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Eli Drinkwitz has improved in his fourth season at Mizzou

The head coach has his faults, but he has put the program in a position to win big in 2023 and maybe beyond.

Cal Tobias/Rock M Nation

On September 16, 2023, Harrison Mevis kicked the longest field goal in SEC history, a 61-yard walk-off to send Mizzou to 3-0 at the expense of then-No. 15 Kansas State. It was one of the biggest wins in the past decade of Mizzou Football and marked their emergence as a top 25 program.

You’d never have known that, however, had you been reading the comment section on this very website.

Hours after Mevis’ kick sailed through the uprights of the North End Zone, the comment sections of our game coverage was heavily focused on criticisms of Eli Drinkwitz.

“I’d fire Drink on the spot”

“I don’t care if we win, I want Drink gone”

“Still have serious doubts about Drinkwitz. Mevis bailed his ass out today big time, and it will be lost in the chaos that was the 4th quarter, but that was some HORRIBLE clock management today.”

It was hard to disagree too much at the time. That delay of game penalty almost pushed Mizzou out of field goal range, and Drinkwitz later owned up to the lack of concentration.

Five weeks later, however, and those five inconsequential yards seem like a distant memory.

Mizzou is ranked No. 14 in the country, the highest since the 2014 season, and is one of six teams in the country that “controls its own destiny” as it relates to the College Football Playoff. Sure, they have to go to Athens and beat a Georgia team that hasn’t lost in years to make that dream a reality. But the fact remains that Mizzou is in a better position today than they’ve been in since Gary Pinkel was roaming the sidelines.

The road to get to this point has seen plenty of fits and starts. Eli Drinkwitz almost immediately upped Mizzou’s credentials in the recruiting game and took advantage of the COVID season to spring a surprise .500 record in his first season. He also displayed a penchant for conservative play-calling, head-scratching decision-making and foot-in-mouth trash-talking that made him a polarizing figure within the Mizzou fanbase. Sure, bowl eligibility every year seems like a fine start. But what good is that if it’s your ceiling?

The promise of Eli Drinkwitz, Head Coach, was based primarily around his ability to increase the talent level of the roster. Numerically, it’s been a sure and steady climb. 247’s Team Talent Composite had Mizzou at No. 40 nationally during Barry Odom’s last season as head coach. That climbed to No. 50 in Drink’s first year. Then No. 46 in 2021. Then No. 31 in 2022.

This season, Mizzou ranks as the country’s No. 25 most-talented team by past recruiting rankings. That part of the puzzle was complete. But we’ve seen talented teams squander seasons away with mediocre results — look at the 2018 Tiger team, for example. The wise man once said, “Good players does not a complete team make.” It was always going to take more than ‘crootin to get Mizzou back to where we’ve seen it in the past. Don’t believe me? Ask Gary Pinkel.

To that point, Eli Drinkwitz has addressed many of the criticisms that faced him prior to this season... or at least, he’s in the process of doing so. Drink successfully handed off play-calling duties to Kirby Moore. As a result, Mizzou has its best offense under Drinkwitz’s tenure. The defense started the season a bit flat. Because Eli Drinkwitz idenfitified and, crucially, retained Blake Baker, the ship has been righted in time for the home stretch. He started the season making hyper-conservative calls on fourth down. He assured us he would become more aggressive and, most recently, called one of the gutsier fake punts we’ve seen in the program’s recent history.

There are still kinks to be ironed out. Mizzou is still one of the most penalized teams in the country, so Drink recently brought referees to practice to try and instill some more discipline. The results have been slightly improved, if not fixed all together: Mizzou has been penalized under its season average for two consecutive games.

The special teams, as well, continue to be a thorn in the Tigers’ collective side. Yeah, yeah, I hear you — Harrison Mevis won the Kansas State game and Luke Bauer turned the tide against Kentucky. But the unit ranks No. 93 in SP+, compared to No. 20 in offense and No. 27 in defense, with the lack of a return game and Mevis’s shakiness on short kicks damaging their marginal gains. Drinkwitz says he’s spent much more time with the unit this season, which indicates he’s aware of the problem and working to fix it.

All the same, it’s time Mizzou’s head coach got his flowers. Increasing the overall talent level has allowed the Tigers to mask over some flaws thus far. And while that may not be a sustainable approach to success, it’s a step in the right direction. Should Drinkwitz continue to improve on his own execution — coaching, the decision-making, all that and whatnot — it might be time for Desiree Reed-Francois to start thinking about another extension.