There’s an old saying from NPR’s Tom Magliozzi that I think applies well to this year’s Missouri team. It goes a little something like this:
“Happiness equals expectations minus reality.”
Basically, happiness is dependent on how expectations compare with the reality of the situation. In other words, did the reality outperform expectations? For this year’s Missouri team, that answer came back in the affirmative.
The Tigers’ win total was set at 2.5. They won five games. There was no clear answer at quarterback. Connor Bazelak was named to the SEC’s All-Freshman team. The offensive line looked like it could be an abject failure. Bazelak was sacked at the third lowest sack rate in the conference.
Expectations were incredibly low. The reality of the situation, while not great, easily clear the low bar. Tigers fans are as happy as they’ve been in years as a result.
With the regular season now complete, it’s time to take a look position-by-position at how the offense performed. Consider this our end-of-season report card.
Let’s start with possibly the biggest surprise of the year, the quarterback position.
The Grade: B
The Stat: Connor Bazelak finished the year 6th among SEC quarterbacks in completion percentage (67%), 7th in yards per attempt (7.3) and 6th in passer rating (132).
The Analysis: This was the first time in a decade Missouri came into the season without knowing its starting quarterback. I assumed all offseason Shawn Robinson would eventually be named the starter. I did so with almost zero knowledge of whether or not he would actually start, but it seemed like a safe bet considering he had at least started multiple games at the power five level.
That assumption turned out to be correct for all of a game and a half. Bazelak asserted himself in the Tennessee game and never relinquished control.
Bazelak wasn’t perfect. In fact, he was just the 12th college football quarterback (and the second from the SEC) this century to throw seven or fewer touchdowns despite finishing the year with at least 2,000 passing yards.
That’s not ideal. His deep ball could use some work. He didn’t push the ball down the field as often as you would like. There were times late in the season when his decision-making wasn’t where you would like it to be.
But, he’s just a redshirt freshman. He joined Will Rogers and Johnny Manziel as the only SEC freshman quarterbacks in the last 20 years to complete at least 66 percent of their passes (min. 100 attempts).
Bazelak was pretty darn efficient. He gave the Tigers a fighting chance and he made enough impressive throws throughout the season that he should be viewed as an answer at the quarterback position moving forward. Can he hold off incoming 4-star quarterback Tyler Macon? That remains to be seen.
Missouri’s questions at the quarterback position a year ago didn’t seem to have many positive answers. That won’t be the case heading into 2021.
Running Backs: A-
The Grade: A-
The Stat: Larry Rountree III finished the season fourth in the SEC in rushing yards (972), third in the SEC in rushing touchdowns (14) and 10th in the country in carries per game (21).
The Analysis: It felt at times like Missouri had a dominant running game. That… wasn’t exactly the case. The Tigers finished the year ninth in the SEC in yards per carry and 10th in rushing yards per game. The offensive line wasn’t exactly blowing open holes in the running game. While we all love Rountree, he’s more of a “take what they give you” type of running back than a back who consistently creates yardage on his own.
That doesn’t mean the running backs weren’t effective. Given the situation with the offense and the quality defenses Missouri faced this year, it’s hard not to be thrilled with the production Drinkwitz was able to get out of Rountree and Tyler Badie.
Badie finished the year averaging 33 receiving yards per game, the second most among running backs in the conference. This was just the second time in the last 20 years a Missouri running back had at least 300 receiving yards in a single-season. The other, of course, was Badie last year.
It wasn’t always pretty. It wasn’t a dominant ground game like you see at Alabama. But the overall production was more than enough to make you feel great that the Tigers got everything they could out of Rountree’s final year on campus.
Wide Receivers: B-
The Grade: B-
The Stat: Missouri, Ole Miss and Mississippi State are the only teams in the SEC with five wide receivers who averaged at least 25 receiving yards per game this season.
The Analysis: What a strange year for Missouri’s wide receivers. Jalen Knox began the season as the focal point of the receiving game. Damon Hazelton’s playing time was up-and-down depending on the week or the situation. Tauskie Dove came into the season as a relative unknown and finished the year as one of the favorites to start out wide next season.
However it came together, the Tigers – more often than not – found ways to get production out of the position. I think the best way to explain the up-and-down nature of the position for the Tigers is to look at a quick comparison between Knox and Chism.
- Jalen Knox weeks 1-4: 19 receptions, 216 yards, 7 carries, 46 yards, 1 TD
- Keke Chism weeks 1-4: 4 receptions, 64 yards, 0 TD
It was around this time when we were talking about how Drinkwitz had unlocked Knox. This was the way you should use him. He was constantly in motion for jet sweeps and wheel routes. Drinkwitz was sending him across the middle on slants and crossing routes. It was beautiful.
And then something changed. Chism became more involved and Knox’s usage slipped. That’s not a bad thing. It was just different. Bazelak seemingly found some chemistry with Chism, and he took over as the clear-cut top option in the passing option. The final six weeks of the season were heavily in favor of the graduate transfer.
- Jalen Knox weeks 5-10: 12 receptions, 89 yards, 5 carries, 49 yards, 0 TD
- Keke Chism weeks 5-10: 31 receptions, 394 yards, 1 TD
Chism was seventh in the SEC in receiving yards over the final six weeks of the season. In total, 63% of Chism’s receptions resulted in a first down. The only SEC pass-catcher with a higher first down percentage was Florida TE Kyle Pitts (min. 50 targets).
As is the theme for the offense, it wasn’t perfect. There were games in which the Tigers’ receivers dropped too many passes. This group finished with just five total receiving touchdowns. The separation wasn’t always there, which led to some difficult throws for Bazelak.
That was all expected. Drinkwitz overhauled the group in the offseason for a reason. Chism and Hazelton had the necessary impact. Knox was solid. Barrett Banister was crucial on third downs. Dove stepped up. D’ionte ‘Boo’ Smith earned himself a scholarship. That’ll do.
Tight Ends: C+
The Grade: C+
The Stat: Missouri didn’t have a tight end finish the season with at least 150 receiving yards for the first time since 2015.
The Analysis: This one is tough. It’s not that the Tigers tight ends were bad. They weren’t. Niko Hea took on a larger role and played pretty well. Logan Christopherson made one of Missouri’s best catches of the year. Messiah Swinson saw more playing time down the stretch. But this group’s best player is Daniel Parker, Jr. and he just wasn’t healthy enough to get significant playing time this year. It’s a minor miracle he could play at all.
This is a group the Tigers will certainly hope to get more from in 2021. Drinkwitz loves his tight ends and uses them in a variety of ways. Hopefully Parker is able to get even more involved in the offense with a healthy offseason. And don’t forget about incoming 3-star tight end Ryan Hoerstkamp. I’ll be interested to see if Drinkwitz can find a role for him as soon as next season. He can really play.
Offensive Line: B-
The Grade: B-
The Stat: Missouri finished with the 15th lowest sack rate in the country. The only quarterbacks in the SEC with a lower sack rate than Bazelak (3.4%) were Kellen Mond (1.5%), Mac Jones (3.1%) and Stetson Bennett (3.25%).
The Analysis: I fully expected coming into the year the offensive line could be the ultimate undoing of this Tigers offense. Zeke Powell was a complete unknown starting at left tackle. We had seen very little of Xavier Delgado or Luke Griffin. Michael Maetti came with some hype from Rutgers, but he was the center for one of the worst offenses in the country. Would that translate to the SEC in a new offense?
The only thing I knew about this unit coming into the year was the right side would be solid behind Case Cook and Larry Borom.
Powell was perfectly fine. Delgado and Griffin had their moments. Maetti was as advertised. Cook and Borom picked up where they left off. And the unit as a whole performed admirably.
There’s still plenty of room for improvement. According to Football Outsiders, the Tigers were 100th in “line yards”, which basically means how many yards did the offensive line create for the running back. The Tigers had the second lowest success rate in the conference on third or fourth and short (3 yards or less to go). Only Mississippi State was worse in those short-yardage situations.
So the pass blocking was solid and was helped by Drinkwitz’s quick pass game, and the run blocking was passable. Given where the expectations were for this unit coming into the year, that’s more than enough.