The Missouri Tigers surprised many fans and analysts (including me) by going 5-5 in an all-SEC 10-game season in 2020. It was surprising because the Tigers didn’t have any spring practices under first-year head coach Eli Drinkwitz, which hampered their offensive installations.

But, even though the 5-5 record was a pleasant surprise, there is an argument to be made that Mizzou could have won even more than it did. A season-ending loss at Mississippi State left a bad taste in the mouths of many fans, as did an inability to play Iowa in the Music City Bowl due to COVID-19 complications.

So, entering 2021, there’s a bit of buzz around this Mizzou team. Will this fall season end in glory or disaster? Let’s take a look at 3 best-case and 3 worst-case scenarios for the Tigers as Week 1 quickly approaches.

(Note: I’m not including injuries in the worst-case scenarios section. Obviously, it would be bad if QB Connor Bazelak got hurt or the top-heavy defense lost a star player or 2. Let’s avoid those hypotheticals and discuss some non-injury situations instead.)

Best-case scenarios

1. Tigers beat Kentucky in Week 2

Mizzou doesn’t have much time to prepare for what I consider its biggest game of the year. Behind Georgia and Florida in the SEC East, Kentucky and Mizzou are, in my opinion, fighting for that No. 3 spot.

This year, with Florida changing quarterbacks and replacing a ton of talent on offense, the Gators could take a step back. Which team featuring a large cat mascot will be waiting to pounce if that’s the case in Gainesville?

I think this matchup in Lexington will decide that. Win this game, and Mizzou’s ceiling is 10 wins. I’m not going to sit here and predict the Tigers can upset Georgia in Athens or take down Texas A&M at Faurot Field, but if they can beat Kentucky? Then, all of a sudden, a second-place finish in the SEC East is in play.

And, if you finish second in the SEC East and have 10 wins? Well, you at least have a shot at a New Year’s 6 bowl game. That would be huge for Drinkwitz in Year 2. Get to an NY6 bowl and his already-solid recruiting takes another step forward.

But it all starts in Week 2 at Kentucky. Win that game or the path forward gets a lot more difficult.

2. Mookie Cooper is as-advertised

If you ask me, the best-case scenario for Mookie Cooper in 2021 is to be a Kadarius Toney type of player. Getting occasional carries, working short passing routes, getting the ball in space. The Ohio State transfer can also contribute in the return game, which is a nice plus.

The problem? He’s dealing with a lower-leg injury right now. There’s a chance he’s ready for Week 1, but he’s still missing valuable practice reps even if he’s ready to go on Sept. 4.

The role I expect Cooper to fill is the one Drinkwitz had Jalen Knox in last year. Knox transferred to Ole Miss this offseason, but here were his numbers with the Tigers in 2020:

  • 31 catches, 305 yards
  • 12 carries, 95 yards, 1 touchdown

That’s the floor for Cooper. Hopefully, he can far exceed Knox’s 2020 numbers, particularly with regards to touchdowns. If he’s healthy, he should get plenty of touches this fall. We’ll see what he can do with them.

3. The revamped secondary locks down opponents

Missouri added Tulsa’s defensive backs coach (Aaron Fletcher) this offseason and brought in a pair of corners (Akayleb Evans and Allie Green IV) via the transfer portal. Pairing those guys up with budding star Ennis Rakestraw Jr. gives the Tigers a formidable trio of cornerbacks.

Add Martez Manuel and Mason Pack at the safety spots and the secondary, which was looking like a weakness a few months ago, is suddenly a strength. Now, even when Mizzou’s defense struggled in 2020, the pass defense for the season wasn’t bad. The Tigers allowed 245.8 passing yards per game, good for fifth in the SEC. Like I said … not bad.

The hope now is that with Manuel and Rakestraw returning and Evans and Green joining the crew, the Tigers can fare even better against the pass in 2021. Not playing Alabama and LSU should help, too.

The big key? Getting more interceptions. The Tigers were 13th in the SEC with only 4 picks in 2020. That has to change. The good news is that turnovers are a fickle beast. They can fluctuate wildly from year to year. New DC Steve Wilks will be hoping his Tigers get a few more fortunate breaks this fall.

Worst-case scenarios

1. Tyler Badie isn’t ready for the featured back role

In his 3 years at Mizzou, Badie has had 101, 140 and 76 total touches (rushes and receptions). In his 4 years at Mizzou, Larry Rountree III had 131, 239, 199 and 224 total touches. If you’re expecting Badie to carry the same type of load that Rountree carried, you’re fooling yourself.

In 2020, Rountree had 209 carries. In 2018, he ran 225 times. I don’t expect Badie to have more than 175 carries this fall.

However, I do expect him to approach 50 receptions. He could near the 200-touch mark, but I would think Drinkwitz would balance his touches between carries and receptions more than he did with Rountree. That’s because Badie is, and always has been, a bigger receiving threat than Rountree, who was a prototypical, bruising, power back.

But if Badie gets banged up, or is ineffective in his larger role, the Tigers don’t have much proven depth behind him. Elijah Young and Dawson Downing should each get some work this fall, but if they are asked to do too much, that’s a problem for Mizzou.

If Badie stays strong and thrives in his first year as a feature back, the offense should improve from 2020 (as Bazelak and the receiving corps should also improve). If Badie struggles, it could lead to some times when the offense has to be one-dimensional through the air, and that would be a problem.

2. Without Nick Bolton, Mizzou can’t stop the run

Mizzou has been fortunate to have leaders in the linebacking corps the past 4 seasons. Cale Garrett was the guy in 2017 and 2018. Then, he went down 5 games into 2019 (and was having a heck of a season before he was injured). No worries. Nick Bolton took over. Bolton was the star in 2019 and 2020.

Now, Bolton is off impressing his coaches for the Kansas City Chiefs and looks like a Week 1 starter for that defense. So, who steps up and fills his shoes? Do the Tigers have another star waiting in the wings?

The most likely candidates seem to be Devin Nicholson, who was second to Bolton in tackles last year, and Rice transfer Blaze Alldredge, who recorded an eye-popping 102 tackles and 21.5 tackles for a loss in 2019.

If those guys don’t step up? Uh oh. All of a sudden, a team that finished No. 7 in the SEC, allowing 162.2 rushing yards per game in 2020, could take a major dive. The linebacker corps will get its first major test in the aforementioned Week 2 game against Kentucky. Chris Rodriguez Jr. and Kavosiey Smoke, running behind that Kentucky offensive line? Yeah, you’d better bring your “A” game to that one.

3. Mizzou loses at Boston College in Week 4

Mizzou fans don’t need me to tell them this, but the Tigers have made a habit of having head-scratching losses every year. Right when things seem to be going well, a loss to Vanderbilt, or Mississippi State, or Wyoming, or Middle Tennessee (on Homecoming, no less) seems to strike at an inopportune time.

Let’s just say I have that Week 4 nonconference road trip to Boston College circled as this year’s potential letdown game.

Imagine this scenario, if you will: Mizzou beats Central Michigan in Week 1, ekes out a win at Kentucky in Week 2, blows Southeast Missouri State out of the water in Week 3 and then … falls 20-9 or something like that at Boston College.

If you’re like me, you just cringed. Not because my scenario is crazy. Rather, it is entirely plausible, and that’s the problem.

Under Barry Odom, this team had a habit of shooting itself in the foot. Will the Drinkwitz era be different? That Week 4 road trip will be an important measuring stick.