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Drinkwitz, Mizzou finally reach first game after challenging offseason

Eric Blum
Columbia Daily Tribune
Missouri head football coach Eli Drinkwitz runs a route during preseason practice Aug. 26 at the Kadlec Practice Fields.

Not since Don Faurot patrolled the sidelines during the early-1960s genesis of the Big Eight Conference has Missouri football gone three days shy of 10 months without an official game.

After NCAA sanctions kept Missouri from playing in a bowl game despite meeting the six-win threshold in 2019 and the coronavirus pandemic delayed the start of the Tigers’ 2020 season from Labor Day weekend to the last Saturday of September, the end of that long stretch is now here.

Missouri at long last returns to the gridiron with a primetime matchup against No. 2 Alabama, a game added to the schedule five weeks ago.

The Tigers shifted from a season opener against Central Arkansas and a Southeastern Conference opener against Vanderbilt to the Crimson Tide, a legitimate national title contender serving as the opponent for both.

That’s one of several stark contrasts for the Tigers since ending last season with a win over Arkansas in Little Rock.

There are obvious personnel changes: Barry Odom was fired a day after that Black Friday win over the Razorbacks, and Eli Drinkwitz was hired 10 days later to lead the Missouri program forward.

Drinkwitz retained only three full-time assistants from Odom’s staff (all on defense), while bringing coaches from Washington, UAB, TCU and his most recent stop, Appalachian State, to Columbia.

No longer in the locker room are Kelly Bryant, Albert Okwuegbunam, Jordan Elliott, Trystan Colon-Castillo, Yasir Durant, Cale Garrett and plenty of other difference-makers.

Who exactly steps up in their place? Those inside the Tiger program have a good idea, but they haven’t shown many cards in their deck, including whether redshirt freshman Connor Bazelak or TCU transfer Shawn Robinson will be the first Missouri quarterback to take a snap in the Drinkwitz era.

It’s been a challenging offseason, but as of Saturday night, that’s in the past.

“Overall, the preparation is still the same for me. We're going in to play a football game,” said Missouri graduate transfer wide receiver Keke Chism, who will make his Tiger debut against Alabama after coming to Columbia from Division II Angelo State over the summer. “So for me, just doing the things that I normally do, getting myself right as far as taking care of my body and making sure my mind is clear. And from that aspect, everything is still the same. It's a great challenge that we're going to have and we look forward to the opportunity.

“So that's where everybody's focus is at right now. ... I feel that I'm pretty confident. I know I’ve prepared myself for this moment. This is one of the things that I hang my hat on is wanting to go up against the best.

“It's no secret that these guys, they're one of the best.”

Missouri released its first depth chart of the 2020 season Tuesday, but even that information led to more questions of how the Tigers will operate against the Crimson Tide defense.

Of the 13 “ORs” listed on the depth chart, a dozen are on the offense. Whether that’s by design or an instance where 100 hours before kickoff, there was still a genuine battle for spots in the rotation, Drinkwitz has successfully made it to Missouri’s first game without giving away any secrets.

“We're going to play physical football. They are a tremendous football team in the trenches and we have to match that physicality,” Drinkwitz said of Alabama. “We're going to have to play fundamentally sound and be great tacklers. We're going to have to protect the football. Really, those are the areas that when you watch an Alabama-coached football team, that's what they do, and you're going to have to beat them at their own game.

“You're not going to trick them. You're not going to get lucky against them. You're going to have to go out there and you have to execute at a high level. ... And that's a challenge that we've actually been working towards all fall camp. That's a challenge every day in practice is that you go out there, you execute, you practice fundamentally sound, you take care of the football and those are the things that we do every single day.

“Obviously, this is a team that competes for national championships. I think they're ranked No. 2 in the country, which in my opinion, is probably too low. It's going to be a great opportunity to see where we're at and where we have to be in order to compete in the future.”

In its 10-game, league-only schedule, only three teams Missouri is scheduled to face in 2020 didn’t receive votes in the latest Associated Press poll: Vanderbilt, South Carolina and Arkansas.

Four of those teams are currently ranked in the top six: Alabama, Georgia, Florida and LSU.

Missouri has one win in the past four seasons over ranked opposition. That came in November 2018 against Florida, a game that may have prolonged Odom’s tenure as coach.

That game in The Swamp may feel like lifetimes ago. Drew Lock, Emanuel Hall and Terez Hall were on the field that day for the Tigers.

Now, 22 months later, it’s the first game action for Drinkwitz’s rebranded #NewZou and his first shot to equal Odom’s win total against Top 25 opponents with the second-best team in the nation coming to town.

“I’m excited for people to not have to focus on the pandemic and be able to watch us and this team compete and help us create our identity for what we’re going to try to accomplish this year relative to the terms of this senior class,” Drinkwitz said. “We’re just trying not to peak too soon.

“We’re pretty excited, but we’ve got a lot of work to do.”

eblum@columbiatribune.com

Missouri linebacker Nick Bolton (32) celebrates after a tackle during a game against West Virginia on Sept. 7, 2019, at Memorial Stadium.