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SEC Preview: Missouri

By Matt Smith
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Matt Smith previews the 2020 Missouri Tigers.

Head Coach: Eliah Drinkwitz; first season at Missouri, second season overall (12-1 overall)
Offensive Coordinator: Eliah Drinkwitz
Defensive Coordinator: Ryan Walters (fifth season)
2019 Recap: 6-6 (3-5 SEC)
After two seasons with slow starts and fast finishes, Barry Odom’s final Missouri team flipped the script, starting 5-1 before crash-landing at 6-6, beating only hapless Arkansas during the second half of the season. Clemson transfer quarterback Kelly Bryant battled injuries late in the season, and the offense scored more than 20 points just once in that forgettable six-game stretch. On the bright side, sophomore Nick Bolton emerged as a budding star at linebacker after Cale Garrett’s career ended prematurely due to injury in October. Following four straight seasons without a winning record in SEC play, Odom was fired, and he’s now the defensive coordinator at rival Arkansas – the team responsible for four of Odom’s 12 SEC wins with the Tigers.

2020 Schedule
Sept. 26 – ALABAMA (7 p.m. ET, ESPN)
Oct. 3 – at Tennessee (Noon ET, SEC Network)
Oct. 10 – at LSU
Oct. 17 – VANDERBILT (7:30 p.m. ET, SEC Network)
Oct. 24 – at Florida
Oct. 31 – KENTUCKY (Noon ET, SEC Network)
Nov. 7 – Idle
Nov. 14 – GEORGIA
Nov. 21 – at South Carolina
Nov. 28 – ARKANSAS
Dec. 5 – at Mississippi State

Under Center
It’s somewhat of a mystery whether or not Missouri has a true quarterback battle or not. Shawn Robinson sat out last season after transferring from TCU, but the junior saw extensive playing time with the Horned Frogs in 2018, throwing for more than 1,300 yards. Drinkwitz’s offense doesn’t require a mobile quarterback to work (see Ryan Finley from his time at N.C. State), but it’s hard to overlook the versatility that Robinson brings to the table.

The most familiar face to Missouri fans is junior Taylor Powell, who backed up Drew Lock in 2018 and Kelly Bryant a year ago, including starting in a shutout loss to Georgia. Redshirt freshman Connor Bazelak was the last man standing last season, starting the finale against Arkansas and completing seven of nine pass attempts. Robinson has the edge to start, but with three players who have started games competing in an unfamiliar system with no spring, it’s hard to make any definitive statements.

In The Trenches
The Tigers offensive line was a bit of a disappointment last season, allowing 27 sacks and falling apart in the second half of the season. Now Missouri returns just two starters in right guard Case Cook and right tackle Larry Borom. Drinkwitz brought in former Mississippi State assistant Marcus Johnson to coach this unit, giving his offensive staff some recent SEC experience. With Alabama, Tennessee and LSU the first three opponents, there is no easing into the season for this group.

On the other side of the ball, there’s a bullish feel to the defensive front seven. Kobie Whiteside leads the way in the middle of the line, but he’s more than just a space-eater, leading the Tigers with 6.5 sacks in 2019. Linebacker Nick Bolton is an All-American candidate after emerging as a sophomore last season. The challenge for coordinator Ryan Walters, retained by Drinkwitz in an astute move, is to figure out how to get more pressure from the edge rushers. Both Tre Williams and Chris Turner are returning starters, but they combined to drop opposing quarterbacks just three times a year ago.

On The Edge
Running back Larry Rountree III flirted with going to the NFL after the coaching change last December but ultimately decided to return. Like the rest of the offense, his production slipped in the second half of last season. He topped 100 yards three times, but those all came in the first six games. The receiving corps looks green. Well-traveled graduate transfer Damon Hazleton, who has had stops at Ball State and Virginia Tech, is the most experienced player, but keep an eye on Division II transfer Keke Chism, who sports a great frame for red zone success.

The secondary has taken some big steps forward in the past couple seasons under Walters. The numbers were aided last season by facing some very poor passing offenses, but the Tigers did allow the second-fewest passing yards in the conference. Jarvis Ware and Adam Sparks bring plenty of experience to the cornerback position, while senior safeties Tyree Gillespie and Joshuah Bledsoe have good chemistry in handling the middle of the field.

Ranking The Units
1.   Defensive Line
2.   Linebackers
3.   Defensive Backs
4.   Running Backs
5.   Quarterbacks
6.   Offensive Line
7.   Receivers

Schedule Analysis
A manageable slate got a lot tougher with the late additions of Alabama and LSU, with both taking place in the first three weeks. The Tigers will take their lumps early, but there are some opportunities after that. Beating Florida or Georgia would be a monumental achievement, but they catch both teams in obvious trap-game situations. Arkansas, Kentucky and Vanderbilt all come to Columbia, while the final two road trips – at South Carolina and at Mississippi State – are both very winnable.

Season Prediction
The offense is going to struggle, but the defense should cause some problems for opponents. Enough to beat one of the five bluebloods on the schedule? I’m going to say yes, and I’ll call for perhaps the biggest upset of the season on Oct. 24 when Missouri goes to Florida and shocks the Gators. Despite the huge win, I don’t see the Tigers getting to the .500 mark. Their games won’t often be pretty this season, but with so many unknowns, the Tigers could be a fun team to watch.

Record: 3-7
CFP Ranking: NR

Matt Smith - Matt is a 2007 graduate of Notre Dame and has spent most of his life pondering why most people in the Mid-Atlantic actually think there are more important things than college football. He has blogged for College Football News, covering both national news as well as Notre Dame and the service academies. He credits Steve Spurrier and Danny Wuerffel for his love of college football and tailgating at Florida, Tennessee, and Auburn for his love of sundresses. Matt covers the ACC as well as the national scene.