Commentary: Reasons for hope, need for results

If you squinted a little bit and you really wanted to believe, you might have thought it was all in the past last week. Following a 23-10 win over South Carolina in which Missouri led wire-to-wire and didn’t leave anything up to chance for the first time all year in SEC play avoiding a one-score result, there was hope.

And there’s still hope. It’s just not really for this year anymore.

Don’t get me wrong, Mizzou will probably still make a bowl game even if the only remaining win is New Mexico State (there are not enough teams likely to win six games to fill all the spots and Mizzou’s top 30 APR could put them in line for the Brand X Insurance Small Appliance Bowl against a middling MAC team). And I’m not telling you its impossible that Arkansas’ defense is actually bad enough to make Missouri’s offense look mediocre and the Tigers can get a sixth win. Those things are still on the table after a 21-17 loss to Kentucky. But the frustration and the doubt that you hoped you had buried last week are back.

After years or decades of watching Missouri sports, you think you have seen every way to lose. But I always say the beauty of doing what I do for a living is that you go to the office every single day knowing that it’s possible you’re going to see something you’ve never seen before. Sometimes, that’s the hell of it too. That was the case on Saturday. If asked to create a list of impossible ways to lose a football game, you probably wouldn’t come up with “get called for roughing the kicker on a play where the snap goes over the punter’s head and he picks it up 40 yards behind the line of scrimmage.” But if given that scenario and asked to create a list of teams that would lose that way, I can’t imagine you wouldn’t put Missouri at the top of the list.

That, of course, is the way Missouri lost for the seventh time in eight games against Kentucky. More than anything, this series has crystallized the “Wait, we did WHAT?” Hell of being a Missouri football fan for the last eight years. Really, for most of the last four decades minus the ride Gary Pinkel took us for from 2003 to 2014.

But what the game really exposed is this: Nine games into Eli Drinkwitz‘s third season, Missouri needs its defense to be absolutely perfect to beat even average football teams. Because the offense certainly doesn’t do much of anything to help and any problems that aren’t created when Mizzou has the ball are taken care of by the special teams.

Chad Bailey and the Missouri defense were really good on Saturday. But for this team, really good is not enough. (USA Today)

That this happened on the same day that Missouri announced a two-year contract extension for Drinkwitz less than two hours before kickoff is…well, of course it did. Immediately upon receiving the news, I thought of 2006. That Friday, my dad and I pulled off Highway 63 in Macon, MO and went into the public library to write a story about Gary Pinkel‘s contract extension. The next day, we watched the Tigers lose their third game in a row, 21-16 to Iowa State. Yeah, those tracks.

Pinkel, of course, was on the doorstep of arguably the greatest season in school history. Missouri went 12-2 and finished fourth in the country the following year. Over the next eight seasons, the Tigers won ten games or more five times (they’ve done it just once in the other 113 seasons they’ve played football), won or shared four division titles in two different conferences and rolled up a cumulative record of 76-29. Missouri has finished in the top 20 five times since 1981. All five came in that eight-year stretch.

The hope, of course, is that history repeats itself. That Drinkwitz manages to, if not equal that glorious run from Pinkel, at least approach it.

There are some of you reading this who see it as possible. Some who even believe it is likely. And it’s not baseless. There are things to like about the direction of this program in Drinkwitz’s third season, even on the day they fell to 4-5 in the latest WTF way that they uniquely seem equipped to find. Missouri has lost four SEC games by a combined total of 18 points. To lose those four, it has taken a missed 26-yard field goal, a fumble at the goal line, a roughing the punter penalty 40 yards behind the line of scrimmage and an offense that has not topped 23 points against a Power Five team. They’ve been incredibly, mind-numbingly, painfully close. So you don’t have to squint too hard to see them getting there.

The way they will get there, presumably, is through the efforts of Drinkwitz’s recruiting classes. He signed the two best—on paper anyway—in school history the last two years. Some of those players are making an impact, others you have to believe will soon (although it certainly seems at this point that any opportunity for Sam Horn to make an impact is at least ten months away because his red baseball cap remained permanently affixed to his head again all day on Saturday despite the offense having 80 total yards and four first downs midway through the third quarter). The 2023 class isn’t tracking to be as glamorously ranked as the last two, but still features four four-star prospects, including the first such ranked offensive lineman the Tigers have signed since 2015.

The transfer portal also now offers coaches across the country quick fixes. Drinkwitz used it masterfully on defense last year, turning one of the nation’s worst units into one that is borderline dominant with help from the likes of Kristian Williams, Ty’Ron Hopper and Joseph Charleston. The man that runs that defense, defensive coordinator Blake Baker, signed a new three-year contract of his own the day before Drinkwitz agreed to the extension that will, theoretically, keep him at Mizzou through 2027.

“Coach Baker a guru when it comes to calling these defenses,” linebacker Chad Bailey said.

In the immortal words of Andy Dufresne that Shawshank Redemption“Remember, Red, hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies.”

And that hope is not warranted for Missouri fans. But at some point, you have to turn into proof. Because while hope never dies, coaching careers do if it doesn’t turn to proof. Right now, it still is almost entirely hope for Tiger fans when assessing Drinkwitz. He is 15-17 overall at Missouri, 10-14 in SEC play. The side of the ball he was hired for is averaging 17.4 points per game against Power Five opposition and making a habit of setting up at least one opposing score with an awful turnover in just about every game. With just three guaranteed games left in year three, even the most hopeful of Missouri fans cannot say with certainty that this thing is on the path to success.

Some will see Drinkwitz’s extension this morning as proof that Missouri’s administration does unequivocally believe it.

“Coach Drinkwitz and his staff have created great momentum in our football program.” University of Missouri President Moon Choi said in a statement announcing the relief.

“Our football team is on the right trajectory, and we are seeing results in recruiting and on the field,” Director of Athletics Desiree Reed-Francois added.

They’re saying it. The real proof will be in the specifics of the extension, which are not yet available at the time I’m writing this. The original contract Drinkwitz signed called for Missouri to pay him 70% of the remaining salary if it fired him. That would have been about $8.4 at the end of this season. We don’t know what that language is yet. If Missouri is committing millions more to what it would owe if it chooses to move on from Drinkwitz in the next couple of years, the actions back up the words. If it isn’t, the extension is little more than window dressing that allows Drinkwitz to tell recruits he will be their coach the entire time they are in college, whether it’s true or not.

“I know today’s loss is disappointing, but it’s the belief in how we’re doing it, the direction that we’re going and really appreciate that belief,” Drinkwitz said after the game. “I really believe that we’ve improved in a lot of ways and the results will come.

“I look forward to being the head football coach here for a long time.”

Maybe he will be. Maybe not. There are reasons to believe and reasons to doubt. Extension or not, the crystal ball is cloudy after another painful bump in the road on Saturday.

Hope, indeed, is a good thing. But in sports, they keep score. And eventually, hope is not enough. So here we go, trudging off into another week and likely another offseason of wondering: Is our hope warranted?

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