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Vanderbilt Football 2021 Opponent Preview: Missouri

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Is Missouri ready to make a jump in 2021?

Missouri v Arkansas Photo by Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

Opponent: Missouri Tigers

Date: October 30, 2021

All-time series record: Missouri leads, 6-4-1

Last meeting: November 28, 2020; Missouri won, 41-0

Last season: 5-5, 68th in SP+, 69th in Sagarin

Head coach: Eli Drinkwitz (second year, 5-5; third year overall, 17-6)

I frankly had a lot of questions about Missouri’s decision to fire Barry Odom following the 2019 season and replace him with Eli Drinkwitz. From an outsider’s perspective, at least, Odom appeared to be doing fine, with a 25-25 record in four years after going 4-8 in his first season, followed by 7-6 and 8-5 before NCAA sanctions clouded the 2019 team. That seemed like a good enough record to get another year, but Missouri decided it didn’t, and then brought in Drinkwitz — who had one year of head coaching experience (granted, a 12-1 season at Appalachian State.) But at least in 2020, it seemed to pay off.

With a freshman quarterback, and playing an all-SEC schedule, Missouri managed to squeeze out a 5-5 record. The computers didn’t think much of the Tigers because, aside from a 41-0 win over Vanderbilt (which got Derek Mason fired the next day), Missouri won four games by a total of 23 points. The five losses came by an average of 24 points.

Missouri probably won’t be so lucky in close games in 2021, but it might not matter. The good news about starting a freshman quarterback is that he’s likely to get better, and Missouri has a bunch of experience returning this season. And so far, Drinkwitz is putting together an impressive recruiting class for 2022, having already secured six commitments from four-star recruits — or, double the number Missouri signed from 2017-20. The long-term prognosis for Missouri looks good, though there might be some hiccups in 2021.

Offense

Missouri enters the 2021 season with one of the most stable quarterback situations in the SEC East. Connor Bazelak took over early in the 2020 season, as a redshirt freshman, and did fine (218-324-2366, 7 TD, 6 INT.) His performance was good enough that Shawn Robinson, who was the presumptive starter entering 2020, moved to defensive back. That move does mean Missouri’s depth at the position is precarious: redshirt freshman Brady Cook’s seven pass attempts in 2020 represent the entirety of the rest of the quarterback room’s college experience. The only other scholarship quarterback on the roster is true freshman Tyler Macon, though I guess Robinson could move back to the position in an emergency.

The receiving corps took a blow when second-leading receiver Jalen Knox transferred to Ole Miss, but it does return its leading receiver, 6’5”, 214-pound Keke Chism, who elected to return for a sixth year after posting 35 catches for 458 yards and a touchdown after transferring from Division II Angelo State. Redshirt junior Tauskie Dove (30-300-2) could step into a bigger role, and junior TE Niko Hea (14-130-2) has potential. The Tigers also have a couple of former four-star recruits joining the fold in Ohio State transfer Mookie Cooper and true freshman Dominic Lovett.

The offensive line has to replace starting tackle Larry Borom, a fifth-round draft pick of the Chicago Bears, but the other four starters all return, including two-year starter Case Cook and center Michael Maietti, who started all ten games last season after being a three-year starter at Rutgers. That should help senior RB Tyler Badie, who should step in to replace Larry Rountree III, who departs after rushing for 3720 yards in his career.

Defense

Missouri has to replace tackle Markell Utsey, but the return of end Trajan Jeffcoat (6 sacks in 2020), a first-team All-SEC selection, is a big deal. The Tigers also get back Chris Turner (25 starts in 2018-19) and Kobie Whiteside (13 career starts), both of whom elected to use the free year of eligibility. And Akial Byers (10 career starts) and Isaiah McGuire (8 starts in 2020, 4 TFL, 3 sacks) return as well. This has the makings of a very good and deep defensive front.

That should help cover up some retooling in the back seven. First-team All-SEC linebacker Nick Bolton is gone, but Devin Nicholson (69 tackles, 3 TFL, 1.5 sacks) returns. Rice transfer Blaze Alldredge, who had 21.5 tackles for loss and four sacks for the Owls in 2019, figures to be the second starter in Mizzou’s 4-2-5 scheme, but he could be pushed by junior Chad Bailey (11 tackles, 2 TFL in five games in 2020), a former four-star recruit.

The defensive backfield has to replace some guys, but junior safety Martez Manuel (64 tackles, 7 TFL, 2.5 sacks, 5 passes defensed) is a budding star, and sophomore Ennis Rakestraw Jr. (6 passes defensed) had a fine debut; both started all ten games a year ago. The rest of the secondary is an open question: Mizzou is probably hoping for some contributions from graduate transfers Akayleb Evans and Allie Green IV, both from Tulsa, but neither was a star at the AAC level.

Special Teams

Placekicker Harrison Mevis had an excellent debut in 2020, converting 17-of-20 field goals including 3-of-4 from beyond 50 yards; he should develop into one of the SEC’s best. Punting is in decent hands with the return of Grant McKinniss for a sixth year; his 43.1 yards per punt average ranked 8th in the SEC.

Mizzou didn’t get much in the return game last season, and probably will be in the market for a new kick returner with last year’s primary returner, Tyler Badie, likely to move into a starting role at running back. Six different players returned punts for Mizzou in 2020, none very effectively.

Schedule

  • September 4 vs. Central Michigan 3:00 PM/SEC Network
  • September 11 at Kentucky 6:30 PM/SEC Network
  • September 18 vs. SE Missouri State 11:00 AM/SEC Network+
  • September 25 at Boston College
  • October 2 vs. Tennessee
  • October 9 vs. North Texas
  • October 16 vs. Texas A&M
  • October 30 at Vanderbilt
  • November 6 at Georgia
  • November 13 vs. South Carolina
  • November 20 vs. Florida
  • November 26 at Arkansas 2:30 PM/CBS

It always seems like Missouri has a schedule set up to build a good record going into mid-October, and that’s the case again this year; the first six games are all winnable, though road trips to Kentucky and Boston College aren’t automatic, and depending on where Tennessee is in Year 1 under Josh Heupel, the Vols could be a tough out on October 2. Still, 6-0 going into the October 16 game against Texas A&M isn’t out of the question.

The back part of the schedule is a bit rougher, but there are at least three winnable games (at Vanderbilt, South Carolina, at Arkansas), and even Florida late in the season in Columbia could be a win. The over/under is 7 wins and I’d honestly take the over what with the lack of sure losses on the schedule.

Recent series vs. Vanderbilt

Derek Mason might have saved his job twice with wins over Missouri, a 10-3 win in 2015 being his first SEC win, and a 21-14 home win in 2019 coming the week after an awful loss to UNLV. Still, Missouri is 6-3 against the Commodores since joining the SEC, with the latest outing — a 41-0 drubbing in Columbia last season — resulting in Mason getting fired the next day.

Prior to joining the SEC, Missouri had only played Vanderbilt twice and hadn’t won, with a 7-7 tie in Nashville in 1957 followed by a 12-8 Vanderbilt win in Columbia the next season. Still, Vanderbilt and Missouri will be forever linked by both being former employers of Woody Widenhofer.

Outlook

Weirdly, I’m talking myself into this Missouri team for third place in the East. On offense, the Tigers might have the most stable quarterback situation entering the season this side of Georgia; Connor Bazelak quickly established himself as the starter for the next two or three years upon taking over in 2020. Returning four of five starters on the offensive line will provide a big boost as well. On the other side of the ball, Missouri has to replace some key players in the back seven, but having a deep and experienced defensive line will cover a lot of sins.

The caveat here is that Missouri was probably extremely fortunate to go 5-5 in 2020; the Tigers went 3-0 in games decided by a single score, and none of the five losses were particularly close. Suffice to say, they probably won’t be so lucky in 2021, but the team may be improved enough overall (and the schedule soft enough) that they may not need to be. Of the five losses from 2020, Alabama and Mississippi State are off the schedule this season (though picking up Texas A&M as the rotating opponent from the West isn’t helpful), while I would be highly skeptical of Tennessee after a disastrous finish to 2020 followed by, well, what’s become a typical Tennessee offseason.

Anyway, this has all the markers of a program that’s on the upswing, and even if the results don’t come this season, Eli Drinkwitz’s recruiting is such that the Tigers should be pretty good as long as he’s there. That’s definitely not something I would have written twelve months ago.