It's hard to find a more unique program in Southeastern Conference football the past two years than Missouri.
The Tigers raced out to a 5-1 record during Barry Odom's final season in 2019 before faltering to a 6-6 mark, but they were ineligible for the postseason due to NCAA sanctions stemming from a former athletic tutor completing course work for 12 players in football, baseball and softball. In Eli Drinkwitz's debut season last year, Mizzou went 5-5 and earned a bid to the Music City Bowl to face Iowa, but an outbreak of positive COVID-19 tests among the Tigers forced the game to be canceled.
Mizzou went to 11 bowl games in a 14-year stretch from 2005-18.
"It's been unfortunate we haven't been able to play in a bowl game for whatever reason the last two years," Mizzou fifth-year senior guard Case Cook said at SEC Media Days. "At the end of the day, we're going to make a bowl game this year, and whatever one we're in, we're going to win that thing."
The bowl cancellation followed Mizzou's lopsided losses to Georgia (49-14) and Mississippi State (51-32) that turned a 5-3 start into another .500 finish, but the initial success of the Drinkwitz era was a surprise to many. The Tigers were picked sixth last year in the SEC East, ahead of only Vanderbilt, and their overall preseason league tally was 12th among the 14 teams, topping Arkansas and the Commodores.
Last year: 5-5 (5-5 SEC)
Season opener: Sept. 4 vs. Central Michigan in Columbia (4 p.m. on SEC Network)
Fun fact: Missouri hasn’t produced a winning record in SEC play since claiming its second consecutive Eastern Division title in 2014.
Up next: South Carolina
Drinkwitz took the reins in Columbia after a dazzling 12-1 season with Appalachian State in 2019, which marked his first year as a head coach.
"I really felt like last year we exceeded the expectations of many of the people in this room but also many of the people within the state about what we could accomplish in such a challenging season," Drinkwitz said. "Last year we were able to win five conference games. We were able to beat the defending national champions. We were able to beat Kentucky for the first time in five years, and we were able to win both of our trophy games (South Carolina and Arkansas).
"We did a nice job with recruiting and continued to develop this program, but we didn't meet the standard of what we want to be moving forward. We are continually chasing that close-the-gap mentality with the upper-echelon teams of the SEC. I've got to remind our fan base that (Georgia's) Kirby Smart and (Florida's) Dan Mullen have years of experience at their schools, and we're trying to close that gap in a hurry, but we're not going to do it overnight."
Missouri opened last season with a 38-19 home loss to eventual national champion Alabama, but Drinkwitz's Tigers really looked like they were in for a long year when they were shellacked 35-12 in their second game at Tennessee. That's when Drinkwitz made the biggest move of his inaugural go-around, benching quarterback Shawn Robinson and replacing him with redshirt freshman Connor Bazelak.
Bazelak immediately delivered by leading the Tigers to a 45-41 upset of visiting LSU, completing 29 of 34 attempts for 406 yards and four touchdowns. He finished the season with 218 completions in 324 attempts (67.3%) for 2,366 yards with seven touchdowns and six interceptions, and his 236.6 passing yards per game wound up ranking fourth in the league behind Florida's Kyle Trask, Alabama's Mac Jones and Matt Corral of Ole Miss.
"I thought Connor Bazelak really played within himself last year," Drinkwitz said. "He's a maverick. He went out there and went into really difficult situations and gave us an opportunity to win some games. Obviously, there are areas he needs to improve on, such as deep-ball accuracy, red-zone completion percentage and touchdowns.
"Those are a direct correlation with me as the play-caller and quarterbacks coach. I've got to give him more opportunities in the red zone to make plays. I've got to put more trust in him."
Perhaps the most exciting aspect to Drinkwitz's second season is his adding of Steve Wilks as defensive coordinator. Wilks was the head coach of the Arizona Cardinals just three years ago and also has served as defensive coordinator of the Carolina Panthers and Cleveland Browns.
"It's crazy learning from him, a man with so much knowledge," senior defensive lineman Akial Byers said. "He's basically explaining to us how the league is, and if you want to play at that level, then you've got to do things a certain way and the right way. He instills that in our head day by day, and I continue to learn new things from him every day in the meeting room."
There will be no element of surprise to Drinkwitz's second season, given last year's performance. That's fine with the players, who see last season as just the start.
"Coach Drinkwitz has done an unbelievable job turning this thing into 'The New Zou," as we call it now," Cook said. "We're not known as the powerhouse of the SEC right now, but that's what we're going to get to. We have an energy that surrounds the program. He's unreal.
"I haven't really seen anything like it before."
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