If you had to pick a well-known phrase to sum up Eli Drinkwitz’s ethos, what do you think it would be?
“Look twice before you leap,” may be one.
“Slow and steady wins the race,” could be another.
“May The Force be with you,” might also fit, though you could potentially sub it out for, “I’ve got a bad feeling about this,” depending on the game state.
Sardonic or serious, the myriad of options can all be classified as those describing a man who has often been cautious, risk-averse and just a tad cocky.
I can’t imagine anyone would’ve chosen the following phrase: “Go big or go home.” Funny enough, it’s one that defines Eli Drinkwitz now more than ever. Because all recent signs suggest he’s betting big on himself and his program in 2023.
There was concerted hang-wringing in many corners of the Mizzou fanbase when Drinkwitz signed a two-year extension in the middle of the 2022 season. What has he done, those fans asked, to merit not only an extension, but a raise? Sure, the recruiting has stepped up and the defense is fantastic. But where’s the offense? The bowl wins? Can we finish over .500 at least once?
While it’s easy to view contract extensions as nothing more than a recruiting tool — never forget, Barry Odom got an extension less than a year before he was canned — they’re fair questions. What has Drinkwitz done to earn a pay raise? A “guarantee” of employment for a few more years and many more chances to lead Mizzou Football?
Based on Drinkwitz’s behavior this offseason, he seems to be aware that those questions are being asked by fans — and maybe by some boosters as well. While the college football world has been thrown into chaos by the transfer portal, the Tigers have largely stayed intact with a few notable exceptions. Many of the team’s top performers are coming back, including a host of defensive standouts. Drinkwitz has caved on his wishes to tightly control the offense, bringing in an up-and-coming coordinator from outside his own circle.
Most interestingly, I think, is the type of player he’s bringing in from the transfer portal. You may recall the last few offseasons when names like Mookie Cooper, Bence Polgar, Ian Matthews and Dreydon Norwood were the big gets, underclassmen with little production and a whole lot to prove.
Nowadays, many of the new Tigers look to be here for brief stays. Take this past week, for instance. Of the five new Tigers announced this week, four have three years of college experience at the Power Five level. All of them have provided substantial production at their previous stops. The fifth is Marcellus Johnson, a multi-year starter at Eastern Michigan with one remaining year of eligibility.
These aren’t the types of players you bring in with the long-term future in mind. Players like Dannis Jackson, Joe Moore III and Sidney Williams are brought in to win and win quick. And with the staff’s recent track record in the portal, especially when it comes to nabbing instant impact players, one can assume that the coaches believe Mizzou is ready to take the next step.
Next year’s schedule could be the one to take advantage of, too. The Tigers will play eight of their 12 games in the state of Missouri and only face one “unwinnable” game on the road; that is, unless you believe they can channel the spirit of 2013 in Athens. With attendance up in 2023, Faurot Field could be a tough place to play this coming fall. Marquee games against Kansas State, LSU, Tennessee and Florida will offer the Tigers plenty of opportunities to get things buzzing in CoMo.
None of this is to suggest Drinkwitz has his sights set on absurdly lofty goals. Given that Georgia seems set to win at least 50 percent of national titles for the next decade, it’s probably safe to say that the SEC East is out of reach for the time being. But is it too much to think eight wins is off the table? Nine if they get a little lucky?
The truth of the matter is this: for all the athletic department speak about not wanting to lay down a win-loss ultimatum, it feels like 2023 could be the year for such a thing. One could argue that progress has been made in three years under Drinkwitz. Mizzou finished 2020 and 2021 at 68th and 69th in SP+, respectively. In 2022, the Tigers vaulted to 40th despite having a lackluster offense and a relative down year on special teams. The numbers say that Missouri got better this past season. I’ll rephrase that: Many numbers say that Missouri got better with the exception of the end of season win percentage.
In 2023, Missouri needs to turn underlying growth into on-field results. We’ve been circling this upcoming season for years at Rock M Nation. By the looks of Drinkwitz’s offseason activities, it appears he may have it circled too.
He’s looking to go big. If he can’t, he might be going home.