Opponent: Missouri Tigers
Date: September 12, 2020 (everything’s subject to change, duh)
All-time Series Record: Missouri leads, 7-4-1
Last meeting: October 19, 2019. Vanderbilt won, 21-14.
Last year: 6-6, 39th in SP+.
Head coach: Eliah Drinkwitz (first year; 12-1 overall, 1 year)
Last season, expectations got a little too high for Missouri. Entering the season, there was talk that the Tigers — who were banned from the postseason for an academic scandal — might start the season 8-0. I maintained a healthy amount of skepticism, as I always do when prognosticators’ attitude toward a team revolves around “LOOK AT HOW EASY THEIR SCHEDULE IS,” and Missouri immediately proved how easy its schedule was by losing at Wyoming to open the season. But then they reeled off five wins in a row, and they briefly got into the Top 25 in time for a trip to Vanderbilt.
And then they got Mo Hasan’d. Vanderbilt won 21-14, the Commodores’ only SEC win of the season, and that started a five-game skid. After the loss in Nashville, Missouri scored 13 points in three games, then flubbed a winnable home game against Tennessee. They salvaged a 6-6 record with a win over Arkansas in the season finale, but apparently Missouri’s athletic director had seen enough, canning Barry Odom after four seasons.
In comes Eliah Drinkwitz, fresh off a 12-1 record in his first season as head coach at Appalachian State. On paper, hiring a guy who took over a program that was already strong and didn’t screw things up in his first year seems a bit risky, but Missouri might have overestimated the appeal of the job when it made the decision to relieve Odom. Anyway, unlike Odom, Drinkwitz’s background is on the offensive side of the ball — he came up with Gus Malzahn (going all the way back to when Malzahn was the head coach at Springdale High School in Arkansas and Drinkwitz was his offensive coordinator), and then followed Malzahn to Arkansas State in 2012. Prior to App State, Drinkwitz was the offensive coordinator at NC State. His lone team at App State ranked 9th nationally in points per game.
And that’s the side of the ball that needs improvement at Missouri; the Tigers ranked 93rd nationally averaging 25.3 ppg. And Drinkwitz will have to do it without last year’s starting quarterback, Kelly Bryant, last year’s top receiver, Jonathan Nance, and ridiculous matchup problem Albert Okwuegbunam at tight end, along with three starters on the offensive line. Missouri does return both of last year’s running backs (Larry Rountree and Tyler Badie), though neither was super impressive.
This is going to be an uphill fight. The quarterback is probably going to be TCU transfer Shawn Robinson, a former four-star recruit who completed 60.8 percent of his passes for 1334 yards with 9 touchdowns and 8 interceptions in 2018. (Robinson applied for a waiver to play last year because he said, in so many words, “fuck it, why not,” and it was denied.) Robinson was nagged by injuries during his sophomore year but still has potential, though he may have to fight off Connor Bazelak (15-for-21 for 144 yards in limited action in 2019.) On paper, though, this looks like an offense devoid of weapons, so Drinkwitz will have his work cut out for him.
It’s a different story on the other side of the ball. That was a strength for Missouri last year (19.4 ppg, 16th nationally), and while they lose a couple of stars in DT Jordan Elliott and LB Cale Garrett, they return eight starters. Up front, senior DT Kobie Whiteside had 7.5 sacks last season, while junior LB Nick Bolton had a team-leading 103 tackles along with two interceptions and 7 pass breakups as a sophomore. Bolton could be a bona fide star, and Missouri has experience all over the place.
If the defense is a given, how good Missouri can be will depend on the offense. Drinkwitz’s offensive mind isn’t really in question, but he’ll need to find a quarterback and some playmakers. If he does, Missouri should find its way back to a bowl game in 2020.