ATLANTA. Coach Eli Drinkwitz doesn’t have to spend the rest of the week at Southeastern Conference football media days to find out what writers and TV people think of his Missouri Tigers.
The SEC’s pre-season media poll comes out on Friday, and despite Drinkwitz’s roster that United sees as the most talented in his three seasons, outside expectations will be modest at best. Most preseason predictions place Mizzo in sixth place in the SEC East out of seven teams. The Las Vegas bookies set the over/under betting line on the Tigers’ overall win at 5½.
This is the price you pay for being uncertain about the most important position in the game.
Drinkwitz has revamped his roster on several fronts — 19 transfers joined the team this offseason — but his quarterback competition will resume when preseason kicks off in a few weeks. Whether Drinkwitz passes offense to seventh year Jack Abraham, sophomore Brady Cooke, redshirt freshman Tyler Macon or freshman Sam Horn, it’s hard to gauge the potential of this team until that position is resolved.
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It’s not that Drinkwitz lost sleep because of the preseason polls.
“Collegiate football is great because every year there are players on the stage. And I think we all like what’s known and it’s easier to write or predict based on what’s known,” Drinkwitz told a small group of local reporters before heading into the College Football Hall of Fame. “It is difficult to write and predict based on the unknown.
“But I know we have talented quarterback players. And we’re just waiting for them to show the team which one will be the starter. And I know we’re surrounded by really good skills, a very solid offensive line, a very solid defense with nine returning players who have six or more starts, so I’m sure we’ll be where we need to be.”
Confident, yes, but Drinkwitz, who was interviewed here on Monday in a gray suit, pink tie and one of his many pairs of signature Air Jordan sneakers, didn’t come close to matching the bravado of 2021’s media days. Aside from the fact that he plans to grow a mustache for preseason, he kept his wits to a minimum and by the end of the day hadn’t said anything controversial enough to go viral on social media.
Was this album more subdued, restrained in design?
“He told me he was retreating this year,” said senior security specialist Martez Manuel. “He’s just going to let our game speak for him.”
A finish better than .500 would be the start.
Over the past six seasons—four under Barry Odom, two under Drinkwitz—the Tigers are 36-37 and 21-29 in conference games. By any measure, this is a pivotal year for Drinkwitz, who is 11-12 in two seasons and still chasing his first winning record — though the Tigers were 5-5 in his COVID-shortened 2020 debut year when they played only against SEC opponents. On a regular schedule with some non-conference travelers, he would certainly have achieved a winning record, something no Mizzo coach has done in his first season since Warren Powers in 1978.
However, for veteran players who participated in the program prior to Drinkwitz’s arrival, their student experience was locked in neutral: 6-6 in 2019, 5-5 in 2020, 6-7 last year.
Step forward, step back.
Are they tired of the .500 grind?
“Dude, we’re really hungry,” Manuel said. “You have no idea how many times we say this. So feel free to ask this question because we say it all the time. And like you said, for every year I’ve been here, there’s literally been 0,500 of us. This can be very annoying. I feel like the most important thing we need to find out is what is this thing that is taking us over the edge?”
The recruiting rating indicates that the pieces of the puzzle are in place. Drinkwitz has produced two consecutive top 20 classes and has signed several high-profile goals in and out of state.
But the time has come for the stars to be put into production. Over two seasons, the rivals beat the Drinkwitz teams 763–645. Only three of his 12 losses came in single digits; six scored 21 points or more. On Monday, he called last year’s home losses to Tennessee (38 points) and Texas A&M (21) “the lowest moments I’ve had so far at the University of Missouri.”
The roster and turnover has rocked the core of the team over the last couple of years, but the 2022 roster is mostly made up of players hired by Drinkwitz and his staff.
“I’m not shy about talking about it, and I’m saying it to our team: we’re the most talented we’ve had since I’ve been there,” Drinkwitz said. “But we also have the toughest schedule we’ve had since we’ve been there. If you combine these two things, I’m not sure what the result will be. But I’m confident in our ability to compete in this league because of the depth and talent we have.”
Other uncertainties remain. Blake Baker is Drinkwitz’s third defensive coordinator in three seasons. The Tigers have no obvious replacement for All-SEC running back Tyler Bady. There are intriguing young playmakers on the wide receiver—you may have heard of five-star recruit Luther Burden III—but none of the returning players have more than two touchdowns in a career.
This brings the chatter back to quarterback competition. Drinkwitz missed three Power Five passes this offseason and then added Abraham, a former South Mississippi starter. Compared to a schedule that includes early games in Kansas State, Auburn and Florida, the 24-year-old’s unrivaled experience could give him an edge.
Drinkwitz said the two quarterbacks would split snaps with the No. 1 offense in camp, and the competition would move from there – with a caveat.
“You can prove you’re a starting quarterback by working with (Third Division) and earning your chance,” he said. “It’s not always about the statistics. It’s about making decisions and getting your group into the end zone.”
Of Abraham, Drinkwitz said, “Seeing him in meetings and seeing him run games, he’s exactly what we expected: a guy who’s got a lot of experience, he’s experienced in leadership and shooting. You’re talking about a guy who (NFL wide receiver) D.C. Metcalf was one of his suitors at his wedding. So obviously he was there. He has a great presence.”
Last year’s 62-24 loss to Tennessee may have officially ended Drinkwitz’s Mizzow honeymoon and was a sobering reminder that the Tigers need more than a few promising recruiting classes to compete with the top tier of the SEC.
As he tours the state, Drinkwitz feels like fans are just as hungry for something more than his veteran players than .500.
“We have raised expectations, which is good,” he said. “That’s what you want to do. You see the disappointment when (recruits) don’t agree to come to your school, and that’s good. This is a good sign. This means that you have won several battles. … There is a saying that champions become champions long before they become champions. They have a winning performance standard. This is how our fans should be. And that’s what we should expect from both the program and our players.”
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