There’s a lot to like, but patience will be required for Mizzou fans

For 21 months, Eli Drinkwitz has given Missouri fans nothing but hope and optimism that he can take Mizzou football to heights not seen for a long time. The most optimistic believe he can take it to heights never seen before.

Saturday’s season-opening 34-24 win over Central Michigan served as a reminder that it’s probably going to take a little bit longer than 21 months to get there.

That’s not meant as a criticism of Drinkwitz. It’s not meant to denigrate the fact that Missouri is 1-and-0. As coaches are fond of saying, winning is hard and you should never apologize for doing it. That Missouri won and it was never in serious doubt in the final 10 minutes or so (thanks for the odd decision to bypass an onside kick, Chippewas) is a positive. There are things to correct, but correcting them after a win is always a nice bonus.

I go into this admitting that judging the reaction to something–anything–off message boards and Twitter is a dangerous act. But it’s mostly what I have to go on. And I got the feeling a good number of people were disappointed in Saturday’s effort from the Tigers. I don’t think you should be.

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Drinkwitz has done everything right, but the Tigers still have progress they need to make (Denny Medley/USA Today)

First of all, I don’t think you should be because it was a win. But it’s more than that. Don’t be disappointed because it wasn’t a disappointing effort. This team still has questions on the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. It is replacing a linebacker who’s going to start his first game as an NFL rookie next Sunday. Its two most publicized pass catchers had never played a down on a college football field before Saturday and its two most productive were a former junior college walk-on and a Division II transfer.

In other words, if you thought Missouri should be able to just roll its helmets out and embarrass a respectable MAC program, that’s more on you than them.

Nothing I saw Saturday changed my expectations for the season. Missouri is most likely a seven- or eight-win football team. That could go either way. They play three teams they’d lose to in a five-game series (Texas A&M, Florida, Georgia). That doesn’t mean those are guaranteed losses, but they’re likely losses. They play four more teams they are very likely to beat (SEMO, North Texas, Vanderbilt and South Carolina). They have games against Kentucky, Boston College, Tennessee and Arkansas that will likely determine where they fall on the spectrum from 5-7 to 9-3.

The extremes of that spectrum aren’t very likely. If you play four swing games, the odds are you’re not going to win or lose all four of them. Because–and I want to say this slowly because it needs to be repeated every week–college football teams are inconsistent.

The effort on Saturday does not mean a lot for next Saturday. Missouri is going to be an underdog to Kentucky. My guess is somewhere in the neighborhood of a touchdown. But it will not be a stunning upset if the Tigers win. It would also not be a shock to see them lose by multiple scores.

But the result of next week’s game is also unlikely to change my outlook on the season. It’s a game I picked Missouri to lose.

There is a lot to like about what Drinkwitz has done. In fact, I’d argue there’s almost nothing he’s done so far that you shouldn’t like. He put together the best recruiting class in school history–or at least the highest ranked one–and he’s following it up with one that looks to be in the same neighborhood. He benched his starting quarterback after a game-and-a-half for one that looks better and then turned the former starter into a safety who had a sack in Saturday’s opener. He’s won every close game he’s been a part of, exceeded expectations in year one and avoided a momentum-crushing pitfall to open this season. He’s got coaches and fans across the region falling all over themselves to tell you how great he is and message boards buzzing with the idea that somehow guaranteeing him $20 million over the next five years isn’t showing him enough financial commitment.

Mookie Cooper got on the field for the first time in three years, but was held in check by CMU (Denny Medley/USA Today)

He’s done virtually everything right. And even with that, this thing isn’t going to happen overnight. Missouri is still going to be at a talent deficit in about half of the games on its schedule. It is young. It is a team that should be better in the second half of the season than it is in the first, but has three of its four swing games in the first five weeks of the season.

The truth is, only one of Drinkwitz’s recruiting classes is really on campus yet. That class had five four-stars, which means its somewhere in the middle of the bell curve in the SEC. Of course, in the four classes before that, Missouri had a total of four four-stars. One of them didn’t make it to campus, one is a backup didn’t see a defensive snap on Saturday, one started the game due to the suspension of the player ahead of him on the depth chart. Daniel Parker Jr. is the only four-star regular starter for Missouri and even he tends to split time based on the situation.

Point being, last year’s recruiting class is great. But it’s not yet going to make a huge difference for Missouri on the field. Dominic Lovett was targeted twice and didn’t have a catch. Mookie Cooper had 12 yards on 7 touches. Travion Ford and Kyran Montgomery are hurt and Tyler Macon and Daylan Carnell didn’t play (Carnell may have on special teams, but didn’t on defense). It takes time to adjust in college football. The player who can come in as a true freshman and light the world on fire is rare and Missouri doesn’t have any of them quite yet.

So Drinkwitz has six more four-stars in the 2022 recruiting class, but they won’t be on the field until, you know, 2022. And even then, they’re in their first year. You hope next year is a step forward from this year. My realistic expectation for when we should start talking about Missouri being a legitimate threat to win the East is 2023. And there’s nothing wrong with that. It doesn’t mean Missouri is behind schedule. It just means most of the buzz has been created over things that aren’t likely to have a significant impact on the 2021 football season.

It’s going to be a process. I think most people knew that before Saturday. I think a few more figured it out on Saturday.

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