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Count The “Ifs” 2023

How do the Missouri football Tigers go from “ok” to “good” to “great”? Here’s how I see it.

You know what time it is? It’s time to count some “Ifs”.

Welcome back to a Rock M Nation specialty! The Godfather Bill C. started this annual exercise years ago and now its time for the 2023 version.

I will cite once again Bill’s 2013 “Ifs” list in which the Tigers achieved 13 of the 15 listed goals and had one of the greatest season in Tiger football history. The 2019 Tigers started the year with high hopes but only accomplished a whopping one of the 15 goals I laid out. Subsequently, they had one of the most disappointing years in recent memory and, now, Barry Odom is UNLV’s head coach. The 2021 Drinkwitz Tigers had a lot of excitement heading into the season with a .500-record from 2020 and recruiting momentum but managed a 6-7 record. Coincidentally, they hit 4 of the 6 goals I listed to get to 7 wins and none of the goals laid out to get to 10 wins. The 2022 version of Eli’s Tigers hit 3 of the 6 goals laid out for 7 wins and 1 of the 9 to get to a 10-win season.

So, look, I’m not saying that what I lay out here is a series of boxes that must be checked and that’s the only way the Tigers can achieve their win goals. What I am saying is that these goals are, on average, indicative of a specific caliber of team and these pieces do tend to have some value as a roadmap to success.

Ready? Let’s go!

The following goals should be achieved for Missouri to win 7 games in 2023

1. If the 2023 quarterback is better than 2022 Brady Cook

The quarterback could be Sam Horn. Maybe it’s Jake Garcia. Hell, it seems like it’s going to be Brady Cook again! Doesn’t matter. All the starting quarterback needs to do this year is be better than Brady Cook last year, including improved accuracy (64.8%), more yardage (2,739), better Touchdown-to-Interception ratio (2:1), and a better Adjusted Net Yards Per Attempt (6.2).

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 01 Georgia at Missouri

2. If the offensive line is Top 50 in run blocking instead of 90th

Be “fine” instead of “awful”, essentially. We all (unfortunately) found out that last year’s running back stable was stocked full of guys who struggled to create for themselves (outside of a snake-bitten Nathaniel Peat, anyway) and the Tigers only added a freshman to the group, relying instead on everyone improving over the offseason. Eli Drinkwitz brought in a new offensive line coach and portalled in two new guys to address the line issues and it’s imperative that it works. A Top 50 run blocking team is what Mizzou was in 2020 and that would be a huge improvement in a single year.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV. 25 Arkansas at Missouri

3. If the defense maintains 2022’s havoc rate

I mean...

  • Missouri’s Average Havoc Rate in Wins: 34.38%
  • Missouri’s Average Havoc Rate in Losses: 22.61%

The Tigers won two games with havoc rates under 30%: against FCS Abilene Christian (19%) and the tight victory against Arkansas in the Battle Line (25.2%). Other than those two outliers it was a pretty simple litmus test for either a win or a loss. And, unfortunately, havoc can be a little finicky and is certainly not a stat that holds still or steadily improves year to year. If Blake Baker’s scheme can get these guys in a position to continuously flay opposing offenses and create disruption this team should cruise to 7 wins, no problem.

...and that’s it. Three things need to be true for Mizzou to finally achieve a winning season in the Eli Drinkwitz era. Does it sound a little crazy? Sure, especially since I’ve been doing these since 2019 and its the first time that the “list for 7 wins” is less than six items long! But with a dog meat offense and a defense taxed with doing everything on its own to win, Missouri still achieved 6 wins and damn near nabbed a 7th last year. If the patches they put over the obvious offensive holes actually work and help them improve and the defense holds serve, BLAM! You have at least a 7-5 record heading into bowl season.

But that’s not what we’re eyeing, right? This season has the potential to be special but it’s going to take a little more to get there. Here’s what those items on my checklist are:

If the following are achieved, a 10-win season is on the table

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV. 25 Arkansas at Missouri

4. If Missouri’s quarterback is a star (and doesn’t get injured)

A lot of the discourse around the quarterback race in 2023 is that Sam Horn has the potential to be something special while Brady Cook can only max out at “fine”. And maybe that’s true. But if Drinkwitz knights a starting quarterback and that guy cranks out a Chase Daniel-‘07/Blaine Gabbert-‘09/James Franklin-’11/Drew Lock-‘17-type season, then this offense has the potential to finally be a net positive for this team.

Kentucky v Missouri Photo by Jay Biggerstaff/Getty Images

5. If the 2023 Missouri receiving corps is the 2013 Missouri receiving corps

You can learn a lot about a Missouri fan when they give you their answer to the question of “best receiving group of all time” and cite either the ‘07 receiving corps or the ‘13 receiving corps as Mizzou’s best. ‘07 had two All-American tight ends and a bunch of speedsters around them; ‘13 had the damn MONSTARS from Space Jam towering over every defensive secondary they went up against. But that ‘13 group had some excellent YAC play-makers as well:

  • Dorial Green-Beckham: 59 recs, 883 yards, 12 TDs
  • Marcus Lucas: 58 recs, 692 yards, 3 TDs
  • L’Damian Washington: 50 recs, 893 yards, 10 TDs
  • Bud Sasser: 26 recs, 361 yards, 1 TD
  • Jimmie Hunt: 22 recs, 253 yards, 1 TD

Now, Theo Wease Jr., Joshua Manning, Dannis Jackson et al. are not the 6’2”+ power forwards the Tigers deployed in ‘13, but there are a lot more “possession” type guys this year, who can manage better catch rates and better options for jump balls. You could also see a Mekhi Miller = Bud Sasser, a Luther Burden = L’Damian Washington, and Theo Wease = DGB comparison if you squint! And even if they don’t pull off those exact stats in a 1:1 manner, having a variety of skills in the receiving corps is a huge plus to a group that last year was nothing more than the largest collection of slot receivers in the country plus their tall friend who could run block.

Vanderbilt v Missouri Photo by Jay Biggerstaff/Getty Images

6. If Luther Burden III makes the “Dom Leap”

Here’s how we define the “Dom Leap”, highlighting his performance in his two years here:

  • 2021 - 36 targets, 26 catches (72% catch rate), 173 yards, 0 TDs, 6.7 ypc, 4.8 ypt
  • 2022 - 75 targets, 56 catches (74% catch rate), 846 yards, 3 TDs, 15.1 ypc, 11.3 ypt

That’s +52% in targets, +54% in catches, +80% in yards, +300% in TDs. Do you want to apply that to freshman Luther Burden? I know I do!

  • 2022 - 74 targets, 45 catches (60% catch rate), 375 yards, 6 TDs, 8.3 ypc, 5.1 ypt
  • “Dom Leap”d - 112 targets, 69 catches (61% catch rate), 675 yards, 18 TDs, 9.8 ypc, 6.0 ypt

Obviously we want the catch rate to be cleaner than that, and I seriously doubt 18 TD is on the table for any receiver on this roster. But everything else? Yeah, sign me up for that. Slot receivers feast in Drinkwitz (and Kirby Moore’s) offensive schemes and while it’s dangerous to assume anything, I feel good about Burden’s ability to thrive operating out of the slot, just like his East St. Louis buddy Dom Lovett did last year.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 23 Union Home Mortgage Gasparilla Bowl Photo by Peter Joneleit/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

7. If there are at least two edge rushers who can play above replacement level

Missouri threw a number of portalled guys at the defensive tackle problem last year and found great success. They also brought up an FCS edge rusher who acclimated quite well as the season went on. So there’s evidence that Kevin Peoples and Blake Baker can level up their line quickly.

But it also needs to happen again this year. Two P5 transfers and an FCS call up will be supplementing a fourth-year backup, two freshmen, and a blue-chipper who was exercising with the linebackers last year. Can it work? Yes. Does it need to work to take Mizzou to that next tier of wins? Also yes.

Kentucky v Missouri Photo by Jay Biggerstaff/Getty Images

8. If Harrison Mevis can bounce back

When I say “bounce back” that is a relative term. When Harrison Mevis put his foot on a ball he got points out of the effort 89.7% of the time, which is objectively awesome for a college kicker. The problem is that, previously, he had been at 93.8% (freshman) and 97% (sophomore) and missed four field goals under 40 yards last year when he had only missed once in years prior. And not only did he miss short but we didn’t get a game-winning field goal from our big beautiful Thiccer this year. On the contrary, Mevis missed a potential game winner against Auburn and a 55-yard point cushion late in the game against Arkansas. Mevis has lost 9 pounds between last year and this year and if that’s the secret sauce to his Thiccer-burger magic, then that’s great. But Eli Drinkwitz had a sterling record in one-score games for two years thanks to the beastly right gam of Mr. Mevis, and if the Tigers have any shot of breaking through they’ll need him back at his Thiccest.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 22 Vanderbilt at Missouri

9. If the penalty problems improve

There’s no way to hide it: Missouri was one of the most penalized teams in the country last year. The only game that Mizzou finished with fewer than 6 penalties and/or 40 yards was against Vanderbilt (3 penalties, 10 yards). The Tigers averaged 7 penalties and 63 yards per game; do you think those yards add up in one-possession games or potential upset bids? The most commonly called penalties were holding and false starts, which tend to be associated with the offensive line. But defensive holding, pass interference, and late hits were also frequently called. Penalties of aggression - especially on defense - tend to be overlooked, but repeatedly kicking yourself in the junk and letting your opponents off the hook is not when winning teams do. If Mizzou wants to be a winning team then the penalties need to be addressed and rectified.

10. “Astral Assistance”

This is part of every magical season. 2007 Missouri needed Colorado and Nebraska to stay down, beat a surprisingly resurgent kansas to win the North and, of course, needed every team in the world to lose one game (or two) to wind up as the #1 team in the nation heading into the Big XII Championship. 2013 Missouri needed to either beat Georgia and Florida or hope that they both slipped up twice: even with an unlucky last-second loss to South Carolina, the Tigers made it the SEC Championship and were 60 minutes away from a national championship game appearance. Hell, even Alabama has needed luck to make it in a few of the Playoffs that they’ve won. Or USC in 2004. Or LSU in 2007. Or Auburn in 2010. And Ohio State in 2014. All of these teams won it all, but needed teams around them to screw things up as well.

To win in college football you need to recruit an excellent team, win as many games as possible and hope for some luck. If we get to this point and don’t get the luck we need it’s still an excellent year regardless and would be a problem that, given the run of seasons over the past five years, we’d be happy to have.

So what do you think? Am I way off? How many of these are feasible? I can’t wait to bookmark this and view at the end of the season to see how smart/dumb I was. Until then.... LET’S GO TIGERS.