I haven’t looked forward to the start of a Mizzou football season with this level of curiosity and excitement since 2014. That was the follow-up year to Mizzou’s remarkable 12-2 season in 2013 that led to their surprising capture of the SEC East title.

Would the Tigers come back and do it again? Or were they a fluke in 2013? Gary Pinkel’s team won the East again in 2014, going 11-3. It was the beloved coach’s last hurrah at Missouri, with Pinkel retiring after a sad 2015 season to confront a serious health issue, non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

MU went 5-7 in Pinkel’s final year, then settled into four seasons of mediocrity — a 25-25 record — under the hopelessly dull head coach Barry Odom. At least the Tigers had quarterback Drew Lock in place to provide entertainment by slinging for 12,000 yards and 99 touchdown passes.

Eli Drinkwitz was an intriguing and vibrant choice to take over Mizzou’s nondescript program. He did a helluva job in 2020, guiding the Tigers through a pandemic and an all-SEC schedule that produced a 5-5 record.

A .500 record isn’t the goal, but sometimes a .500 record is better than it seems. And this was an admirable first voyage for a young first-year leader who faced the challenge of coaching a new team, coalescing with his assistance, and installing his offense without the benefit of normal offseason preparation. Drinkwitz had to get to know his players from a safe distance. He had to recruit on Zoom.

None of this was easy, but Drink got the Tigers off to a 5-3 start before injuries caused a defensive collapse and lopsided losses to Georgia and Mississippi State. They were good enough to finish third in the East.

And now? Drinkwitz has utilized a full allotment of time and the freedom to coach and recruit without being slowed by serious chaos. He’s a recruiting maniac who mended Mizzou’s relationships in St. Louis and Kansas City while landing a Top 15 class for 2021.

Drinkwitz has revised his coaching staff with the biggest change coming at defensive coordinator where NFL coaching veteran Steve Wilks takes over.

Drinkwitz has an experienced quarterback, Connor Bazelak, who should be more comfortable and confident this season. Under the circumstances last year — the newness of it all, including playing time — the QB was decent last year.

If Drinkwitz can squeeze five wins out of a turmoil-filled season and the acclimation process from hell and put together a better record than Kentucky’s Mark Stoops, and win as many games as Ed Orgeron (LSU) Lane Kiffin (Ole Miss) and Mike Leach (Mississippi State) — then what will see in 2021?

Don’t know. But it should be fun. And rarely if ever dull. The media-savvy coach understands the cult of personality in College Football Inc. He puts himself out there, performs with the skill of an entertainer that can win over the biggest of rooms. He projects an aura of confidence. He engages in clever mischief. He’ll appear on the Paul Finebaum Show to sell MU football — and leaves “Paw” astonished by his energy, humor, and outspoken nature.

This is what Mizzou needed.

A super salesman.

A brash guy who doesn’t know his place.

Who does he think he is? Well, he thinks he’s something special and he has big plans for the program. He won’t fit into the low-or-moderate expectations that keep Mizzou football from achieving greatness. You can’t become great unless you truly believe it’s possible to be great — and you have the guts and the belief to go for it.

All of these things — and Drink’s attitude — are positive for Mizzou. Necessary for Mizzou. Overdue for Mizzou.

You want to watch him, listen to him, and see what he’ll do next. Eli Drinkwitz is a good time. But he’s also a good coach. A creative and bold coach. He aims to win, aims to entertain, aims to please, aims to lift Mizzou to a higher spot in the CFB hierarchy.

If Missouri fans don’t turn out in strong numbers this season, it will give Drinkwitz a reason to wonder if it’s possible to make Mizzou something powerful and lasting instead of continuing to exist in comfortable mediocrity while sucking up their share of SEC revenue.

I chuckle at the questions that go along these lines: “Do you think Mizzou can keep Drinkwitz?”

Two answers:

1–Well, as much as I like him (a lot) he still has a lot to prove. I don’t think Alabama has called him yet.

2–If you want to keep him, you can start by filling the stadium every Saturday. After all of these expensive stadium projects, enhancements, new-facility construction, fundraising initiatives, improved branding and a hotshot coach … if MU’s home attendance lags in 2021, then maybe Kevin Costner can come up with a new phrase: Build It And They WON’T come.

Expectations for this year: The schedule is doable. A winning season and bowl game should be automatic. Holding onto third place in the SEC East is a reasonable request, even though Stoops has enlivened Kentucky’s offense by hiring a new coordinator who comes to Lexington from the LA Rams and Sean McVay’s staff. We would like to see an upset of one of the big shooters on the schedule, be it Florida, Georgia orTexas A&M. And we don’t want Mizzou to lollygag their way to a loss against any team in this group: Tennessee, Vanderbilt, South Carolina, Arkansas. With the inexperienced Bazelak stepping in as a first-time starter, Drinkwitz was wise to play it safe offensively, and Mizzou passed for only nine touchdowns, seven by Bazelak. But the passing attack should open up in 2021. That’s essential.

Like it, like it, like it: A lot of things about this team are likeable. But I’m especially feeling groovy about the defensive line, and offensive line. Most of all, I like the idea of knowing that we’re going to see the Full On Drinkwitz Offense that will feature no shortage of brilliant craziness.

Concerns: I’m tempted to say “receivers” but there’s considerable upside in this group. I don’t know about the running game. Is there a true power back? That question will be answered soon enough. I have some anxiety over Wilks — a fine coach and a good man with a wealth of NFL experience. But Wilks hasn’t coached in college ball since Larry Walker played right field for the St. Louis Cardinals. And his defense — though admirably ambitious — could cause confusion among the lads. I hope I’m wrong.

Schedule: Let’s take a look at the ’21 slate, shall we?

Sept. 4 — Central Michigan
Sept. 11 — at Kentucky
Sept. 18 — SE Missouri State
Sept. 25 — at Boston College
Oct. 2 –Tennessee
Oct. 9 — North Texas
Oct. 16 — Texas A&M
Oct. 23 OPEN
Oct. 30 — at Vanderbilt
Nov. 6 — at Georgia
Nov. 13 — South Carolina
Nov. 20 — Florida
Nov. 27 Arkansas (in Little Rock)

Teams from the SEC West can go a long way in determining the fate of teams in the SEC East. Fortunately for Mizzou, they won’t have to wrestle with Alabama, improved LSU or Auburn from the West. The Mizzou secondary won’t have to deal with Lane Kiffin’s Ole Miss passing offense. But MU did draw Texas A&M; at least it’s a home game. There’s a good possibility of a fast start, but road games at Kentucky (Sept. 11) and Boston College (Sept. 25) won’t be easy. Georgia and Florida are on the slate in November. And the game against Arkansas in Little Rock will be a brawl.

Best of Times: I’d like to say ‘9-3’ but that would be greedy. But if the Tigers can defeat Boston College and Kentucky on the road, and snatch a home win against Florida, and avoid being upset in any of the games against underdogs — well, that’s one pathway to nine victories. There are others, but you don’t want me to bore you with them.

Worst of Times: 5-7: lose to Kentucky and BC, plus Texas A&M, Georgia and Florida. That’s five losses right there. Arkansas will play tough against Mizzou. That could be a sixth loss. And toss in another loss against one of these opponents — South Carolina, Tennessee or Vandy — and you’re looking at 5-7.

Prediction: 8-4. The games against Kentucky and Boston College are tipping points. I think 7-5 is entirely possible. That would be disappointing but wouldn’t slow the overall trajectory of the Drinkwitz program.

Thanks for reading …


Bernie invites you to listen to his opinionated sports-talk show on 590-AM The Fan, KFNS. It airs Monday through Thursday from 3-6 p.m. and Friday from 4-6 p.m. You can listen by streaming online or by downloading the “Bernie Show” podcast at 590thefan.com — the 590 app works great and is available in your preferred app store.

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* All stats used here are sourced from FanGraphs, Baseball Reference, Stathead, Bill James Online, Fielding Bible, Baseball Savant and Brooks Baseball Net unless otherwise noted.