worth taking dynamic performances against a lesser opponent with a grain of salt. This was a sign of things to come, as Badie put together one of the most productive seasons we’ve ever seen by a running back in a Tigers uniform.
What does it all mean? Well, if history is any indication, we should learn quite a lot in the Tigers’ season-opener against Louisiana Tech. More often than not, the biggest themes of the game will be the themes of the season. We all have certain expectations of what this season will or will not become. On Thursday night, we will have our first opportunity to find out how the rest of the season will go. Buckle in. It’s going to be a wild ride.