Missouri coach Eli Drinkwitz sees game against Kentucky as measuring stick for Tigers' growth
The magnitude of Missouri's Week 2 matchup against Kentucky isn't lost on Eli Drinkwitz, even if he sees the importance slightly different than public perception.
It's the Tigers' Southeastern Conference opener. It's the first MU road game of the season and Drinkwitz's squad went 1-3 on the road last season, beating South Carolina but falling to Tennessee, Florida and Mississippi State.
Maybe most critically, Missouri's showdowns with Kentucky have typically been close, tightly contested clashes, with the winner propelling its season forward. The loser will be forced to pick up the scraps.
Six of the last seven Wildcats versus Tigers collisions have been decided by two touchdowns or less.
Drinkwitz will be the first to point out he's 1-0 as a head coach against the Wildcats after last season's 20-10 MU win that snapped a five-game Kentucky win streak in the series.
Missouri's foray into Lexington's Kroger Field at 6:30 CST on Saturday night is the SEC's first league game of the season.
"They're all big," Drinkwitz said Tuesday of starting Missouri's conference slate. "Obviously last year was a big game for us because we hadn't beaten them in five years. And I think getting that off our chest was good. Coach (Mark) Stoops has been there for 10 years, recruited at a really high level and developed his players.
"So to try to make a comparison of us and them right now, I think is a little bit soon. I think we got to control who we are. We got to do what we need to do, go on the road."
Stoops is the SEC's second-longest tenured head coach behind Alabama's Nick Saban. Stoops' in-state and regional recruiting model mimics Drinkwitz's plans in a lot of ways.
Kentucky's additions through the transfer portal, such as quarterback Will Levis and wide receiver Wan'Dale Robinson, who jumped to the Wildcats from Penn State and Nebraska respectively, have put given the fans in Lexington reason to believe in their team.
Kentucky defeated Louisiana-Monroe 45-10 in Week 1.
"I don't think anybody's season ends after week two, regardless of how it plays out," Drinkwitz said. "I think it's a big test for us on who we want to be and how we want to perform and what we want to do on the road, which we didn't play particularly well last year on the road.
"... I think for us it's more about a test to see how much we've grown and developed. I don't look at it as this is where Kentucky's program is versus Missouri's program. I think that's making it, probably a little bit too big. I think it's a big test for us on the road to play in front of the SEC crowd early in the season and we're going to find out all kinds of issues that we got to get fixed.
"We're going to find out how much improvement we made from Week 1. And regardless if you win, your 1-0 in the SEC with seven to go ... I don't think, well maybe Florida was undefeated in the (SEC) East last year. But most of the time, the East winners aren't undefeated."
Playing on the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks
Missouri's game against Kentucky takes place on the anniversary of one of the worst days in recent American history.
To honor those who died in the Sept. 11 attacks 20 years ago, Drinkwitz announced Missouri will have a "343 Never Forget" decal on its helmets for the game against Kentucky.
The 343 represents the number of first responders who died that day.
"An opportunity for us to say 'Thank you' to those brave souls and their families for the sacrifices that they've made and to represent truly some baroque individuals from that day," Drinkwitz said of the helmet design.
Drinkwitz was an undergraduate at Arkansas Tech on the day of the attacks. He was in a physical science class when his professor walked in a few minutes later, told the class what happened and canceled class.
After walking back to his dorm, Drinkwitz watched news coverage of the events. His car was in the shop that day in Little Rock and Drinkwitz got a ride to pick up it.
Drinkwitz remembers how long the lines of cars were at local gas stations as well.
"It was a scary day," Drinkwitz said.
Other noteworthy items
- There were no changes to Missouri's depth chart ahead of the game. An injury report from MU is expected Thursday night.
- When asked of what areas he'd most like to see Connor Bazelak improve against the Wildcats, Drinkwitz's answer was short and direct: "Third downs." ... The Tigers went 1-for-11 on third down against Central Michigan.
- Due to construction at Columbia Regional Airport, Missouri has had to change travel plans for the trip to Lexington. Not everyone can leave from Columbia and based on weather, it's possible the team would have to fly back into St. Louis after the game.
- Drinkwitz said he expects rotation along the offensive line to continue. He compared offensive line coach Marcus Johnson's philosophy to a basketball team: "You never know quite who you five are going to be."
Contact Eric Blum at email@example.com. Follow @ByEricBlum on Twitter.