Each week, Rocky Top Insider will take you behind the scenes with a question and answer with a media member who covers Tennessee’s opponent.
This week, the Columbia Tribune’s Eric Blum discussed the strengths and weaknesses of the 2021 Tigers and previewed Saturday’s pivotal SEC matchup.
Question: There seemed to be a lot of buzz surrounding Eli Drinkwitz entering this season. What were the expectations around the program entering the season? How would you assess Missouri’s first month?
Answer: Expectations entering this season were to at least retain third place in the SEC East and possibly even challenge Florida for second place. We heard the phrase “Closing The Gap” a ton in Columbia during this offseason based on Drinkwitz getting five wins in his first season at MU in the middle of a pandemic and all-league schedule. I thought the program could get to eight wins realistically, possibly push nine if things truly went in the Tigers’ favor. Things haven’t gone as smooth as expected in the first month of 2021. Missouri is 2-2 and if it had a slightly below average defense, it’d be 4-0. Two losses on the road by a touchdown each has shown the pitfalls of this team how the new defensive scheme under defensive coordinator Steve Wilks might be taking longer than expected to be effective. Missouri’s offense hasn’t missed a step despite losing Larry Rountree to the NFL.
Q: Connor Bazelak showed what he could at Tennessee last season. How has he developed since then?
A: Connor’s rise has been slow, but steady. He’s incredibly methodical and rarely makes a mental error. After taking over the starting job against Tennessee last season, he’s proven to already have a great level of skill and understanding as a pocket passer. His next step is going from one of the top-half quarterbacks in the league to one of the elite SEC quarterbacks. Facing the Volunteers this weekend will be his 14th start behind center for the Tigers, and expectations for him might be on par with someone who’s started more than 30 college games, in line with some of the better MU quarterback alumni like Blaine Gabbert or James Franklin. Not quite at a Chase Daniel or Drew Lock level yet.
Q: Where has Missouri’s offense excelled this season and what have been its limitations?
A: Missouri’s offense has excelled in the ways it did last season. The short pass game always seems to be something MU uses when it hits adversity to steer the ship in the right direction. Tyler Badie has quieted every Tiger fan that thought he couldn’t sustain being the No. 1 running back. He’s been phenomenal through four games, maybe Missouri’s best player overall. He’s got a Darren Sproles-style ability in the pass games but has proven to be an elusive, downhill runner. Missouri has a deep wide-receiver room, but no overwhelming star. It wouldn’t be a shock to see eight different Missouri receivers catch a pass on Saturday. The MU offensive line and tight ends are improved from a year ago but aren’t dominant units.
Q: Missouri’s defense has struggled so far this season, what have been the biggest issues?
A: Everything. The best word to describe the Tigers’ defense through four games is shaky. Missouri has built no true synergy on that side of the ball and haven’t shut down any team consistently. Kentucky and Boston College do have great offensive lines, better than Tennessee’s, but MU made them look superhuman, no just great. Every SEC team has stout talent up front that can create holes for running backs and Missouri has to find a way to plug those holes quickly or it could be a much longer season than anyone expected. At linebacker, the duo of Devin Nicholson and Blaze Alldredge have been good but haven’t been great enough to make up for the lapses on the defensive line and secondary. MU has a young secondary that’s shown signs of good play. Again, it just hasn’t been consistent enough.
Q: What’s a matchup you think Missouri can exploit against Tennessee?
A: I don’t see how Tennessee’s going to stop Missouri’s passing game. Bazelak will be poised and unfazed by anything the Volunteers throw at him and he has too many options for the Volunteers to keep up with. Missouri needs this win to continue on a path towards bowl eligibility and any time MU has been backed into a corner in Drinkwitz’s tenure, the Tigers have eventually found a way to overcome it. While finishing in fourth in the SEC east might be best-case scenario at this point, holding Tennessee down and doing damage control in it way is of the utmost importance.
Q: Score Prediction?
A: Missouri 41, Tennessee 28.
If Missouri doesn’t figure it out defensively this week, it likely won’t against SEC teams not named Vanderbilt. I think that urgency to fix things finally gives the Tigers a little bit of grit needed to get a confidence-building win.