Editor’s note: Saturday Down South’s annual Crystal Ball prediction series continues today with Missouri. Friday: South Carolina.

Go ask a Mizzou fan a question — is there anyone who is anti-Eli Drinkwitz?

Shoot, just ask anyone who pays attention to college football if they’re out on Drinkwitz.

That’s a good place to be for a coach heading into Year 2 with some pretty manageable expectations. Nobody is saying Drinkwitz needs to take down Georgia and Florida to earn a trip to Atlanta. At least I’d hope not. Mizzou isn’t at that level.

Mizzou showed in 2020 that it isn’t a pushover, despite what many of us (myself included) thought about Drinkwitz’s Year 1 chances against an all-SEC schedule. He beat 4 teams in his own division and he stunned the defending national champs. Posting a .500 record against SEC competition is nothing to scoff at, especially for a team that was picked to finish 6th in the division.

The question for 2021 is whether Mizzou can continue to be a frisky team, or if it can be even more than that. Can it boast its first winning record in SEC play since 2014? Or will Drinkwitz’s offense plateau now that there’s more of a book on it?

Let’s talk Year 2.

What’s Connor Bazelak’s upside?

I think it’s 2018 Ryan Finley. At NC State, Drinkwitz dialed up looks to turn Finley into a first-team All-ACC quarterback in 2018 (people forget he won that award over freshman Trevor Lawrence). Finley’s 2018 numbers were:

  • 25 TDs, 11 INTs
  • 3,928 passing yards
  • 8.1 yards/attempt
  • 67.4% passer
  • 148.0 passer rating

That would be a nice step up for Bazelak, who showed some promise but wasn’t asked to be the driving force behind the offense in Year 1. Larry Rountree was (more on him in a minute). We forget that Bazelak was rehabbing a knee injury and he wasn’t even the Week 1 starter. Those reps with the first-teamers were limited, and it was a new system.

This year, though, Bazelak got the benefit of a full, non-COVID limited offseason. He’s a prime candidate to take a Year 2 jump in Drinkwitz’s offense.

(It’s weird to think that technically, Bazelak has 4 years of eligibility left. He’s been making the joke that he wants to repeat as SEC Freshman of the Year because 2020 didn’t count against his eligibility and he redshirted in 2019.)

Bazelak won’t make that Year 2 jump unless he stretches the field on a more consistent basis. Keke Chism and Ohio State transfer Mookie Cooper should help with that, but Bazelak still has to take control of the offense. We’ve seen how accurate he can be in the 11-20 yard range. Now is when he needs to take his game — and Mizzou’s offense — to the next level.

The Larry Rountree replacement is …

Good question.

Tyler Badie isn’t built to be a workhorse back in that offense, though he’s exceptional catching passes out of the backfield and he can line up split out wide (that’s where 19% of his reps came in 2020). Can he be more of an 8-to-10 carry guy instead of a 4-to-6 carry guy? It’s possible, though I’m not sure Drinkwitz wants him in that role.

Elijah Young is the guy that they’re hoping can carry most of the work after he made the most of his 10 carries as a true freshman. The guy has some pop.

Though at 185 pounds, he’s probably not built to handle a workload like Rountree’s, either. In 2020, Rountree was No. 5 in FBS in carries. Drinkwitz said he never saw someone like Rountree who could get 30 carries on Saturday and go through a full practice on Tuesday.

I don’t think you can take that for granted. I mean, he scored 56% of Mizzou’s touchdowns in the last 4 games. That doesn’t happen for tailbacks in this era anymore. The guy dominated in the red zone and allowed Bazelak to have an easier transition than he could’ve had as a first-time starter with the aforementioned offseason issues he had to work through.

Despite all of that, Mizzou was one of the most balanced teams in the country last year (36 pass attempts vs. 35 runs per game). Does that now shift without Rountree? It certainly could, though life would be a whole lot easier if a Rountree-like back could emerge.

The post-Nick Bolton era of the Mizzou defense

If I’m a Mizzou fan, this is my biggest concern. You don’t replace guys like Bolton overnight, especially not at Mizzou, which hadn’t had a linebacker drafted in 5 years before Bolton came off the board at No. 58 overall. He was the unquestioned leader, and he was as versatile as the day is long.

Having said that, I thought Drinkwitz made a savvy move to land Rice transfer Blaze Alldredge, who was a TFL machine in his last full season at Rice in 2019 (21.5 TFLs). It’s unfair to assume that Alldredge will step in and do all the things Bolton did between the lines and away from them, but he should help ease the transition a bit.

Perhaps the bigger question is what to expect from new defensive coordinator Steve Wilks. He replaced Ryan Walters, who stayed on board from the Barry Odom era but left for Illinois to join Bret Bielema’s staff this offseason. Wilks enters Columbia with an NFL pedigree, though having been away from the college game since 2005. Wilks specializes in the secondary, where Mizzou had its fair share of struggles last year. Tulsa transfers Akayleb Evans and Allie Green, along with promising second-year defensive back Ennis Rakestraw, should help there.

The goal is all about takeaways. Mizzou is going to give up some big plays still, even if it does improve significantly on the back end. Mizzou was tied for dead last in the SEC in turnovers forced (9). Wilks wants to not only increase that number, but he wants to turn those takeaways into defensive scores.

Ambitious? Time will tell. If Mizzou takes a step forward in Year 1 with Wilks — and Year 1 without Bolton — nobody will be second-guessing that approach.

Game-by-game predictions

Week 1: vs. Central Michigan (W)

Yes, I get to shout “return of the Mac!” whenever Jim McElwain plays against an SEC team. Central Michigan ranks No. 7 in FBS in percentage of returning production, but will that defense be able to stay on the field with Mizzou? My guess is no. Chism and Badie both have big openers in a comfortable win for the home team.

Week 2: at Kentucky (L)

Now we get to really see the new Kentucky offense in action. Do I think we see it take off? Not quite, but I expect a handful of moments in which Robinson and Josh Ali test that Mizzou secondary. I worry about the Tigers’ ability to speed Will Levis up. Liam Coen dials up open looks for his playmakers and Kentucky wins a pivotal early game in the East.

Week 3: vs. Southeast Missouri (W)

Back on track, Mizzou will be. And if not? Well, that’d be startling considering the Tigers beat the in-state directional school 50-0 in 2019.

Week 4: at Boston College (L)

Two challenging true road games in September isn’t ideal for anyone, much less for a team that was 1-3 with 3 blowout losses in those contests in 2020. BC showed a lot of promise in Year 1 of the Jeff Hafley era. With former Notre Dame transfer Phil Jurkovec, there’s hope that BC can be one of the better teams in the ACC. He makes too many plays against a Mizzou defense that’s still figuring things out, and Bazelak struggles in some obvious passing situations late.

Week 5: vs. Tennessee (W)

It’s unfair to use 2020 as a barometer for this year’s matchup because of how different both teams are. Tennessee has an overhauled offense, and Mizzou has a different starting quarterback than it did in last year’s blowout loss in Knoxville. That proves to be the difference. Young has a monster day after a relatively slow start, and Bazelak hooks up with Cooper twice for scores in a high-scoring win to get Mizzou on the board in SEC play.

Week 6: vs. North Texas (W)

To say that North Texas is coming off a rough defensive year would be putting it gently. The Mean Green weren’t mean enough. The defense was No. 125 out of 127 FBS teams in scoring, and it ranked No. 124 against the run. In other words, I’ll be surprised if Young and Badie don’t combine for 200-plus rushing yards.

Week 7: vs. Texas A&M (L)

Dangerous, dangerous game here for A&M. And I’m not just saying that because I always think back to when a banged up Johnny Manziel played in a thriller in Columbia and lost in 2013, which was what helped Mizzou clinch the SEC East. Coming off the Alabama win, A&M trails for the majority of this game. But unlike the Arkansas matchup when Haynes King forced throws late, he instead settles in and puts together consecutive touchdown drives to fuel a comeback win on the road. Mizzou misses out on a potential stunner.

Week 8: Bye

Week 9: at Vanderbilt (L)

Oh boy. This would not be the way to come out of the bye for Mizzou. But in a game that the Tigers should win comfortably, they instead fall victim to a sleepy start and a Clark Lea-led defense that’s ready to roll. Bazelak sees too much pressure and instead of taking sacks, he has a 3-interception day in Nashville. Even though Vandy’s offense struggles to sustain scoring drives, it’s turnovers that fuel a wild win for the Commodores. Lea is on the board in the SEC and Drinkwitz is wondering how his team came out of the bye week so flat.

Week 10: at Georgia (L)

Don’t sleep on the possibility of Georgia coming out a bit too confident against a Mizzou team that shows some fight against the big boys. That should be a physical game the previous week in Jacksonville, regardless of who wins. JT Daniels torched the Tigers in Columbia last year, and he could do the same thing in Athens. Perhaps with George Pickens back, Daniels gets rolling late in this one to avoid any thought of a 2019 South Carolina-type letdown. Mizzou shows it’s a better team than the Vandy debacle, but not enough to last 60 minutes with a top-5 team.

Week 11: vs. South Carolina (W)

After a 3-week break away from Columbia, Mizzou feasts on some home cooking. South Carolina falls behind early thanks to some methodical, composed Mizzou touchdown drives. That proves to be too tall of a task on the road for a Gamecocks offense that isn’t build to rally back from 2-score leads. For the second consecutive week, Bazelak looks like he’s over the disappointing Vandy showing. This time, however, it results in a much-needed win to stop the losing streak at 3.

Week 12: vs. Florida (W)

I have this weird feeling that once a year, Drinkwitz is gonna have one of these “how do you like me now” games. It’ll always be at home, and it’ll be when his team is a 2-score underdog to an SEC power. Last year was LSU. This year is Florida. With their East hopes dashed, Florida comes out sluggish in Columbia. Drinkwitz, who had some fun at Dan Mullen’s expense, throws the kitchen sink at Florida. Trick plays, 4th-down conversations, onside kick out of halftime … you name it. Mizzou plays like a team with nothing to lose and Florida plays like a team that doesn’t want to be in Columbia in late November. The Tigers clinch bowl eligibility in glorious fashion.

Week 13: at Arkansas (L)

We already saw KJ Jefferson have a good amount of success throwing the ball against Mizzou, and that was when Bolton was there (he got a bogus targeting ejection in the second half of that game). I worry for Wilks’ defense that this will be one of those times when the secondary takes too many chances, and the Hogs capitalize in the passing game. A high-scoring affair won’t have the same exact feel as last year, but this time, Arkansas ends up on the right side of a thriller thanks to a late score from Trey Knox.

2021 projection: 6-6 (3-5), 4th in SEC East


I’m the same guy who predicted Mizzou would go 2-8 and then immediately said afterwards that if there’s a team in the SEC that was going to make me look like an idiot, it was probably the Tigers. Sure enough, I was wrong to predict 2-8 and right to predict immediate regret.

So take this projection for what it is.

I don’t have instant regret because I don’t think a 6-6 year should be considered a failure, especially if it includes that Florida win. As I always say, not all 6-6 seasons are created equal. If Mizzou posts a top-40 offense and Bazelak takes that next step, a potential 7th win in a bowl game would create a ton of momentum heading into 2022. Remember, it’s been 7 years since Mizzou won a bowl game.

I’m expecting the defense to take a step back. It won’t be 2020 Ole Miss, but there could be a decent amount of pressure put on the offense to make things go, just as there was in last year’s regular season finale against MSU. I do worry about that at times. Wilks might be a better long-term fit than he is immediately in the SEC.

Mizzou isn’t going to be an elite team in the East until it can go out and take care of business on the road. Consistently. That’s the biggest thing Drinkwitz’s squad can show in Year 2.

Maybe that happens, and maybe Drinkwitz’s “how do you like me now” game turns into an entire season.