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Alabama vs Missouri Preview: When the Tigers have the Ball

Can a plucky former App State head coach and a brand new QB get Missouri out of their offensive funk from last season?

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: DEC 31 Liberty Bowl - Missouri v Oklahoma State Photo by David Flowers/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

It’s been a long time coming.

Today is officially our first opponent preview of the 2020 football season at Roll Bama Roll. T-3 days until kickoff. It’s actually here (assuming Giant Meteor 2020 doesn’t show up before Saturday).

The Missouri Tigers kick off what will be a 10-game gauntlet of SEC matchups for the Tide that will absolutely test a rebuilt defense without a single FCS cupcake to scrimmage and work out the kinks.

Offensively, the Tigers were an absolute mess in 2019. They started the season quite well with Clemson grad transfer Kelly Bryant at QB, but the wheels fell off halfway through, and they averaged less than 10 points per game in 5 straight losses before winning the final game against an absolutely putrid Arkansas team. It was a bad enough end that head coach Barry Odom got the can, and they went out and hired the young, energetic Eliah Drinkwitz from Appalachian State.

Drinkwitz has spent much of his career coaching with Gus Malzahn— In high school as early as 2004, with the 2010 Cam Newton team, and even at Arkansas State when Malzahn became the head coach there.

He made the jump from small school coordinator to Boise State’s offensive coordinator in 2014, then made it to a P5 school in NC State in 2016. He then landed his first head coaching gig at Appalachian State last season, where he immediately went 12-1 and won the Sun Belt Conference.

Looking at some of the advanced stats from 2019, Missouri was in the 80th to 110th range in pretty much every category. It was really, really bad. However, the Tigers are field an almost totally new offense and new scheme, so it would be folly to take anything from their 2019 performance. Instead, here’s what Drinkwitz’s offense did at App State:

The Mountaineers were only held below 30 points three times— two of which were to South Carolina and Louisiana Lafayette, the two best teams on their schedule. Their passing game was a top-20 attack in success rate, but was fairly limited in terms of explosive passes. Juxtaposed with that was a boom-or-bust rushing attack that struggled with consistent success, but was extremely explosive.

Notably, though, was just how well they kept drives moving. They were top-5 in the nation at getting into the opponent’s side of the field, and then turned that into the 7th ranked redzone TD% in the country. They were a top 20 unit in third down conversions, and led the entire country with a ridiculous 80% conversion rate on 4th downs.

Drinkwitz’s offense chewed kept the chains moving, kept on going, and just kept scoring. Despite all of his time with Malzahn, though, the offenses aren’t very similar. Drinkwitz runs something I would consider akin to an early 2000’s west coast offense adapted into modern spread concepts. The running game is predicated around zone runs between the guard and tackle with the running back looking for a single cut and go, while the passing game sticks primarily with short timing routes and QB rollouts. He had a highly mobile QB and wasn’t afraid to use read options and scrambles, but it wasn’t the centerpoint of the offense.

And that brings us to the 2020 Missouri offense. Senior running back Larry Roundtree is the lone returning bright spot. Roundree has nearly 3000 yards in his three years in Columbia, including a monstrous 1200-yard campaign as a sophomore. Alabama fans will find his style eerily similar to former Tide back Josh Jacobs. He’s short, stout, powerful in short yardage, and amazingly elusive in the open field, but does lack some top-end speed.

Past that, though, this is a brand new offensive squad. The offensive line features a JUCO transfer at left tackle, a grad transfer from Rutgers at center. Slot receiver Jalen Knox had 19 catches for 300 yards last year, but the two outside receivers are monstrous grad transfers. Damon Hazelton is a 6’3” 215 pound multi-year All-ACC selection from Virginia Tech who has nearly 2000 receiving yards in his career, while the 6’4” Keke Chism comes from the D2 ranks of Angelo State, where he’s put up nearly 1000 yards in back-to-back years and was an All-Conference selection.

Tight end Daniel Parker, Jr. was an SEC All-Freshman player in 2018 after he switched from defensive end as one of the Tiger’s highest rated recruits to play tight end, and is a phenomenal blocker. He’s a consistent, if not super threatening, receiving target as well.

Then there’s the QB. With Kelly Bryant moving on, the Tigers have listed two guys with our favorite “Or” designation as the starter. Connor Bazelak was a fringe top-200 recruit in 2019 out of a wishbone offense who quickly earned a role as a back up to Bryant. He actually came into the game against Georgia and played well for a drive, and wound up starting the final game of the season. Unfortunately, that start cost him a torn ACL.

By all accounts, he’s ready to go. But just how much would a November ACL tear affect a mobile QB 9 months later?

Then there’s TCU transfer Shawn Robinson, who started 7 games for the Horned Frogs back in 2018 before injuring his shoulder and getting passed up on the depth chart. He’s big, blazing fast, has a cannon for an arm, and has shown good patience in the pocket. Basically, he oozes potential that’s been on the bench due to injury and subsequent transfer rules since mid 2018. Most expect him to be the starter over Bazelak, but we won’t know until game time.

The duo of grad transfer receivers will be a tall test for Alabama cornerback Josh Jobe and the brand new safety duo of Daniel Wright and Jordan Battle. They’re big, and you can expect a lot of slant passes to them using their size to box out defenders. Can the new Tide secondary secure their tackles better than they did in 2019?

At the same time, Roundtree and either dual-threat QB will put some significant stress on the Alabama linebackers— particularly the unproven mix of outside linebackers in Chris Allen, Ben Davis, and freshman Will Anderson.

The Tigers will likely attempt to attack the Tide with a sort of inverse of the offensive strategy we tend to see most teams go with: they’ll use the short passing game to keep drives moving while mixing in zone runs and QB keepers as shots to break big plays into the open field.

I think the new system and lack of experience will keep them from sustaining drives as much as they’d like, though, particularly with the fact that I think cornerbacks Pat Surtain and Josh Jobe have the size to really clamp down on those quick passes. Their QB and Roundtree will both break off a couple of big runs each around the edges and may lead to some points and groans from Alabama fans, but ultimately the Tigers are unable to sustain enough success to be a real threat.

Lets go with 17 points for the Missouri offense.