Midseason roundtable: With two wins, is there a path to a .500 season for the Tigers?

On another weekend without Missouri football, The Maneater’s football beat answered a few questions as the Tigers prepare for the second half of their season.
Nick Bolton (32) and Jarvis Ware (8) combine to tackle Florida's Kyle Trask during Missouri's 41-17 loss to the Gators on Oct. 31, 2020. SEC Media Portal

Don’t look now, but Missouri is already halfway through what has arguably been one of the most unique seasons in college football history.

“We’re in the 17th week of the season, and we’ve only played five games,” coach Eli Drinkwitz said.

With this weekend’s game against Georgia tentatively postponed until Dec. 19, The Maneater’s football beat decided to sit down for a roundtable as the Tigers prepare for the second half of their season.

What has surprised you about Missouri this season?

Kyle Pinnell: There’s plenty that could be said here, but what has impressed me the most this season has been the amount of young players that have stepped up. Ennis Rakestraw Jr. is the first player that catches my eye. As a three-star recruit at cornerback, Rakestraw has already been asked to guard some of the most talented receivers in the country, such as Jaylen Waddle, DeVonta Smith, Terrace Marshall Jr. and Kadarius Toney. Per the Columbia Missourian’s Max Baker, Rakestraw’s five passes defended lead all freshmen who have played five games or fewer.

Sophomore safety Martez Manuel has also come into his own this season. His 31 tackles rank third on the team, and his 3.5 tackles for loss leads the team. Of course, there is also redshirt freshman quarterback Connor Bazelak. When Drinkwitz saw enough from Shawn Robinson two drives into Missouri’s 35-12 loss at Tennessee, he gave Bazelak a shot, and he hasn’t looked back. The Dayton, Ohio product put up 406 yards and four touchdowns in a win against LSU the next weekend and converted ten third downs and four fourth downs in a 20-10 win against Kentucky. The future is bright for Missouri, and it all starts with a young core that continues to stand out each week.

Jack Soble: Once again, Kyle took all the players that I was going to say except for one: Trajan Jeffcoat. He has come out of nowhere to be Missouri’s best pass-rushing threat. The edge rusher was readmitted to the university after being dismissed from the team last year, and with Jordan Elliot drafted, Kobie Whiteside injured and Nick Bolton not rushing the passer on every play, Jeffcoat has been the Tigers’ most consistent pass rusher. He leads the team with three sacks thus far. Jeffcoat is also a key piece of the run defense, which rebounded in a massive way after the Tennessee game.

Aside from individual players, the goal-line stand against LSU will always be one of the more shocking things I’ve ever seen on a football field. It cannot be overstated how impressive stopping a high-powered offense on four consecutive plays from the one-yard line is, especially given that two of those plays were intended for Marshall Jr., one of the best receivers in the country. I was also surprised when the offense came out flat against Florida’s abomination of a defense, which was missing three starting defensive backs due to COVID-19. I expected Bazelak and company to put up massive numbers, but due to some self-inflicted errors, they did not.

How would you rate the job Eli Drinkwitz has done so far?

KP: I believe that Drinkwitz has done as well as anyone could have hoped for so far, especially considering that this is his first Power Five head coaching job. Back in September, Vegas projected that Missouri would win around three games, and Drinkwitz’s team has already won two. Sure, the win against LSU lost some of its luster a month later, but the Tigers of Baton Rouge are still reigning national champions, and an easy argument can be made that their roster –– at least on paper –– is leaps and bounds better than Missouri’s. The Tigers' second win against Kentucky marked the first time they beat the Wildcats since 2014, and they did it in convincing fashion.

Outside of the win-loss record, it feels like Drinkwitz is genuinely building something in Columbia. The Tigers' 2021 recruiting class ranks 29th in the country, and Drinkwitz has consistently emphasized recruiting during press conferences. Players seem to have bought in and have faith in what Drinkwitz is trying to establish. Missouri is a team that has direction, and it's exciting to think about where this young squad could be in the next few seasons.

JS: Anytime a team is an underdog in each of their first five games — four against teams ranked in the AP Top 25 at the time — and wins two of them, it’s an impressive feat for the coach. Because Drinkwitz has seemingly received complete buy-in from his players, installed a modern and diverse offensive scheme and won those games against LSU and Kentucky, I can say with almost complete confidence that Missouri is better off now as a program than it was a year ago.

That doesn’t mean that Drinkwitz has been perfect. Despite that modern and diverse offense, Missouri has scored more than 20 points just once in five games, and they haven’t exactly faced a slate of world-beaters on defense. Part of that could be a young quarterback still adjusting to the SEC; part of it is certainly dropped passes and, arguably, the most significant part of it is a failure to execute in the red zone. I wouldn’t say that those errors are a product of poor coaching yet, especially because Drinkwitz has fully acknowledged that his team has to execute better on offense. However, if they remain prevalent during the next five games and even into next season, then it’s a problem for the Drinkwitz regime.

What’s your prediction for the rest of the way?

KP: For a team with just two wins over its first five games, I actually have a lot of confidence that Missouri can finish its season strong. With the Vanderbilt game postponed, the Tigers faced LSU, Alabama and Florida early, with the latter two teams likely to clash in the SEC championship game. Missouri is currently slated to play five more games with just two (at South Carolina and Mississippi State) remaining on the road. The Tigers host Vanderbilt, Arkansas and Georgia. Every team but Georgia is currently unranked, and I’d expect each of those games to be close with Missouri coming out with three wins.

The big question is whether Missouri can get rid of its road woes. The Tigers have lost their two road games by an average of three touchdowns. Three more wins down the stretch gives Drinkwitz five wins and a .500 record in his first season –– an impressive feat, considering the all-SEC schedule. Missouri’s toughest stretch of the season is now behind it. Who knows? Maybe five wins will be enough to send the Tigers to a bowl game, capping off a successful first season for Drinkwitz in Columbia.

JS: These next four games are going to be critical for Missouri. They are all winnable; no one is mistaking South Carolina, Arkansas, Mississippi State and Vanderbilt for SEC title contenders. The expectation for Missouri should be to win three of those games and enter a Dec. 19 date with Georgia with a guaranteed .500 or better record.

The expectation should also be for Missouri’s offense to stop talking about executing better and start actually doing it. After two consecutive bye weeks, Missouri should have conducted a full evaluation of their offensive personnel and should start giving the receivers who have earned playing time more reps throughout the games. Personally, I would like to see walk-on D’ionte “Boo” Smith on the field more. They should also clean up the self-inflicted errors. If that happens, expect the Tigers to up their points per game by a significant margin over the next few weeks and finish the season 5-5 or 6-4.

Edited by Maia Bond | mbond@themaneater.com

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