Our long national nightmare is over and college football is back.
Week 0 started yesterday with a smattering of games played in some fairly sweltering heat. Week 1 officially starts today as the bulk of the collegiate football games kick off. With Missouri taking the field this week, it’s always a good opportunity to take stock on the state of the program as we hit year 4 under Eli Drinkwitz.
If you’ve followed along here long enough you know I do this every year before the season starts.
The exercise is important. Mainly because I think we mostly know where fans want the program to be on an nearly annual basis. And as Drinkwitz has been building things up, the main questions are if he’s on the right path and how far away from that top goal is he with the program right now?
In year one Drinkwitz and his program seemed to overachieve. Not much was expected following the firing of Barry Odom following the 2019 season, and as COVID enveloped the world it was easy to shrug off any perceived failures that season. The talent level was mediocre, they would face an All-SEC Conference schedule... needless to say expectations were not very high.
Year two was a strange one. Overall the program went 6-7. The defense went from getting absolutely torched throughout most of the season to being altogether not awful by the end. But the offense was so inconsistent it made for a bumpy ride. Drink struggled to find his Quarterback and a banged up Connor Bazelak entered the transfer portal at the end of the season.
Year three was one of transition with new Defensive Coordinator Blake Baker reenergizing the defense into one of the better units in the SEC. However, the Tigers again struggled with inconsistency on offense, supposedly Drink’s strength, all season long. It got to the point where he handed over play-calling duties to Bush Hamdan. That move resulted in more running opportunities for Brady Cook, and the threat of the run helped cover up some struggles in protection. But still, the result was the same, 6-7, a loss in the bowl game.
So here we are in year four, with tempered optimism
The defense returns a lot of pieces from a very good unit a season ago. They’ve added pieces as well. The secondary is deep and talented, the linebacking corps returned everyone and got deeper, and the defensive line has the bodies to come up big again this year.
Harrison Mevis was spottier than he’s been last year but his leg remains big and strong and there’s no reason why he can’t return to form. There remain some questions about punting, but you hope the coaching staff can sort that much out.
The big question is what is going to happen with the offense? The offensive line was shaky in both run and pass blocking a year ago, but that’s another thing you hope the coaching staff can address. They’ve certainly added pieces to help on the interior and brought back Javon Foster who was excellent two years ago. If the offensive line can at least be adequate then that leaves the final question to be about the Quarterback.
Brady Cook was inconsistent in throwing the football last year, but he was also operating much of the season with a labrum injury to his throwing shoulder. Does surgery fix his issues completely? Sam Horn came in as a heralded recruit but barely sniffed the field last year when Cook was banged up. And when he did he nearly got Barrett Bannister killed on a pass over the middle.
The benefit here is that nothing in sports is ever static, especially within collegiate competition. Brady Cook might have a ceiling, but we don’t yet know where it might be. And Sam Horn’s ceiling may be a lot higher (at least if he lives up to his recruiting ranking) but he’s still only in his second season. And one thing we’ve seen from Drinkwitz so far is that he’s more likely to lean on experience over youth if the separators are narrow.
So that’s where things stand right now
It’s taken Drink four years but he’s got his deepest and most talented roster in Columbia. The defense again should be menacing. He’s recruited playmakers on offense and they’ve made some necessary moves to improve the offensive line.
What this comes down to is if he can find a consistent enough offense to support his defense? And an enormous part of that will be the play of the Quarterback.
Gary Pinkel found success at Missouri through player development along the offensive line, a few playmakers, and a stout defense. But one area where Pinkel always had an answer was at Quarterback. From Brad Smith to Drew Lock (with a small hiccup there before Lock) Mizzou was set at Quarterback, and having consistent play at QB meant you could count on the offense.
With foundational QB play this team's outlook changes significantly.
Expectations outside of Columbia are meager at best. Mizzou was voted 6th in the SEC East preseason poll, but a good prediction for Missouri in the preseason poll is around 4th. Only twice have they been voted as high as 3rd. So this season is far from an outlier. But if Mizzou wants to get more respect around the SEC they need to start being more consistent as a program. If there was a year where you could expect or hope it could happen, this season would be the one.