Mizzou football had more highs than lows during the 2021 calendar year. Let’s count down the top five highlights from the year that was.
What a year it was, friends. As Mizzou fans, we saw a bit of everything ranging from coaching changes to big wins, frustrating losses and a historically ranked recruiting class. There are a million different words to describe what it’s like to be a Mizzou fan. “Uneventful” is not among them.
Being the holiday season, we decided to cut out the negatives and focus on the positives. What would you consider to be the five highlights from Mizzou football this year? Feel free to list your suggestions in the comments, but here’s the list we came up with.
5) Steve Wilks is hired as the defensive coordinator & Al Davis revives the defensive line
Mizzou officially announced the hiring of Steve Wilks as the Tigers’ next defensive coordinator back on January 21st. At the time, I thought it was an inspired, outside-the-box decision that came with inherent risk. Wilks hadn’t coached college football in 15 years, but he came bearing unquestioned credentials as a former top-end defensive coordinator in the NFL. Could he translate his defense for college kids? Would he be able to recruit after being out of the game for so long? These were open-ended questions which wouldn’t come with quick answers.
After a year, it’s become clear there was a learning curve for the defensive players early in the season. So much so that the turnaround didn’t come until after Eli Drinkwitz had to fire one of Wilks’ assistants in defensive line coach Jethro Franklin. Franklin’s replacement, Al Davis, has been credited as helping bring things along midway through the season.
Franklin was fired on October 3rd, the day after the Tigers allowed more than 450 rushing yards in a historic 62-24 loss at home against Tennessee. At the time, the Tigers had allowed an average of 309 rushing yards per game in the first five games of the season. They were 2-3 with a defense that couldn’t get out of its own way.
Things didn’t get better immediately. North Texas ran for more than 185 yards. Texas A&M and Vanderbilt posted a combined 540 yards on the ground. Then, something changed. I don’t know what it was, specifically. Maybe the coaching staff had a better handle on how to deploy the talent at their disposal. Maybe Davis was able to get through to the defensive line in a way Franklin never was. Whatever the reason, the run defense improved in the final month of the season.
After allowing an average of 284 rushing yards per game through the first eight games of the season, the Tigers allowed just 138 yards on the ground in their final five contests. It wasn’t just volume, either. The Tigers’ efficiency against the run, as one might expect, also improved from 6.3 yards allowed per carry in the first eight games of the season to a meager 3.6 yards per carry in the final five games of the season.
To put that in context, kansas had the worst power five run defense in the country this season at 6.2 yards per carry allowed. Kansas State was 32nd nationally allowing 3.6 yards per carry for the season. The Tigers essentially went from the worst power five run defense in the country to a legitimate top 35 run defense seemingly overnight. I’ll never truly understand how it happened, but I’m just glad it did.
Mizzou fans were fully prepared to send Wilks out the door after the first two months of the season. The final month-plus provided more than enough support for him to get (at least) another year in Columbia.
4) The Tigers clean up in the spring transfer portal
The transfer portal was like the wild west throughout the offseason. It was a confluence of events in which every player was granted an extra year of eligibility due to COVID-19, players were expected to be granted immediate eligibility upon transferring and players were finally eligible to profit off of their name, image and likeness beginning in 2021.
Combining such elements resulted in quite the offseason for coaches and players alike. More than 1,000 players entered the transfer portal. There were four significant additions for the Tigers.
The top “athlete” in the country in the 2020 recruiting class, Mookie Cooper, decided to come back home to play for Mizzou after one season at Ohio State. A former All Conference-USA linebacker, Blaze Alldredge, committed to the Tigers. Two potential NFL cornerbacks in Akayleb Evans and Allie Green IV both decided to follow their former secondary coach at Tulsa, Aaron Fletcher, to Mizzou.
The Tigers added some big-time transfers through the portal. The results on the field were, well, mixed.
Alldredge got off to a tough start at Mizzou, but by the end of the season he was one of the best defensive players on the field. In so many ways, his play mirrored the play of the defense as a whole.
Evans wasn’t even a starter for the first game of the season (I’ll never understand that decision), but he ended up being a consistent performer throughout the meat of the schedule before opting out to prepare for the NFL toward the end of the season.
Cooper just never looked fully healthy. He injured his foot in fall camp and it seemed to bother him throughout the season. Fortunately for Mizzou, Cooper was just a freshman and still has multiple years of eligibility to develop into the player many believed he could be at the college level.
I think it’s fair to say the biggest “disappointment” of the bunch was Green, but even he had his moments this season. It might not have been the same level of play as he put on tape at Tulsa, but Green was a legitimate SEC caliber starting defensive back this season. Without him, and given the Tigers’ injuries in the secondary, things could have gotten bad quick. He was more than worth adding via the transfer portal.
Drinkwitz sought to replace quantity with quality through the transfer portal in 2021. I think it’s fair to say he accomplished his goal.
3) Mizzou beats Florida in overtime
The game itself provided all of us with the image of the season: Eli Drinkwitz standing at the podium postgame with his hood on and a light saber by his side.
Eli Drinkwitz doesn’t forget!
Mizzou coach dropped this after beating Dan Mullen’s Florida team in OT:
“May the force be with you” pic.twitter.com/SHN3DOMJ5L
— SEC Mike (@MichaelWBratton) November 21, 2021
This was a recall, of course, to Dan Mullen’s ridiculous postgame press conference costume a year ago after Florida beat Mizzou on Halloween night.
Dan Mullen showed up to the postgame press conference dressed as Darth Vader pic.twitter.com/ZCs567IOjJ
— SEC Network (@SECNetwork) November 1, 2020
Things went a bit differently for Mullen in 2021. The Tigers put together one of their most impressive defensive performances of the season, holding Florida to just 2.4 yards per carry. Mullen got hyper-conservative with his in-game decision making and Tyler Badie was enough to carry Mizzou to overtime.
That’s when things got interesting. Florida scored a touchdown on just four plays. The Tigers got the ball and had to answer. Two Tyler Badie carries later and they were in the end zone. Decision time. Go for two and potentially win it there, or kick the extra point and push the game to a second overtime? Drinkwitz got aggressive. He had the play call. Connor Bazelak made the biggest play of the night when it mattered most, a throwback to Daniel Parker Jr. who stood in the end zone by himself. The 2-point try was good. Tigers win!
It was, inarguably, the best win of the season. Florida wasn’t a great team this year, but the Gators (and maybe more specifically, Dan Mullen) had their backs against the wall and played an inspired football game. In our heart of hearts, I think all of us knew that was the Tigers’ last chance to get to six wins.
Mizzou accomplished its two goals in that game: Get to bowl eligibility and get Dan Mullen fired.
Ahh, what a night. The win of the season, no doubt about it.
2) Tyler Badie breaks Mizzou’s single-season rushing record
There’s nothing I can say that you don’t already know. Badie was sensational this season. He was everything we all knew he could be, and also everything nobody thought he could be. We all knew he was a dynamic player. We all knew he could produce in a larger role. But how much would be too much? Could he really carry the load?
We didn’t know. He did. But we didn’t.
The answer is there is no load too big for Badie. He can carry the world on his shoulders, and then some. Badie finished the season with 268 carries, an average of 22 carries per game. It was the most carries by a Mizzou football player in a single season since Devin West finished with 283 carries back in 1998. I think that’s what impresses me most about Badie’s 2021 season. His biggest question became the single greatest asset he brought to the table: He was always ready for the next carry.
He ran right into the record books. Badie began the final game of the season needing nearly 200 rushing yards to break Devin West’s single-season rushing record set back in 1998. He did exactly that, running the ball 41 times for 219 yards and a touchdown against Arkansas’ defense.
There are certain individual performances you’ll forever remember as a Mizzou fan. I’m thinking of seasons such as Brad Smith in 2005, Sean Weatherspoon in 2008, Danario Alexander in 2009, Shane Ray in 2014 and Kentrell Brothers in 2015. You can go ahead and add Badie’s 2021 season to that list. I’m not sure where it ranks. Maybe it’s at the top for you. Maybe it’s barely in the top five individual seasons you’ve seen by a Mizzou player. Wherever it ranks, it’s in the team picture for the best we’ve seen.
It was an absolute pleasure to watch Badie in a Mizzou uniform. I can’t wait to see what he does at his next stop in the NFL.
1) Luther Burden commits to Mizzou
Luther Burden is the real deal, ladies and gentlemen. And Eli Drinkwitz landing him was the single biggest story of the 2021 season. I know, it’s strange to have a recruiting victory overshadow the actual on-field performance, but thus is life with the current state of the program. This season was about setting up the future, and Drinkwitz did exactly that by landing one of the best players in the country.
Burden had his pick of any program he wanted to play for. Alabama, Oklahoma and Georgia would have loved to land a talent like this. Instead, he chose to stay home and create his own path. He decided to create something special instead of join something ready-made.
This is the kind of recruiting victory Drinkwitz will need now and in the future if he’s going to take this program to the heights he believes it can reach. Burden is on the level with guys like Sheldon Richardson and Dorial Green-Beckham. It’s as big a recruiting coup as we’ve seen by the Tigers since recruiting services first began tracking such things 20 years ago.
Burden is the type of player who can come in and change things immediately. He’ll be the starting punt returner and wide receiver from the moment he walks on campus. He’ll immediately be the Tigers’ most dynamic weapon offensively.
In my opinion, the biggest story of the year was a story which says more about the future of this program than the present. I think that’s pretty fitting, don’t you?
There you have it. Those are my top five Mizzou football storylines from the 2021 calendar year. What would make your list? Let us know in the comments below!