It’s a wonderful time to be a Missouri football fan. For older Mizzou fans, the 2023 season has taken us back to happier times, reminiscent of the glory days under legendary coaches Dan Devine and Gary Pinkel. Younger fans don’t have to revisit the past; this marvelous season has created a modern set of memories to treasure and take forward. The good times are rolling again.

Generations of MU backers can absolutely agree on this: 2023 is an entertaining, inspirational and charming break from years of soporific mediocrity. Over the previous eight seasons – 2015 through 2022 – the Tigers were 47-51 overall and a raggy 25-41 (.378) in the SEC. The MU program was an insignificant speck on the national CFB map.

And now look.

A 10-2 record. The No. 9 team nationally in the final college football playoff ranking, with only Alabama and Georgia rated higher among SEC teams. An upcoming appearance in the Dec. 29 Cotton Bowl to wrestle with No. 7 Ohio State. It’s the first New Year’s Six bowl for the Tigers since the four-team CFB playoff was instituted in the 2014 season.

From 2015 through 2022, Missouri was ranked in the AP poll for a total of only five weeks over eight seasons. This year the Tigers have been ranked in 10 weeks, having doubled the previous combined total over eight season. And win or lose in the Cotton Bowl, the Tigers will be ranked for an 11th time at the close of the season. That sums up the magnitude of this ’23 ascent. Mizzou’s current No. 9 ranking is their highest in a season since finishing the 2014 campaign at No. 14.

Missouri coach Eli Drinkwitz was chosen SEC Coach of the Year by voters on the Associated Press panel. This is a prestigious honor; five of the past seven awards went to Alabama’s Nick Saban or Georgia’s Kirby Smart. Pretty good! Going into the season Drink was viewed as more likely to be fired than win the conference coach of the year. And Missouri was picked to finish sixth among seven teams – ahead of only Vanderbilt – in the SEC East.

Drinkwitz became only the third coach in Mizzou football history to guide the Tigers to a 10-win season, reaching a standard established by Devine in 1960 and continued by Pinkel who did it five times in an eight-season span from 2007 through 2014. Drinkwitz should be proud to stand with Devine and Pinkel.

Drink’s decision to bring in Kirby Moore as offensive coordinator – and give the young OC total freedom to design and call plays – was a transformational move for a tiresome Mizzou offense.

The Moore-engineered offense currently is 10th among the 68 Power 5 conference teams in passing EPA, and 21st in rushing EPA. In 2022, the Tigers were 37th in passing EPA and 44th in rushing EPA. That’s a huge difference. (By the way: EPA stands for expected points added.)

Mizzou had seven players named to AP’s All-SEC team. The offense was represented by running back Cody Schrader, slot receiver Luther Burden III and left offensive tackle Javon Foster. All three were first-team honorees, as were defensive end Darius Robinson and cornerback Kris Abrams-Draine. Pro Football Focus lists Abrams-Draine as the sixth-best cover cornerback at the Power 5 level.  Schrader was a unanimous selection. Two other Mizzou men – guard Cam’Ron Johnson and kicker Harrison Mevis – were second-team SEC selections.

Schrader is arguably the best story in college football. The former walk-on led the SEC in rushing yards (1,499), yards from scrimmage (1,690), averaged 6.1 yards per carry and rumbled his way to 13 touchdowns. On Monday night he received the Burlsworth Trophy which is awarded annually to the most outstanding college football player at the FBS level who began his career as a walk-on.

“It wasn’t easy, it definitely had a lot of lonely nights,” Schrader said in his acceptance speech. “The only thing I stayed true to was the work.”

Schrader is a finalist for the Doak Walker Award, which goes to the nation’s best running back. And he certainly has a shot to earn a spot on the All-America team. That’s a big climb from his time at Truman State.

This is Kurt Warner stuff. Did Schrader work at a Hy-Vee market before getting his chance to become a football hero?

Appearing on ESPN Sunday, Drinkwitz spoke glowingly and lovingly of his special running back.

“It’s the story of how hard work, determination and mindset combined with talent is almost unstoppable and hard to break,” Drink said. “Cody’s a guy who bet on himself–a Division II transfer that walked on at the University of Missouri and earned everything he’s got in his life … it’s just a remarkable story. He played the LSU game with a torn quad and just refused to come out. He lived in the training room and now he’s in a position to get drafted. It’s a story that everybody in the country will be proud to hear and I bet it’ll be a movie someday.”

For the locals, one of the coolest things about this 2023 Mizzou team is seeing St. Louis-area talent show the way. Schrader. Burden. Quarterback Brady Cook.

Burden became a star in 2023. With one game to go he had 83 catches for 1,197 yards and eight touchdowns. He’s had four fewer receiving yards than Ohio State’s Marvin Harrison Jr., a finalist for the Heisman Trophy.

The decision to move Burden to the slot paid off in a big way for Mizzou. Using the stats he’s compiled when lined up in the slot position – a minimum of 75 targets – here’s where Burden ranks in various categories among Power 5 slot receivers:

* No. 1 with an average of 15.2 yards per catch.
* Second in yards after the catch.
* Second in value per route and value per target.
* Third in yards per route and yards per target.
* Third in receiver rating (102.2).
* Fifth in EPA (expected points added.)
* Tied for fifth in touchdown catches.
* Fifth in percentage of “boom” plays.

When the football comes Burden’s way, we prepare for thrills and excitement from a radiant playmaker.

As a group, Missouri receivers are fourth in the percentage of receptions that produce “boom” plays, are fifth in value per play, and 12th in positive-play rate. Burden wasn’t alone. The fun was shared with Theo Wease, Mookie Cooper, Marquis Johnson, Mekhi Miller and tight end Brent Norfleet.

A year ago quarterback Brady Cook had a mangled shoulder, weak arm strength, and was thought to be in danger of losing the starting job to Sam Horn going into 2024. But the shoulder was healed. The shoulder was stronger. Cook’s teammates voted him team captain because of his outstanding dedication, competitiveness and leadership. And Cook has delivered an impressive season.

Among Power 5 conference quarterbacks, he ranks 11th nationally in passing EPA, 10th in percentage of positive passing plays, and third in “boom” plays – which are considered “very successful” in the grading done by Sports Info Solutions. How good is that? Well, the only Power 5 quarterbacks with a higher “boom” percentage are LSU’s Jayden Daniels and Michigan’s J.J. McCarthy. (Minimum 200 passing attempts.)

With his repaired right shoulder, Cook was substantially better at connecting for big plays on balls that traveled 20+ yards through the air. Last season Cook completed only 32 percent of his passing attempts of 20+ yards and only three resulted in touchdowns. This season Cook has completed 47 percent of his deep-ball attempts – 17th best in the nation – and nine went for touchdowns.

Cook’s overall accuracy has improved in 2023. His on-target percentage on all throws (73.6%) ranks 16th among Power 5 quarterbacks. Last season Cook was 40th in the same metric. This season Cook has an average depth of 9.3 yards per throw, which ranks 19th. Last season he was ranked 38th in that measure. His average yards per passing attempt – 37th last season – is ninth-best nationally in 2023.

“The quarterback spot is about growth and opportunity,” Drinkwitz told ESPN. “Everybody expects him to come out and be the star immediately. You got to work through it, continue to gain experience and develop along the way. It’s a tribute to Brady to stick to it, it’s a tribute to our coaching staff to continue to believe in him. I think Kirby Moore has done an excellent job of finding things that fit him and utilizing his talents.”

The Missouri offensive line deserves praise on several fronts. The pressure rate on MU quarterbacks is the 12th lowest among Power 5 teams. The sack rate is down from last season. Last season Mizzou running backs ran through the designed gaps on 66 percent of their attempts, which ranked 31st. This season they’ve accessed designed run gaps on 71% of their rushing attempts, which ranks 15th. Translation: the big men up front have created more open holes on direct runs by their backs.

The Mizzou defense hasn’t been consistent – but it has been disruptive. The Tigers are tied for eighth among Power 5 teams with 35 sacks, are 21st with an overall pressure rate of 31.8 percent, and have limited opponents to a 58.9 passer rating on third down.

This team has flair and dramatic timing. And that makes Mizzou even more likable and enjoyable to watch. There was the preposterous SEC-record 61-yard field goal by Mevis that beat Kansas State as time ran out. There was the spectacle of Punter Jake Bauer throwing an on-the-money 39-yard touchdown pass on a fake that completely turned around the game at Kentucky. Mizzou was down 14-0 before Bauer’s big play and proceeded to roll to a 17-point victory. In a 36-7 pummeling of Tennessee, Schrader became the first and only player in SEC history to amass a combination of 200+ yards rushing and 100+ yards receiving in the same game. There was the late circus maximus in a scary 33-31 win over Florida at Faurot Field. Cook saved the night by threading a perfect 27-yard pass to Burden on 4th and 17 – then completed two more passes to position Mevis for the winning field goal with five seconds left.

Amazing. And I’ve probably left a couple of things out. But there’s a chance for more. Missouri can give their fans another sweet memory by defeating Ohio State.

Thanks for reading …

–Bernie

Bernie hosts an opinionated and analytical sports-talk show on 590 The Fan, KFNS. It airs 3-6 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 4-6 p.m. on Friday. Stream it live or access the show podcast on 590thefan.com or through the 590 The Fan St. Louis app.

Please follow Bernie on X (formerly Twitter) @miklasz. And he would appreciate your follow on Threads @miklaszb

All stats used in this column were sourced from Sports Info Solutions, Sports Reference and CFBstats.com

 

Bernie Miklasz

Bernie Miklasz

For the last 35 years Bernie Miklasz has entertained, enlightened, and connected with generations of St. Louis sports fans.

While best known for his voice as the lead sports columnist at the Post-Dispatch for 26 years, Bernie has also written for The Athletic, Dallas Morning News and Baltimore News American. Bernie has hosted radio shows in St. Louis, Dallas, Baltimore and Washington D.C.

Bernie, his wife Kirsten and their cats reside in the Skinker-DeBaliviere neighborhood of St. Louis.