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

On the bright side, there’s no bowl ban?

If you’re a “glass half-full” Mizzou fan, I’m guessing you’ve told yourself (or anyone who will listen) that message at least once in the last month. And it’s true. Unlike last year when the NCAA decided to make an example out of the Tigers’ tutor case with a bowl ban after the university cooperated with the investigation, there’s no more cloud. This year’s squad shouldn’t have to deal with that midyear motivation question.

But the reality is that 2020 has been an uphill climb from the moment that Mizzou stepped off the field against Arkansas. From the confusing coaching search to the pandemic-fueled canceled spring to the switch to the 10-game conference-only schedule, the challenge is obvious.

Mizzou’s schedule features 7 bowl teams and 5 teams that started in the preseason Top 25. There’s no longer an expectation that the Tigers, with all of those hurdles, are about to hit 6 wins. If they do, Eli Drinkwitz will be SEC Coach of the Year in Year 1.

But I’m not banking on that. What I am banking on is a brutal grind.

The mysterious Eli Drinkwitz offense will be …

Um, give me a few weeks and I’ll let you know. Sound good? We don’t know yet about the quarterback situation, which Drinkwitz said he doesn’t plan on revealing before the opener against Alabama. Will it matter for that particular game? No, but why not keep us guessing a little longer?

It’s hard to forecast an offense when a coach has a flexible style. We’ve seen him work with dual-threat quarterbacks and pocket passers. All we know as that Drinkwitz wants to play an up-tempo offense, and that he’ll try to spread teams out.

He might decide to do that with Shawn Robinson, who sat the 2019 season after transferring from TCU. He has the most experience by far, though he struggled with consistency before getting hurt in 2018. Connor Bazelak is intriguing because he’s a former 4-star recruit who’s coming off a season-ending knee injury last year. Drinkwitz said he’s back to 100%, which seems significant. Drinkwitz once recruited him to come to NC State.

Whoever starts at quarterback, the good news is that Mizzou’s receivers should quietly be rock solid. Jalen Knox has 2 years of starting experience in the SEC while transfers Damon Hazelton (Virginia Tech) and Keke Chism (Division II Angelo State) are both earning rave reviews in camp. There’s a case to be made that if Daniel Parker Jr. takes that next step as a consistent red-zone target, Mizzou could be significantly better in the passing game than it was for most of last year.

But certainly we won’t know how realistic that is until we actually see what in the world this offense looks like.

Will Larry Rountree III bounce back?

To say that 2019 was a letdown for Rountree would be an understatement. After entering 2019 as one of the conference’s better backs fresh off a 1,200-yard season with 11 rushing scores, his production took a significant hit. He only hit 90 rushing yards once in SEC play, where he was held to 3.8 yards per carry. His overall yards per carry went down (5.4 to 4.6), he wasn’t effective in the passing game and he ended up sharing touches with the more versatile Tyler Badie.

Badie, by the way, is underrated in this conference. Not many running backs lead their team in catches.

The question now is whether a bounce-back year awaits for Rountree. We saw Darrynton Evans rack up over 1,600 scrimmage yards and 23 touchdowns (on 276 touches) in Drinkwitz’s Appalachian State offense last year, and Reggie Gallaspy II had 18 rushing scores in Drinkwitz’s NC State offense in 2018.

We know that Drinkwitz loves using a diverse backfield. Think Nyheim Hines and Jaylen Samuels at NC State in 2017 or Jay Ajayi at Boise State in 2014 (he caught 50 passes that year). That’s my way of saying even if Badie carves out a significant role — I expect he will — Rountree should still get plenty of opportunities. Of course, he would be better off not seeing 8 or 9 men in the box, which is dependent on Mizzou assembling a passing threat.

Either way, I’d expect this offense to be more diverse than what we saw under Derek Dooley last year. That should bode well for Rountree. The question is if a mostly new-look offensive line can perform better than last year’s unit. That’ll determine Rountree’s ability to return to his 2018 form.

I underrated this defense and I’m sorry

There are a ton of good defenses in the SEC, and when I did my preseason SEC defense rankings, I did something that I shouldn’t have. I sort of wrote off Mizzou and said the program would “take a step back to defensive mediocrity.” I basically chalked up a No. 10 preseason ranking to the loss of Barry Odom with key players up front like Cale Garrett and Jordan Elliott and said while there were some nice pieces like Nick Bolton and Kobie Whiteside, I just couldn’t see this group being as successful as it was last year.

That, in hindsight, was a mistake. Besides the versatile Bolton, who I have as the No. 2 defensive player in the SEC behind only Derek Stingley Jr., Mizzou has legitimate first-team All-SEC potential at every level. Whiteside has as many sacks as any SEC returner and Tyler Gillespie is one of the league’s top returning safeties.

On top of that, we’re talking about a top-20 defense that actually retained its defensive coordinator in Ryan Walters and defensive line coach Brick Haley. In an offseason like this one with so many moving pieces, I’m sure Drinkwitz was especially grateful to actually have some sort of staff continuity.

I wonder how pivotal that’ll be for the Tigers. Will that be the common link needed to overcome the loss of Odom? I’m selling myself more on that, and the production returning being better than I gave it credit for a couple of months ago.

Game-by-game predictions

Week 1: vs. Alabama (L)

Do I think it’ll be a 45-0 beatdown? No. I actually think the Tigers will frustrate Alabama a bit early on with what they do defensively. It wouldn’t surprise me if Steve Sarkisian’s offense took a bit to get rolling with Mac Jones. But this will be a reminder that Alabama’s defense isn’t messing around this year. That front 7 is going to be all sorts of improved, and in the season-opener, that group ends up dominating from start to finish.

Week 2: at Tennessee (L)

If the Vols have a 2019 repeat, hey, who knows about this one. Perhaps Mizzou can catch Tennessee early enough before it finds its defensive identity. But I don’t expect that to happen. After a strong start from Rountree and Badie, it’s the Vols’ ground attack that takes over down the stretch. A heavy dose of Eric Gray puts Drinkwitz’s SEC road debut out of reach.

Week 3: at LSU (L)

Is there some sleeper potential here? Sure. LSU can’t get caught looking ahead to Florida. The Tigers could still be figuring out all of their new pieces, especially on offense. But it’s LSU’s defense that takes advantage of a Mizzou offense that still hasn’t quite hit its stride, especially in the passing game. JaCoby Stevens has a monster day doing it all for the LSU defense en route to a lopsided win in Death Valley.

Week 4: vs. Vanderbilt (W)

After that start, Mizzou was due for a game like this. Finally, this defense really gets to flex its muscles for 60 minutes. Bolton ends up recording a sack and an interception while Gillespie forces a fumble. It’s still not quite the offensive showing that Drinkwitz was hoping for, but Hazelton and Parker both get into the end zone marking Mizzou’s first game with multiple passing scores. Drinkwitz is on the board.

Week 5: at Florida (L)

I almost pulled the trigger. I really did. I wouldn’t be surprised if Mizzou went into The Swamp and upset the Gators. Walters’ defense hasn’t allowed more than 23 points in the past 3 meetings against Florida. And with the Gators coming off emotional games against Texas A&M and LSU, they’ll be a week away from the bye. I expect Mizzou to jump out to something like a 10-0 or 14-0 lead in the first quarter. But instead of panicking, Kyle Trask calmly responds with passing score after passing score to open things up. Todd Grantham makes the key adjustments and forces rushed throws that lead to interceptions from Kaiir Elam and Shawn Davis. Mizzou comes up just short of pulling off the upset of the year.

Week 6: vs. Kentucky (L)

I think the Tigers will improve offensively as the season goes along, and I admit that I underrated some of the talent returning on that defense. But against Kentucky’s loaded front 7, Mizzou struggles to sustain drives. An early Boogie Watson sack forces a scoop and score for DeAndre Square, and the Tigers find themselves in too many pass-only situations in the second half. Terry Wilson delivers his best passing performance of the season and reminds defenses that he can air it out, as well. Mizzou drops to 1-5 before the bye.

Week 7: Bye

Week 8: vs. Georgia (L)

I expect an angry Georgia squad to show up after a demoralizing loss to Florida. Instead of Mizzou looking like the fresh team off the bye, the Dawgs look every bit like the No. 1 defense in America. Nakobe Dean takes over with multiple sacks and forces an Eric Stokes interception. It’s all Dawgs in a 35-7 rout.

Week 9: at South Carolina (L)

Contrary to what the Georgia game suggested, Mizzou’s offense does indeed show progress by November. Unfortunately, so does South Carolina’s. A back-and-forth, high-scoring affair proves to be a banner day for both offenses. Bazelak plays his best game and connects with Knox and Parker repeatedly in the middle of the field. But Mizzou’s corners struggle against a group of South Carolina pass-catchers who finally put it all together. A late Shi Smith touchdown devastates Mizzou and let’s a winnable road game slip away.

Week 10: vs. Arkansas (W)

I’m here for this chapter of the rivalry. Drinkwitz hasn’t been shy about calling out Arkansas’ recruiting. Good. This game is begging for some intrigue. I expect both programs to enter with 1 win, but I’ll take Mizzou’s improved offense to steal the show. The Tigers’ defense, after some big early plays from Treylon Burks and Trey Knox, gets the late stand it needs thanks to a Whiteside sack to pull out a must-win game. And by “must-win,” I mean “you’d better not lose.”

Week 11: at Mississippi State (L)

Heeeeey, shootout! Can we still use that term in 2020? OK, how about … points! Points! Points! A great matchup of offensive minds yields the result that the masses hope for. Unfortunately, it doesn’t yield the result that Drinkwitz is hoping for. Two teams who could potentially have depth issues on defense in Game 10 of this conference-only schedule struggle so stop improved offenses. A game that turns into backyard football is capped by a Kylin Hill receiving touchdown that spoils Mizzou’s chance of hitting 3 regular-season wins.

2020 projection: 2-8, 6th in SEC East


I really didn’t expect to settle on 2-8. I didn’t. Mizzou is my team that I’m most scared will make me look dumb by season’s end. If they do go 2-8, I’ll probably bang the drum that the Tigers are the cliché “better than their record suggests.”

But there’s a reason I can’t get to a 4-6 or 5-5 mark. Well, several.

I have no idea what to expect from the quarterback situation, it’s a new-look offensive line that wasn’t good at all last year and I worry about the depth on defense if that becomes an issue with all of these mandated quarantines because of contact tracing.

We’re talking about a Mizzou program that has 1 win vs. an AP Top 25 team in the past 3 years, and hasn’t had a winning record in SEC play since 2014. A 0.350 conference winning percentage in the past 5 seasons doesn’t suggest that Mizzou is about to flip the switch in Year 1 with a new coach. It’s extremely difficult to do that at a place like Mizzou, which prides itself on development more than getting massive influxes of talent on a yearly basis.

And there’s also my concern that Drinkwitz has had the deck stacked against him since he arrived. Someone with 1 year as an FBS head coach didn’t get a normal spring by any means, and he won’t even get those cupcake nonconference matchups to get his feet wet. I worry about how that could impact the confidence of a team in transition if it gets off to a 1-5 start.

If Mizzou can get to the bye week with multiple wins and a couple “better-than-expected” showings against contenders, that’d be huge for that locker room fully buying into what Drinkwitz is doing.

That, as much as anything, will determine if Mizzou can avoid a deflating Year 1 of the Drinkwitz era.