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A Beat Writer’s season preview for Mizzou Football 2023: Part One

In the first part of his season preview, Parker Gillam predicts Mizzou’s 2023 season game-by-game.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV. 25 Arkansas at Missouri

Well, well, well…football season is nearly upon us. It seems like just yesterday that Georgia was throttling TCU in Los Angeles with millions of people watching, but we are now just a couple of short weeks away from kickoff for the 2023-24 college football season.

It felt good to be able to type that.

This, of course, means that another Missouri football campaign is set to get underway. Eliah Drinkwitz and Co. will open up a pivotal season against South Dakota on August 31, a season that many believe could be the straw that broke the camel’s back for Drinkwitz if things go haywire.

However, with Mizzou being among the best in the country in terms of returning production in college football, there is plenty of reason for optimism entering the fall. After all, the Tigers feature one of the SEC’s best defensive units, have a (probable) returning starter at quarterback, plenty of skill position talent, field one of the nation’s best kickers and have two up-and-coming coordinators.

To play devil’s advocate, Missouri also still has major question marks at offensive line, running back and tight end, and there are some levels of doubt about the stability of the quarterback spot. On top of that, this program has shown a tendency to get out to slow starts under Drinkwitz, something it can not afford to do in 2023.

Regardless, football is back, and the Missouri Tigers will be taking the field at Faurot in a few weeks. Here’s my official game-by-game prediction for the 2023 season, as well as some key players, questions to be answered, and an outlook beyond this upcoming season.

Game-By-Game Predictions

Game 1

South Dakota | Aug. 31 | 7:00 p.m.

Columbia, MO

Category: Must-Win

Missouri will open the season by hosting South Dakota of the FCS, a nice warmup as the schedule gradually heats up.

South Dakota State, their bigger brother, largely overshadows the Coyotes in the state and is fresh off an FCS title in 2022. On the flip side, South Dakota is coming off a 3-8 campaign and has not won more than seven games in a season since 2017.

Of course, this is no reason to just write them off as an easy victory. Between Mizzou’s recent early season struggles and the fact that there have been 21 FCS over FBS upsets in the past two years, the Tigers are by no means a shoo-in to waltz into Faurot and cruise to a victory. Still, it is hard to imagine South Dakota manufacturing much offense against the vaunted Mizzou defense.

What most fans will be paying close attention to in this game is the performance of Brady Cook and this offensive line. If they show signs of struggling against the Coyotes, then people will already begin to lose hope in this team against higher-level competition.

Prediction: Missouri 38 | South Dakota 10 (1-0)

Game 2

Middle Tennessee State | Sept. 9 | 6:00 p.m.

Columbia, MO

Category: Must-Win

The level of competition gets a little tougher in week two. Long-time MTSU coach Rick Stockstill is coming off a successful 8-5 campaign that included an upset victory over Miami early in the season. The Blue Raiders do have to replace starting quarterback Chase Cunningham and most of the wide receiver corps, but Stockstill has done a great job at retooling his teams each season, and MTSU has won at Faurot before (see 2016). The Tigers should walk away with a victory here, but it may be in a semi-sloppy performance in which the defense has to carry the load yet again.

Prediction: Missouri 31 | MTSU 13 (2-0)

Kansas State v Missouri Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

Game 3

Kansas State | Sept. 16 | 11:00 a.m.

Columbia, MO

Category: Swing Game

After embarrassing Mizzou by a score of 40-12 on a rainy morning in Manhattan last season, K-State will make the return trip to CoMo in ‘23. The Wildcats had one of their most successful seasons to date in 2022, with the likes of Deuce Vaughn and Felix Anudike-Uzomah leading the team to a Big 12 Championship and Sugar Bowl berth. Both of those individuals have gone on to the NFL, and part-time starting quarterback Adrian Martinez is gone as well.

Still, Chris Klieman has proven that his teams rarely have down years during his time as a coach at every level, and his 2023 Wildcats will be no exception. Will Howard appeared in seven games to spell the injured Martinez, and the offense rarely missed a beat while he was in the game. His skillset matches exactly what Klieman and Co. want to do on offense, and it’s also safe to assume that, despite some losses, Kansas State will field another stingy defense.

This is the tone-setting game of the season. A loss here means that this Missouri team will be behind the eight-ball for the rest of the season and shows that it has not taken many steps forward as a program between this year and last. The line of scrimmage will be key in this game, but the winner will have the quarterback who plays a cleaner game.

Cook struggled mightily in Manhattan last year while Martinez shined. This time around, Cook will put together a much more polished performance and make some key plays with his legs. That will be just enough to push the Tigers over the hump in a defensive battle, creating some early-season momentum.

Prediction: Missouri 20 | Kansas State 17 (3-0)

Game 4

Memphis | Sept. 23

St. Louis, MO

Category: Must-Win

Missouri will kick off the “Mizzou to the Lou” series with a neutral site matchup against Memphis at Simmons Bank Liberty Stadium in St. Louis, a city that Mizzou’s football team has not played in since defeating Illinois 23-13 in 2010. Coming off a victory over Kansas State and sitting with a 3-0 record, all of the momentum and positivity in the world will be behind Drinkwitz’s program.

They can’t fall for the rat poison, because Memphis would love to spoil the home-state exposure trip. Compared to their normal standards, the visiting Tigers have struggled in the past two seasons, compiling a 13-12 record over that span. Still, Ryan Silverfield is a great offensive mind and returning quarterback Seth Henigan is one of the more underrated players in the country. They’ll have something up their sleeves for this game, and I expect the speed of Memphis to take Mizzou off-guard at first. However, once Missouri settles in, it will mount a second-half rally to claim an all-important victory in The Lou.

Prediction: Missouri 41 | Memphis 24 (4-0)

Game 5

Vanderbilt | Sept. 30

Nashville, TN

Category: Must-Win

Coming off a five-win season with victories over Florida and Kentucky, it is safe to say that Vanderbilt is a rising program under Clark Lea. That being said, this is still the most winnable game in the SEC, and thus it is a must-win game for Mizzou’s bowl chances. The ‘Dores figure to be a year or two away from truly contending for a bowl berth, but with a solid defense and a rising star at QB in sophomore AJ Swann, they could pull off a couple of upsets yet again.

Vandy will have already played five games up to this point thanks to their Week Zero date with Hawaii, which can either mean that they will be more fatigued than Mizzou or in mid-season form. Regardless, the Tiger defense should travel well to Nashville, and the offense will again do just enough to escape with a victory.

Prediction: Missouri 27 | Vanderbilt 16 (5-0, 1-0)

Game 6

LSU | Oct. 7

Columbia, MO

Category: Upset Potential

Missouri will walk into another battle of the tigers with a flawless record and, just maybe, a pretty number next to its name. But, this will be the team’s first chance to truly prove itself on a national stage against an LSU team that will be challenging for an SEC title this season.

Jayden Daniels is an early Heisman contender and leader of the Bayou Bengals, and there is plenty of returning stars around him, headlined by Freshman All-American linebacker Harold Perkins, Jr.. The talent edge will certainly lie with LSU, as will the coaching edge after the magic that Brian Kelly seemed to sprinkle on the program last season.

Therefore, the home crowd at Faurot will have to make a difference (hopefully this will be a night game), as will the Missouri defense. In a game like this, a team’s strengths have to show up in the biggest ways. Blake Baker’s unit will need to force a handful of turnovers and field goals, because Cook and the offense will not be able to find much room to operate against the physical and fast LSU defense.

At the end of the day, Missouri will fight hard and the defense will keep it in the game. But, much like the Georgia result from last season, the team will run out of gas in the fourth quarter.

Prediction: LSU 27 | Missouri 21 (5-1, 1-1)

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV. 05 Kentucky at Missouri

Game 7

Kentucky | Oct. 14

Lexington, KY

Category: Swing Game

The thorn that has existed in the side of Missouri football ever since it joined the SEC will look to rip the hearts out of Tiger fans’ chests yet again.

The loss of Will Levis was mediated with the addition of NC State transfer quarterback Devin Leary for Kentucky. He figures to pick up where Levis left off, and outside of finding a new running back and some retooling on defense, the rest of the team returns largely intact.

I could delve into the Xs and Os of Missouri needing to stop UK’s rushing attack and force them to be one-dimensional, and how this is a game in which the Tigers need to attack through the air vertically. But, at the end of the day, the biggest key to this game will be for Mizzou to get over the mental hump of beating this Wildcat team. When the game is close in the fourth quarter, will the Tigers falter and make key mistakes, or will they make the necessary plays to beat the ‘Cats for just the second time since 2014?

Frankly, in a tough road environment against a veteran quarterback and a team that has a mental edge over them, I don’t like Missouri’s chances.

Prediction: Kentucky 28 | Missouri 17 (5-2, 1-2)

Game 8

South Carolina | Oct. 21

Columbia, MO

Category: Swing Game

For as poorly as Mizzou has fared against Kentucky since joining the SEC, they have been conversely as dominant against South Carolina. The Tigers have won four straight games over SC and are 8-5 overall against the Gamecocks.

Shane Beamer will field a strong team in 2023, and it will probably be the best South Carolina team Mizzou has faced since the Connor Shaw days of the early 2010s. Spencer Rattler seems primed for his best season as a college player, and the returning talent is there for a program that is looking to take that next step in the SEC. SC will also certainly want revenge for the 23-10 loss it suffered against MU last season, which went down as the Gamecocks’ most embarrassing loss of the year by far.

This should be another close game in this series, with the chess match of Blake Baker vs. new SC offensive coordinator Dowell Logains being something to watch throughout this game. In the end, I believe that the streak continues and the Tigers yet again take down South Carolina behind a strong defensive performance.

Prediction: Missouri 23 | South Carolina 20 (6-2, 2-2)

Game 9

Georgia | Nov. 4

Athens, GA

Category: Upset Potential

Coming out of a bye week, a road trip to take on Georgia is not exactly what one would desire. Unfortunately, that is the case for the 2023 Missouri Tigers.

Despite all of their losses, the Bulldogs are primed for another run at both the SEC Championship and College Football Playoff, and until proven otherwise, they are the kings of the sport.

On top of that, Missouri gave UGA its closest game of the 2022 season, nearly toppling them in Columbia. Kirby Smart will make sure that his team knows that going into this game, meaning that there will almost certainly be an extra chip on the shoulders of the Georgia players. That’s not what Mizzou needs, and it will result in another loss at the hands of the Red and Black.

Prediction: Georgia 38 | Missouri 17 (6-3, 2-3)

Game 10

Tennessee | Nov. 11

Columbia, MO

Category: Upset Potential

Rocky Top will visit Columbia looking to replicate what it did to Missouri in 2021. That year, the Vols marched into CoMo and left with a 62-24 victory, with the game itself being essentially over by the end of the first quarter. Last year, Mizzou tested Tennessee until late in the third quarter when Hendon Hooker and co. began to flex their muscles on the Tiger defense.

In the eyes of Baker and the Missouri defense, this is the ultimate measuring stick. The Vols have been the one team that has had consistent success against the Tiger defense each of the past two seasons, and this veteran group of defenders would love nothing more than to exorcise those orange demons in 2023.

The UT offense lost most of its production but has plenty of potential with Joe Milton and a host of untapped skill position talent ready to explode onto the scene this year. This is Missouri’s best chance for an upset this season, and I think they come really, really close to doing so. But, this is the one game of the season where I think the offense really holds this team back despite an inspired performance on the other side of the ball.

Prediction: Tennessee 30 | Missouri 21 (6-4, 2-4)

Syndication: Gator Sports Doug Engle / USA TODAY NETWORK

Game 11

Florida | Nov. 18

Columbia, MO

Category: Swing Game

The final home game of the season will see the Florida Gators come to town. After upsetting UF in 2021 in miraculous fashion, Missouri fell to Florida 24-17 in a lackluster game last season. With no Anthony Richardson, a brutal schedule and building pressure surrounding second-year head coach Billy Napier, the 2023 Florida outlook is one of question marks and concern. Still, the talent level is never an issue in Gainesville, and this team is still fully capable of improving upon their win total of six from a season ago.

However, walking into a chilly Faurot Field in mid-November does not bode well for the cold-blooded Gators, and it is hard to imagine that Graham Mertz (or whoever may be starting at quarterback by then) will muster enough offense to win against the Tiger defense. It may not be pretty, but Mizzou will pick up its all-important seventh win of the season in this game, solidifying the 2023 campaign as a success.

Prediction: Missouri 28 | Florida 13 (7-4, 3-4)

Game 12

Arkansas | Nov. 25 | 2:00 p.m.

Fayetteville, AR

Category: Swing Game

In my eyes, the 2023 Battle Line Rivalry Game may be the most anticipated edition of the matchup since the 2008 Cotton Bowl. Both teams should walk into this game with at least seven wins to their name and the winner primed to be invited to a Florida bowl game.

KJ Jefferson and the Razorbacks will rebound from a semi-disappointing 2022 campaign to be a factor in the SEC West race until the final couple weeks of the season in ‘23. On paper, these two teams will be even across the board, and Vegas will put this one down as a Pick ‘Em.

Unfortunately, if I was picking ‘em, I’d side with the home team in this game. The road struggles will continue for Cook and the offense, and the Tiger defense will only be able to hold off a potent Razorback offense for so long. A couple of explosive runs from Rocket Sanders will be just what the doctor ordered for Arky to reclaim the trophy.

Still, a 7-5 finish against this schedule will be nothing to scoff at.

Prediction: Arkansas 35 | Missouri 24 (7-5, 3-5)

Check back later this week for Part Two of my season preview, complete with key players, questions that need to be answered and an analysis of my predicted season finish.