Missouri has one more showcase before 2022 prep begins. Eli Drinkwitz should use it as an opportunity to see what he has in the QB room.
Bowl selection Sunday is always a fun time to be online, if only because of the polarizing nature of the takes you get to witness.
While not as familiar and momentous as college basketball’s selection Sunday, there does seem to be growing interest in college football bowl selection ever since the College Football Playoff came into being. Fans are more aware of bowl formats in regards to conference, how many slots each league has, which programs are more likely to get cushy spots, etc. And with that growing familiarity seems to have sprung two distinct schools of bowl philosophy.
The first can be summed up succinctly as, “who cares?” Bowl games are, after all, glorified exhibitions where players are given goodie bags, schools pocket a little extra cash and schools get to claim unofficial bragging rights over another program whom they likely won’t meet for another three decades. They don’t play any meaningful role in your season, especially when star players decline to participate in order to prepare for the NFL Draft. The only bowl games that matter, in reality, are CFP and New Year’s Six Bowls. Everything else is gravy.
The second serves as a direct answer to the first: “I care!” You have to acknowledge that bowls, shaggy replicas of a regular season game though they may be, do have an affect on your program. They alter your final record (7-6 somehow feels a lot better than 6-7) they allow for some extra team practices and they can improve fan (and recruit) perception into the winter months. You can argue these things are especially true for young teams like Missouri, teams looking to put a shiny button on an otherwise middling season.
Personally, I don’t find either of these schools too convincing and opt to live somewhere in the gray. While bowls don’t offer a stable control group in which to measure performance, it’s easy to see from the Barry Odom years how a bowl win (and especially a loss) can change the way a team is perceived by the wider college football landscape. Plus, you know, winning games is better than losing them.
If you had to guess which camp Eli Drinkwitz falls into, it would be safe to assume he (like many fans) cares deeply about winning these glorified exhibitions. The words, “best chance to win,” are a staple of the Drinkwitz lexicon, and as one astute journalist noted in yesterday’s presser, Drinkwitz has never lost a bowl game in his college career.
However, the coach does seem to have a more nuanced understanding of how his team should prepare for their date with Army on December 22. The most telling moment came when he announced that the starting quarterback role, long held by the much-maligned Connor Bazelak, would be, “100% open,” during pre-bowl practices.
Whether or not Drinkwitz truly means this is something to consider. After all, the position was up for grabs during Missouri’s bye week this season and Bazelak continued to start despite a startling second half regression. If Drinkwitz truly believes that Bazelak gives the Tigers the best chance to win, he’ll play on December 22.
Yet it stands to reason that, despite the admirable transparency Drinkwitz seems to be showing, an “open competition” may not be the best thing for the program. In fact, a decidedly closed competition — one that prioritizes first team reps for Brady Cook and/or Tyler Macon — would put the Tigers on firmer footing heading into spring camp.
Consider, for a moment, Missouri’s QB production in a vacuum over the last month of the season. Since returning from injury, Bazelak is averaging 136.7 yards per game with one touchdown and one interception per. His completion percentage stands at 53.8, just under a 15 point drop of his pre-injury number of 68.6.
Already not known as a particularly explosive passer, Bazelak’s trademark efficiency melted away over the final three weeks, a handful of explosive plays propping up what would otherwise be shocking numbers. The timing of his return from injury may signal some context affecting his performance, but you don’t get extra credit for toughing it out.
If Bazelak is indeed nursing an injury and Drinkwitz sees him as a viable option for 2022, the easy choice should be to sit him against Army. What good are you doing for him or the team if he’s playing through an injury in an exhibition game? Allow him to heal and prepare for spring.
Yet if Bazelak’s dip signals something else, something more akin to struggles of confidence or a lack of growth as a player, then the choice should be no less simple. What’s the difference in Bazelak overseeing a fitful, difficult win over Army and Cook or Macon leading the charge in a close loss? The naysayers will be naysayers either way, and the latter allows you to placate those calling for a change over the course of the past two months.
There’s also the added wrinkle that Tyler Badie appears to be on track to play in Armed Forces Bowl. Cost-benefit analysis aside, this is a major boost for the Tiger offense, whose success has been carried on Badie’s frame for the vast majority of 2021. It was Badie, not whoever started behind center, that led the charge to bowl eligibility. In some ways, the decision to choose a QB boils down to who has the privilege of handing the ball off. Whatever upside Bazelak adds seems to be negligible at this point, and Drinkwitz should feel secure in his offense knowing that the main driver of success will suit up once again… regardless of who handles the snaps.
In the end, however, Eli Drinkwitz’s specific bowl philosophy is what will likely determine his choice of QB. You’d be hard-pressed to argue that Drinkwitz doesn’t care about the bowl. After all, the less-than-ideal placement could have been rejected if Drink thought his time would be better spent elsewhere. He likely recognizes the importance of going above .500 in his second season, even if the percentage represents nothing more than a technicality.
But it’s easy to see how Drinkwitz’s regime might be better served in year three with the benefit of a little roster perspective. For two full seasons of meaningful games, Drinkwitz has put the program in Connor Bazelak’s hands. We’ve seen some good and we’ve seen some bad, enough of the latter to release his hold on the starting spot. That’s not meaningless ahead of Mizzou’s first bowl game since 2018.
If he wants to get a head start on what’s sure to be a contentious QB battle, Drinkwitz should be using this extra game as more than an opportunity to pick up a lesser trophy. Start thinking ahead for 2022, a year that will mean far more to Missouri fans than a late December date in Dallas.