Photo credit: mutigers.com
Most college football programs are optimistic entering a new season. The schools and their coaching staffs, along with athletic department administrators want to build optimism in order to energize their fan bases. After all, they want to sell tickets. This makes Mizzou no different than any other athletic program.
Mizzou Head Football Coach, Eli Drinkwitz, is one of the best promoters in the business. Whether it's at SEC Media Days, meeting with the local media, alumni groups, or high school recruits, Drinkwitz has proven he can sell.
Nevertheless, the Missouri Tigers enter the 2022 football season with more questions than answers. The questions go across the board with Drinkwitz's program, including the team roster, the coaching staff, and fan enthusiasm.
To be fair, most college football programs enter a new season with question marks. Even programs such as Alabama or Georgia have their own questions, but just not as many.
Let's look at the most looming issues facing the Tigers as they enter the upcoming season.
1. The Quarterback Carousel
The biggest question asked over the Winter, Spring, and Summer was who would be the starting QB for the season opener on September 1st against Louisiana Tech. The question was answered rather quickly, not long after fall camp started.
Sophomore Brady Cook beat out Tyler Macon, highly touted freshman Sam Horn, and the much traveled Jack Abraham for the starting QB role. The quick decision on naming Cook can be either a positive take or a negative take, depending on how you view it.
The Positive: Cook was so impressive during the early part of camp that he overwhelmed the other talented candidates.
The Negative: The quarterback depth is so thin, it became quickly obvious Cook was the only real choice.
The answer is likely somewhere in between. Cook was impressive in the Armed Forces Bowl against Army. But keep in mind, it was Army, not a Power 5 school.
By all accounts Sam Horn looks like the real deal, someone who can play QB in the rugged SEC. Horn just hasn't been around for very long and needs time to develop.
Abraham and Macon must not move the needle very much for Drinkwitz. Nevertheless, entering the first game of the season, Macon and Abraham look like the choices to back up Cook.
A couple of final thoughts on Mizzou's quarterback situation. Even though most fans didn't seem to mourn the transfer of Connor Bazlak to Indiana, I do believe Drinkwitz did. It left little experience on the roster and forced Coach Drink into a painful-to-watch-seemingly-desperate search for a quarterback transfer. Honestly, Abraham seems like the fourth bridesmaid at a wedding.
2. Replacing Tyler
All SEC and Second Team All American running back, Tyler Badie, is now a Baltimore Raven. Replacing Mizzou's single season rushing record setter will certainly be impossible, but will be one of the most important decisions for the 2022 season.
Going into fall camp, contenders included Stanford transfer Nate Peat, Elijah Young, Michael Cox, Truman State transfer and walk-on Cody Schrader, and four star freshman Travorus Jones.
Peat led Stanford in rushing last season and also led the PAC-12 in return yards. Schrader was a Division II All American last year by putting up over 2,000 yards rushing. Meanwhile Young has the most experience of the returning running backs, and Jones has the most upside.
Surprisingly, Cody Schrader seems to be in line to start Thursday night, with B.J Harris, Nate Peak, and Elijah Young still in the mix. Will there be a primary back or a running back by committee?
We may not know the answer to this until Thursday night. However, without a clear leader, the running back by committee logically seems the route Drinkwitz will take until someone steps forward.
3. Will Luther Burden be a difference Maker?
Mizzou's wide receiver depth may be the offense's strongest position. Especially with the addition of 5-Star recruit Luther Burden. The East St. Louis High product was the nation's highest rated receiver during his senior year. His performance during Mizzou's Spring Practice did nothing to change anyone's mind about him.
Mizzou also showed it could have depth at the wide receiver slot during Spring and Fall camps. Tauskie Dove, Dominic Lovett, Mookie Cooper, and Barrett Banister could be one of the best wide receiving corps in the SEC.
Without a Tyler Badie or Larry Roundtree in the backfield, it is essential the Mizzou wide receivers replace the running back position as a true threat in the SEC. Of course, the key will be the development of Luther Burden.
4. Defensive Coordinator Blake Baker
Blake Baker will be Eli Drinkwitz's third Defensive Coordinator in three years. Drinkwitz's predecessor, Barry Odom, a defensive specialist struggled to find the right offensive coordinator and eventually it cost him his job. Drinkwitz, an offensive specialist, has so far struggled finding a good fit for a defensive coordinator. Ironic, isn't it?
Coach Drink inherited his first DC, Ryan Walters, from Odom. For whatever reason, Walters was either pushed out the door or not encouraged to stay. Walters moved to Illinois and successfully rebuilt the Big 10s most improved defense in 2021.
Next came Steve Wilks, an NFL product. The transition to Wilks' NFL style defense was painful to watch and turned into a disaster the first half of the 2021 season. In fact, early season losses to Boston College and Kentucky can be laid at Wilks' defense's early struggles. Wilks ran back to the NFL in February and is now the Carolina Panthers passing game coordinator.
Hopefully Blake Baker will be a good fit. His background indicates he might. Baker has spent four seasons as the DC at Louisiana Tech, two at Miami, and one season at LSU as a linebacker coach.
Baker has implemented a 4-2-5 formation that promotes a fast pace and aggressive style of play. Dave Matter of the Post-Dispatch describes it as "probably straddling the tight rope walk of risk and reward with intense frequency."
Even so, at both of his DC stops Baker made improvements to the defenses he coached. His defense at Miami during 2019, finished second in the ACC in scoring defense, second in rush defense, and second in pass defense.
Some final personal thoughts
Before I go any further, let me say, I hope Eli Drinkwitz will be successful at Mizzou. I'm a fan and will pull for him and the Tigers every game.
Additionally, we must keep in mind this is only Year Three of the Eli Drinkwitz Era. Gary Pinkel didn't have his first winning season until his third year at Mizzou, and Larry Smith's first winning season wasn't until his fourth year. Coach Drink's record in his first two years was better than either Pinkel's or Smith's.
With that being said, we're still waiting to find out if Eli Drinkwitz can coach at the SEC/Power 5 level. Yes, we know he can recruit and sell. He's first class in both of those areas. But can he coach at this level?
Coach Drink has so far struggled to develop an impact quarterback. We also don't know, even with his recruiting success, if he can develop players into consistent winners. These are questions that could be answered this season.
Mizzou doesn't need to win 9 or 10 games this season to call it a success. The schedule makes that an unfair expectation. Therefore, taking everything into consideration, I feel winning 7 games should be a fair target for 2022.