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A re-evaluation: Who are the 2022 Missouri Tigers?

Conference plays begins this week for Mizzou. I took a look at what we’ve learned so far, what we still need to see, and what this team’s identity appears to be.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 17 Abilene Christian at Missouri

The initial non-conference slate has ended for the Missouri Tigers. They’ll still get New Mexico State in late November, but other than that, it’s SEC play for the rest of the season. That means that things get real, so it’s time to take a look at what we know about this team, and what we still don’t.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 17 Abilene Christian at Missouri

The Statistics

Points Per Game: 32.7

Points Allowed: 27.0

Total Yards Per Game: 422.3

Passing Yards: 218.3

Rushing Yards: 204.0

Total Yards Allowed Per Game: 330.3

Passing Yards Allowed: 212.0

Rushing Yards Allowed: 118.3

Turnovers Forced: 6 (4 INTS, 2 FR)

Leading Passer: Brady Cook (64.3% completion, 621 yards, 4 TDs, 3 INTs)

Leading Rusher: Cody Schrader (33 carries, 145 yards, 2 TDs, 4.4 YPC)

Leading Receiver: Dominic Lovett (16 catches, 274 yards, 2 TDs)

Abilene Christian v Missouri Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images

Team Strengths

  1. Run Defense

Yes, they gave up 235 yards to K-State. But that was a team that threw the ball 20 times compared to running it 42 times, and they had a quarterback who really wanted to run before passing.

This front seven has been reliable so far. Chad Bailey has picked it up at linebacker, and the defensive line that had been talked about so much over the offseason has lived up to the hype (in run defense, not pass rush). They’re getting off blocks, forcing negative plays, and flying to the football. The difference is night and day with how this unit tackles and gets sideline-to-sideline.

Also, we have to shoutout this secondary. Their run support has been superb, as Jaylon Carlies, Joseph Charleston, Martez Manuel and a host of others have started the year really strong with their open-field tackling.

2. The Wide Receivers

Not that it has been much of a surprise, but the wide receiver corps has been everything we wanted and then some. Luther Burden has been the best player on the field in two out of the first three games this team has played, and that’s just because he didn’t get a lot of targets against K-State. He is a threat downfield, on screens, and even in the running game as his size and speed have made him one of the toughest players to tackle in the country. Outside of the K-State game, Drinkwitz has come up with some interesting ways of getting him involved, although no one should ignore the coaching malpractice of Burden’s usage in Manhattan, KS.

What has taken this unit to the next level in 2022, however, has been the emergence of Dominic Lovett. He has cited Burden being on campus as a major reason he has come more out of his shell, and it has translated on the field. Lovett has been known as a great deep-threat throughout his career, but he’s emerged as a slippery guy to tackle in the open-field in 2022.

The two East St. Louis Flyer alumni have played well, and old-reliable Barrett Banister is still as sure-handed as ever to compliment them.

3. Brady Cook’s Legs

Yeah, it’s a weird pick, but hear me out. Some of Mizzou’s best offense this season has come off of Cook either scrambling or keeping it off of a read option. For whatever reason, it still seems that teams do not respect his ability to run the football all that much, and he reaps the benefits.

Cook already has 26 carries for 159 yards and a touchdown. If he stays healthy, he could get to the 500-600 yard range. More importantly, Cook’s legs add a necessary asset to this offense. The offensive line is not good enough to open holes for the running game, but defenses respecting Cook’s running ability could do just that. Points are going to be at a premium this year, so the Tigers can use any leg-up they can get. The quarterback run game could be just that.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 17 Abilene Christian at Missouri

Team Weaknesses

  1. Offensive Line

I’ll go into this and try not to beat a dead horse, but this has been the issue for years. While fans have focused on the shiny 4 and 5-star skill position players, the Tigers have really needed to solidify themselves up front. Instead, they now have a Group of Five caliber offensive line going up against SEC defensive lines, which are chock-full of NFL talent. The running game has struggled so far, and Cook was consistently pressured against K-State and Abilene Christian.

The line struggles to get any form of push up front, though their pass protection has been thankfully decent. Clearly a Drinkwitz offense needs that run blocking to be effective for the entire offense to execute effectively and we can all see this being the source of this team’s struggles for the rest of the season.

2. Offensive Play-Calling

Another dead horse that I don’t want to beat too much, but this was a major issue in the Kansas State game. Yes, you can only call so many types of plays with the offensive line this team has, but at a certain point Drinkwitz has to open up the playbook more. Burden and Lovett can dice up Louisiana Tech and Abilene Christian on screen passes but they can’t do that to Florida, Tennessee, or Arkansas. Cook completed some deep balls against ACU, so maybe we will see more aggressive play-calling in the future.

Still, the fact remains that this team gets very conservative sometimes, almost as if they are afraid of the mistakes that Cook or the offensive line will make. Drinkwitz can continue to be conservative and play the short game (yes, I know that’s what his offense is generally predicated on), but it would be to the ire of every Mizzou fan and could lead to 4 or 5 wins for the year. Take some more risks, and maybe this team can pull off some stunners.

3. Mindset

There are always fans who will take the first bumpy experience of the year and jump off the bandwagon; it happens, that’s part of the sports fandom experience. However, after the Kansas State game, it became clear that this was less some minority negative wing of the fanbase and more indicative of the fanbase as a representative majority. The toxicity from fans was much more vocal than usual and, as much as players and coaches will say they don’t look at that stuff, they at least heard about it.

When the going gets tough for this team, and they lose to Georgia, Florida, Tennessee, etc., are they just going to fold? Or can they fight back for a bowl berth like they did in 2021? There was more positivity and expectation for this team over the offseason than we had previously seen during the Drinkwitz regime and now it seems as if it’s already them against the world.

There is enough leadership on this team to get them through this, but amidst a grueling SEC schedule, I’m just not sure they will be able to keep things together, especially when the outside noise gets rough.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 10 Missouri at Kansas State

Surprise Player Thus Far: Ty’Ron Hopper

Stats: 16 tackles (leads team), 4 TFLs, 1 sack, 1 INT, 1 pass breakup

There was a fair amount of noise surrounding Hopper over the offseason, as the Florida transfer was highly-recruited and had all of the intangibles to be a top-tier linebacker in the SEC. Still, nobody quite expected this.

He’s come in and been the best player on a fairly solid defense. His physical build is intimidating, but his sideline-to-sideline speed is what really jumps off the page. He is in on virtually every tackle in some way, and he has been a disruptive force when he gets close to the line. He’s also just brought a certain tenacity and aggression to this defense that wasn’t there last season, and I see it rubbing off on other players. It reminds me a lot off the tone Nick Bolton set for his defenses.

Outside of Burden and Lovett, you might look at Hopper as the guy that’s most likely to be an SEC First-Teamer at season’s end.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 10 Missouri at Kansas State

Questions Still To Be Answered

  1. Is the special teams unit a strength (exciting return game, Mevis), a weakness (punting, Mevis missed kicks), or both?
  2. Will a running back emerge as the primary option, or will it always be a committee approach?
  3. Can Mookie Cooper or Tauskie Dove provide a quality third option to Lovett and Burden in the receiving core?

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 10 Missouri at Kansas State

What To Expect And What Can Be Considered A Success

So, it is safe to say that, with 25% of the 2022 season completed, it has been a disappointment. Winning in Manhattan would have been tough, but it was how it happened that really has fans jumping ship.

Regardless, the entire SEC slate is ahead of the Tigers, meaning that everything is still on the table. The schedule is daunting, as Tennessee, Florida, Kentucky, and Arkansas all bring unique devils that have bewildered Missouri teams of the past. Vanderbilt, NMSU, and South Carolina look like the only swing-games left on the schedule. That does not mean upsets are impossible.

All in all, I see this offensive line being the reason this team struggles at times this season. The talent and experience is there around them, but the fact of the matter is they just do not have the personnel up front to compete in this league. And ask any coach at this level; a bad offensive line can bring down an entire team.

So, this season may end up being considered a disappointment. And that's ok.

I know it is difficult for fans to be patient, and everybody wants a big-name coach to come in and fix everything within two years, but the reality is that this is a not program that can just do that. Missouri will have to be a developmental, long-term project, but this time they also get the benefit of two of the greatest recruiting class Missouri has ever seen.

It is fair to wonder if Drinkwitz is the long-term answer for Missouri, but, as much as it hurts to go through, patience is key. This season will get ugly at times, but the foundation is being built. By no means am I saying Drinkwitz is absolutely the only answer for this program, but it is unfair to expect him to be consistently winning in the SEC with the cards he has been dealt. There is plenty of football left to be played.