COLUMBIA, Mo. — Missouri's record at the conclusion of Eli Drinkwitz's third season as head coach hardly suggested that the Tigers, who were once a Top 25 mainstay and twice played for the SEC championship, had taken strides toward the top of the conference.
They went 6-6 during the regular season before losing to Wake Forest in the Gasparilla Bowl.
But perhaps no other team in major college football was less a reflection of its record than the Tigers, whose quarterback played with a torn labrum for the final 10 games and at one point lost four games by a combined 18 points — one of them in overtime.
Still, Drinkwitz doesn't make a whole lot of excuses. He understands that his 17-19 record since taking over following one wildly successful season at Appalachian State is not what fans expect, and the three middling bowl games Missouri has qualified for — one of which was not played because of the pandemic — have produced not a single trophy in the case.
The Tigers have certainly recruited well the past three years. It's time for those recruits to produce.
“We're not trying to prove that individually we're talented. We know we have talent on this team,” Drinkwitz said. "We want to prove that, collectively, we belong in our league, and play better than we have and produce better results than we have.
“The only way they're going to see it is results on the field,” he added. “They're not going to believe it because we say it.”
Like most teams, proving the Tigers belong will depend largely on the play of the quarterback.
Brady Cook hurt his shoulder against Kansas State last season, but proceeded to start every game and throw for more than 2,700 yards with 14 touchdown passes and seven interceptions. Whether it was the injury or simply inconsistent play across the offense, the Tigers struggled to produce points, and that was a big reason for losses to Auburn, Florida, Georgia and Kentucky.
Cook is healthy this season, and has the inside track to keeping the starting job. But he will be pushed by Sam Horn, who flashed his big arm by hitting 97 mph on the mound for the Tigers' baseball team, and Miami transfer Jake Garcia.
“Physically it was really hard. Just mentally, it was probably even harder knowing I wasn't able to give a full reflection of who I was,” Cook said of his injury, “But that's just part of the game. It was a battle the whole year but I'm glad I went through it.”
He would be much happier to avoid going through it ever again. As would the rest of the Tigers.
NEW VOICE ON OFFENSE
Drinkwitz had been serving as offensive coordinator and play-caller, but he decided to hire Kirby Moore from Fresno State to handle those duties. The decision gives Drinkwitz more flexibility to oversee all aspects of the team, and it will provide a new voice for Cook and the rest of the offense.
IN AND OUT AT WIDEOUT
The Tigers lost Dominic Lovett to SEC rival Georgia after he caught 46 passes for 846 yards and three TDs last season, but they also picked up a transfer in Theo Wease, who caught 19 passes for 378 yards and four scores for Oklahoma last year.
Missouri also has dynamic playmaker Luther Burden III and Mookie Cooper returning to anchor the wide receiver corps.
SHUT IT DOWN
Missouri could have one of the nation's best defensive backfields, led by cornerback Kris Abrams-Draine, who had 48 tackles and 14 breakups last season. He is joined by cornerback Ennis Rakestraw Jr. and safeties Jaylon Carlies and Joseph Charleston in what should be one of the most experienced secondaries in the league.
MEVIS THE MACHINE
Kicker Harrison Mevis had an up-and-down season in 2022 after he was voted first-team All-SEC the previous season. He still was 22 of 28 on field-goal attempts and perfect on PATs, and his big leg will be invaluable if the Tigers continue to play close games.
The Tigers have perhaps one of the best home schedules in the nation. After opening with South Dakota and Middle Tennessee, they get visits from No. 16 Kansas State, Memphis, fifth-ranked LSU, South Carolina, No. 12 Tennessee and Florida. Most of the SEC heavyweights are on the second half of the slate, so the Tigers should have some time to find their footing.