Missouri didn’t care about the circumstances surrounding Ohio State when it beat the Buckeyes 14-3 in last year’s Cotton Bowl. Nor should it have. The Tigers celebrated like they’d won something meaningful. Coach Eli Drinkwitz said it felt like the Super Bowl.

The victory was Missouri’s first over an AP Top 10 opponent since the 2013 season. The Tigers beat No. 7 Georgia in mid-October that year, laying the groundwork for a program-record-tying 12 wins. Between October 2013 and December 2023, Missouri played 12 teams that were ranked inside the AP Top 10 at the time of the meeting and lost all 12.

As Drinkwitz looks to take his program to the next level, those are the games Missouri will have to win. By and large, the Tigers are expected to challenge for a College Football Playoff spot in 2024. With an expanded field, an offense that could feasibly score at a top-5 clip nationally, and a favorable schedule, Missouri has a straightforward path to the CFP.

But can it win a Playoff game? Can it win multiple Playoff games?

ESPN’s Football Power Index (FPI) gives Mizzou a 37.3% chance to make the CFP. It gives Mizzou a 5.4% chance to make the national championship game and a 2.2% chance to win the national title.

DraftKings‘ current price for Missouri to win the national title (+3500) implies a 2.8% chance. The price for Missouri to make the CFP (+175) implies a 36.4% chance.

I like the Tigers.

The schedule is remarkable, really. They won’t face Georgia, they won’t face Texas, they won’t face Ole Miss, they won’t face LSU, and they won’t face Tennessee. They get Oklahoma at home in November. The key fixtures come against Texas A&M in College Station on Oct. 5 and then Alabama in Tuscaloosa on Oct. 26.

Missouri hasn’t beaten Alabama since entering the SEC. Unless something goes horribly wrong for Kalen DeBoer in his first year, the Crimson Tide will be in or around the AP Top 10 when they welcome the Tigers to town. Missouri has to win that game if the 2024 campaign is going to be something different.

Because it will show this team is something different. And it’ll prove that Cotton Bowl was meaningful.

“Going from unranked to top 10 was pretty special,” Drinkwitz said after the win over Ohio State, protesting that, no, this wasn’t a Playoff game but, yes, it still meant something special. “But why stop now?”

When Missouri lost to Georgia on Nov. 4, 2023, Drinkwitz said after the game it was frustrating to be “so close, but so far away at the same time.” The Tigers were tied with the top-ranked Bulldogs going into halftime. They entered the game 7-1 and were looking to prove themselves a legitimate force in the SEC title race. Georgia won the third quarter that day, 14-3, to flip the game. An interception from Brady Cook with 8 minutes to play in a 6-point game proved decisive.

Missouri gave Georgia its first stressful day at Samford Stadium in years. But it didn’t get the job done.

Trust that game — and the win over Ohio State to cap the year — will serve as fuel for Cook and his teammates this upcoming season.

Cook is back to quarterback the team. Luther Burden III is back as one of the nation’s best receivers. According to Bill Connelly’s calculations (transfers factored in), Missouri’s offense returns 82% of last year’s production.

“(This win) is special for our team next year,” Cook said after the Cotton Bowl. “The guys coming back for one more, the coaches, the brotherhood. This is just going to give us more momentum.”

Missouri was 29th in scoring last season, averaging 32.5 points a game. It ranked 21st in offensive efficiency, averaging 6.5 yards per play, and 21st in points per scoring opportunity. This was a fine offense, though not exactly elite.

Three starters on the offensive line return. The 2 gaps were filled by transfers — left tackle Marcus Bryant (SMU) and guard Cayden Green (Oklahoma). Bryant is a hulking presence and an All-AAC performer. Missouri’s offensive line was a semifinalist for the Joe Moore Award last season; there aren’t any warning signs the group will slip in 2024.

Cook threw for 3,317 yards and 21 touchdowns last fall, averaging 9 yards per pass attempt and an interception on 1.6% of his throws. The bad moments came in critical spots, but the hope is those serve as teachable moments.

Around him, the Tigers return all 6 of the receivers that recorded a reception last season. Getting Burden back is huge, but getting the entire rotation back is important. Brett Norfleet was the leading tight end last season (though the production was light) and he’s back as well.

The Tigers will attempt to replace Cody Schrader, last season’s leading rusher in the SEC, with a 2-headed duo of Marcus Carroll and Nate Noel. Both of them are transfer additions, and both of them were effective Group of 5 players at their previous schools. Between them, they produced 2,184 yards and 18 touchdowns last season at 4.9 yards a carry. Carroll’s 46 explosive runs were second among Sun Belt backs.

Neither has to be Schrader; they just have to be effective. In addition to FCS Murray State, Missouri will play 7 teams whose defenses ranked outside the top 60 in per-play efficiency last year.

In order to build on last year’s success — which is the goal here — Missouri might need its offense to be closer to the top 10 in terms of its scoring punch. That would mean scoring 38, 39 points a game on offense. Cook has all the tools around him to make that happen.

Defensively, coordinator Blake Baker left to join LSU. Defensive back Kris Abrams-Draine and defensive end Darius Robinson are the key figures on the field who need to be replaced. Abrams-Draine had 51 tackles along with 13 pass breakups and 4 interceptions. Robinson had 14.5 tackles for loss and 8.5 sacks.

The Tigers added starters from the transfer portal at both positions — edge and corner — to complement what returns and there’s a fair bit of confidence they’ll be just fine even after seeing 5 defenders drafted in the most recent NFL Draft.

Missouri created a good amount of takeaway opportunities for itself (and was a little unlucky in that department). The Tigers also did well to generate havoc plays from all over the defense. While they didn’t boast elite per-play numbers, they managed a top-25 scoring defense. That speaks to what you’re doing from a strategic/schematic standpoint.

How different will things look without Baker? Or a first-rounder off the edge?

It might not matter in the regular season, where Missouri could conceivably open up 7-0 without breaking much of a sweat. The A&M game is the only real question mark before the Alabama game. (Teams that can’t comfortably beat an Auburn at home don’t get into title discussions.)

With Cook’s arm talent, Burden’s star status, and everything else in place on the offensive side of the football, Missouri should be able to run away from most and stay within striking distance against the best. Cook has room to grow from what he showed last season, and he was pretty good last season (16th in QBR; ninth in EPA).

DraftKings has +135 odds on over 9.5 wins in the regular season for Missouri. Bettors can take exactly 9 or exactly 10 wins in the regular season at +300 each.  This group’s floor, assuming health, is probably 9-3. And as wild as it may seem, 12-0 is on the table against this schedule.

And if you win 11 or 12 games in the SEC, you can beat anyone.

Verdict: Contender

Best value for a title bet on Missouri: +4000 (via bet365)

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Additional entries in the “Contender or Pretender” series: