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40 Most Important Tigers Revisited

Evaluating our offseason countdown of the Top 40 Most Important Football Tigers for the 2023 season

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 11 Tennessee at Missouri Photo by Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

I was very confident Missouri football was going to have a good 2023 season.

While national media just saw Eli Drinkwitz’s .500ish record and assumed “hot seat,” those closest to the program could see the actual structural improvements that were being made, like savvy portal evaluation and a well-built coaching staff.

From the viewpoint of outlets that focus on bluebloods, the only notable move of the off-season was losing Dominic Lovett to Georgia. For those of us awash in Missouri football news, we could see the additions of Kirby Moore and Theo Wease, the anticipated improvement from Brady Cook, and a returning swath of defensive talent.

As such, I was quite bullish on Mizzou going into the season. That optimism paid out, as our Tigers finished 10-2 and secured a berth in a New Year’s Six Bowl.

But what about the exact causes for that optimism? Is my record as immaculate when we zoom in on more granular predictions? Let’s revisit my “Top 40 Most Important Tigers” series from this offseason, where I ranked Mizzou players in terms of how critical each would be to the team’s success or failure.

Obviously I got a bunch very right, but there were some big whiffs on my part, too. And can we learn anything from this exercise? Let’s indulge in some navel-gazing.

Best Call:

My best call was ranking Theo Wease #3 overall. Not only did the Oklahoma transfer have a huge impact on the field with clutch catches and a productive season, his biggest impacts were intangible. Wease replaced Lovett’s production, but more importantly, complemented Luther Burden and allowed the prodigy to flourish. Wease’s ability to make tough, contested catches on the perimeter and in the end zone was a welcome counterpoint to Luther’s YAC brilliance from the slot. Finally, Wease’s veteran leadership was widely publicized, as was his mentorship to Burden in particular.

His breakout season on and off the field was a key part in Missouri’s offensive success, and I am pleased to have predicted it.

Ranked Too High:

Going into the season, I thought the offense would take a step forward, but was worried it would be limited with Brady Cook at signal caller. I believed even if he took a step forward and was healthy, he was at best a game manager — that the whole season would look like the MTSU week 2 game. That is why I had Sam Horn at #8, because in June I believed the only way for the offense to reach its ceiling was with the big-armed former four-star slinging it around. Props to Brady for breaking out in Week 3 and beyond, and burying all talk of a low ceiling.

Ranked Too Low:

Cody Schrader, who submitted one of the best running back seasons in the history of Mizzou football, was just a tad low at #15. Just a little bit. To be fair, I don’t think anyone predicted “SEC leading rusher and top ten in Heisman voting,” so Schrader’s ascent to one of the best lead backs in the country was a welcome surprise.

Ranking one spot ahead of Schrader was Kris Abrams-Draine at #14. He had a tremendous season and made some timely interceptions, and would certainly be around #7 or #8 in a re-rank.

Unranked Players:

Three players that I did not rank at all made outsized contributions. Chuck Hicks grew into the middle linebacker role, as Chad Bailey’s 2023 season was fully derailed by injury. And true freshmen Brett Norfleet and Marquis Johnson both made a few massive catches for the team at different points throughout the season. Johnson in particular helped save the season with his amazing catch on the fake punt against Kentucky.

Right Theory, Wrong Choice:

It was no secret that the 2022 offensive line was a disaster. Javon Foster was a rock at left tackle and Armand Membou showed flashes as a true freshman, but the interior was a mess and the unit struggled in all phases. It was paramount to rebuild the line to at least respectability, and I predicted new personnel would drive success for a revamped lineup. Houston transfer guard Cam’Ron Johnson was my #1 choice, and Eastern Michigan tackle Marcellus Johnson checked in at #17. 2022 reserves EJ Ndoma-Ogar and Bence Polgar slotted in at #26 and #19, respectively.

The line made tremendous strides under the tutelage of new coach Brandon Jones, keeping Brady Cook clean all season and powering Schrader to his amazing season. Membou (#7) made a leap as predicted, and Cam’Ron Johnson was excellent despite being good for one procedural penalty each week. But the real boon for the line was not new blood in Polgar or other personnel; it was guard Xavier Delgado and center Connor Tollison developing into quality starters after subpar 2022 campaigns. This was a welcome surprise: Tollison checked in at #39, and Delgado at #30. Not only did they keep their jobs, but both made huge steps forward as the team earned a Joe Moore Award semi finalist nod.

Any grand conclusions from this exercise?

  • Timing got me a little bit — this was an eight-week exercise, and the top 40 I mapped out in June was irrelevant in a few spots by the end of fall camp, when the final installments were published. (See in particular Polgar and #20 TE Ryan Hoerstkamp)
  • Betting on transfers worked out with Wease and C. Johnson, but not with M. Johnson or receiver Dannis Jackson (#17).
  • I slept on veterans with new position coaches — Delgado, Tollison, Mookie Cooper.
  • Harrison Mevis checked in at #11, and you could make a case for #1, as the big man single-handedly won two games at the gun. I am not sure there is another kicker in the country that could have replicated his K-State heroics, and that singular moment keyed the entire great season. Thiccer for Heisman.