Eli Drinkwitz bullish on Mizzou football's trajectory heading into regular-season finale

COLUMBIA, Mo. — When Eli Drinkwitz looks around Missouri’s football program he sees unmistakable signs of growth.

His office sits in a palatial 200,000-square-foot complex that’s barely three years old. Just to the south, construction crews work daily on a new $33 million indoor practice facility that’s set to open next summer. Ticket sales and attendance figures are up for Mizzou home games: With one game left, Mizzou’s average announced crowd of 54,327 is the program’s highest since 2015.

Drinkwitz has signed two consecutive top-20 recruiting classes, something no Missouri coach has done in the modern era of recruiting rankings. The Tigers have the SEC’s most-improved defense and the administration proactively locked up first-year coordinator Blake Baker with a new contract that doubled his salary. Drinkwitz’s lucrative new contract also enhanced the salary pool for his coaches and support staff.

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But on the field and across the scoreboard, the results haven’t caught up to the resources pouring into the program. After a promising 5-5 debut season in 2020, the Tigers finished 6-7 last year with a bowl loss to Army. Before this season kicked off, Drinkwitz said this was the most talented and deepest of his three Missouri teams.

Yet, the Tigers stand 5-6 headed into Friday’s regular-season finale against Arkansas (2:30 p.m., CBS), 2-5 in the Southeastern Conference and need a victory to secure bowl eligibility. Four of MU’s six losses have been decided by a touchdown or less, but another loss Friday will clinch the program’s first losing record in regular-season play since 2016 and its worst SEC record since the same season.

Still, Drinkwitz has kept a consistent message lately: The current outcomes shouldn’t be a referendum on the program’s trajectory.

“Obviously, we all want (success) to be straight up linear,” he said this week. “But very rarely in my life has success looked like that. It’s always been a process and building. There’s days you stub your toe, (but) it doesn’t mean you just cut your toe off. You keep going and go back to work. That’s frustrating for fans. … But it’s not frustrating for me when I see the vision of what we can accomplish and the vision of where we can go.”

Where that vision leads beyond Friday is still murky. A victory over Arkansas (6-5, 3-4 SEC) all but guarantees the Tigers a spot in one of the SEC’s Pool of Six bowls, possibly the Las Vegas Bowl on Dec. 17 or the Liberty Bowl on Dec. 28.

But Dec. 5 looms as a potentially far more impactful day than any bowl game. That’s when FBS players can officially enter the NCAA transfer portal. Drinkwitz and his staff expect current players to transfer. Like last year, Mizzou figures to be an aggressive shopper in the portal, too. Other unanswered questions will hover over the program deep into the offseason.

How does Drinkwitz address the quarterback position? What about hiring an offensive coordinator? Do the Tigers upgrade its offensive line internally or with seasoned transfers?

Missouri head coach Eliah Drinkwitz grimaces on the sideline during the third quarter of an NCAA college football game against New Mexico State Saturday, Nov. 19, 2022, in Columbia, Mo. (AP Photo/L.G. Patterson)

“Offensively, we are not where we want to be as far as the amount of yards and points, but we are dealing with a pretty young football team,” Drinkwitz said this week, “when you’re starting a redshirt freshman center (Connor Tollison), you’re starting a quarterback (Brady Cook) that hasn’t played a whole lot yet (and) your best two offensive weapons are a true sophomore (Dominic Lovett) and true freshman (Luther Burden III). So the future to me is really bright. We’re starting a true freshman right tackle (Armand Membou). We had a redshirt freshman make his first career touchdown catch at tight end (Ryan Hoerstkamp). So I think we’re improving the talent. I think we’re improving the way we go through the process. So I see a lot of growth. I see a lot of things to be excited about.”

So does senior wideout Tauskie Dove, who could play in his final game Friday if the Tigers don’t make a bowl game.

“Most young guys (say), ‘Let me just enjoy the college life,’ but the young guys I see here, they come in and want to play,” he said. “They’re ready to play. They’re eager to play. … They’re ready to go ball in the SEC.”

Missouri football coach Eliah Drinkwitz extends his right hand to celebrate while leaving the field after the Tigers beat South Carolina 23-20 on Saturday, Oct. 29, 2022, in Columbia, S.C.  

Appearing on Drinkwitz’s radio show last week, fellow senior receiver Barrett Banister praised the team culture that’s taken root the last few years.

“I’ve been part of teams where it’s been pretty cancerous and pretty nasty and there’s days you don’t even want to go in (the locker room) because it’s pretty negative,” he said. “This year and moving forward, there hasn’t been that at all. It’s been a joy in the locker room to be with my teammates and coaches. … There’s been frustrations that we haven’t won the games we wanted to win. There’s also a light at the end of the tunnel.”

A victory Friday would be a tangible source of excitement for a team that’s only beaten one FBS opponent with a current winning record. That would be South Carolina (7-4). Otherwise, Mizzou’s FBS wins have come against Louisiana Tech (3-8), New Mexico State (4-6) and Vanderbilt (5-6), which explains why Drinkwitz is touting achievements that aren’t defined by wins and losses.

But one more win would add substance to Drinkwitz’s impassioned case that Mizzou is positioned for brighter days.