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2021 SEC Football Season Preview: Missouri Tigers

Coach Eli Drinkwitz seems to have the Tigers on the straight and narrow. So, after the first year at the helm, what do we have in store in 2021?

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 29 Missouri at Arkansas Photo by John Bunch/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

2020 at a Glance

Record: 5-5
SRS: 1.92
SOS: 7.32

2021 Schedule

(All times are Eastern)

9/4: Central Michigan (4 p.m., SEC Network)
9/11: at Kentucky (7:30 p.m., SEC Network)
9/18: SEMO (Noon, SEC Network+)
9/25: at Boston College Eagless
10/2: Tennessee
10/9: North Texas
10/16: Texas A&M
10/30: at Vanderbilt
11/6: at Georgia
11/13: South Carolina
11/20: Florida
11/26: Arkansas (3:30 p.m., CBS)

Overview

There is a lot of excitement in Columbia these days as the Missouri Tigers enter the 2021 season. Eli Drinkwitz is recruiting at a level rarely seen at Mizzou, and the future looks bright. But it is time to focus on 2021. Missouri returns Co-SEC Freshman of the Year at quarterback in Connor Bazelak who played well despite coming off a torn ACL, no camp with a new system and coach, and didn’t even enter the season as the starter. Bazelak has to take another step if Missouri wants to take any kind of step out of the middle of the SEC East pack. He only threw seven touchdowns last year, so that number will need to go up as will his efficiency on the deep ball for Drinkwitz’s offense to take a step.

Defensively, they lost coordinator Ryan Walters to Illinois but brought in former NFL head coach Steve Wilks to take over the reins. Wilks gets to work with First-Team All-SEC defensive end Trajan Jeffcoat, who came out of nowhere to record six sacks a year ago. Through the transfer portal, the cornerback spot for the Tigers looks to be pretty shored up. Ennis Rakestraw Jr. had his struggles as a freshman but showed signs of being a very good player. Akayleb Evans and Allie Green IV are coming in from Tulsa and should give the Tigers a massive boost.

Biggest Questions

Who will take over for Nick Bolton, and what will the defense look like?

Maybe the single biggest question for Mizzou this year. Bolton was incredible last year with 95 tackles in 10 games, but he has gone onto the Kansas City Chiefs. Taking over the load will be Devin Nicholsen who was second on the team in tackles. They brought in Blaze Alldredge from Rice, who in 2019 had 102 tackles and 21.5 TFL. He will have a tough time matching those stats in the SEC but if he can play at that level it will definitely help mitigate the loss of Bolton.

The secondary lost two seniors in Tyree Gillespie and Joshuah Bledsoe. Martez Manuel though looks like he could be a star at Missouri and I mentioned above what they brought in through the transfer portal. On the defensive line, it’s a matter of can anyone help out Jeffcoat. In 2019, Kobie Whiteside finished with 7.5 sacks but battled injuries throughout 2020. Wilks needs Whiteside to be closer obviously to his 2019 self than 2020, and that will help the interior defensive line quite a bit.

What of the run game?

Larry Rountree III was a workhorse in 2020 and that earned him Second-Team All-SEC honors. Once the Tigers got in the red zone, he was just given the rock and told to go to work. That game plan got him 14 touchdowns in ten games. Tyler Badie returns in 2021, and he may work better for what I think Drinkwitz wants to do offensively. He’s been mostly used as a receiving threat out of the backfield but he did average 5.0 yards per carry. Elijah Young will also be called upon to take a lot of carries after only getting 10 in total last year. Also, look for former Top 100 recruit Mookie Cooper to get some carries off different looks and jet sweeps like Jalen Knox did before he transferred.

Who will become Connor Bazelak’s main target?

Toward the middle of last season, Keke Chism became Bazelak’s go-to target in a lot of instances. For a team that had trouble finding big plays in the passing game (excluding the LSU and Arkansas games) he really seemed to come along, averaging over 13 yards per reception. Missouri will assuredly rely on a lot of different guys to get yards and receptions. Incoming freshmen Dominic Lovett by the end of the year may just find himself as Bazelak’s deep threat as they have reportedly found some chemistry in fall camp. Again, Mookie Cooper is getting overlooked by Tiger fans. This kid is extremely fast and talented and if he’s healthy will provide a lot of options for Drinkwitz.

Projection

I know Mizzoufans are excited about the future and the Class of 2022. That being said, they have to remember those guys are still high school seniors and building the Tigers into any kind of SEC East contender is going to take some more time. Mizzou has two early road tests at Kentucky and Boston College and those two games will tell us all we need to know about this team for 2021. Win them both and an eight- or nine-win season is possible. Lose them both? That leaves very little margin of error to get to a bowl game. For the program to continue to build, they cannot miss a bowl game in Year 2 of Drinkwitz’s tenure. I don’t think they will, as I foresee a 7-5 finish and fourth place in the SEC East as all eyes turn to the end of the 2022 recruiting cycle.