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We learned it's Eliah and not Eli.
The second-year head coach at Missouri has plenty of momentum after going .500 in SEC play last season with 16 total starters returning to Columbia. Eliah Drinkwitz seems confident and comfortable as he cracked jokes and gave some calculated answers at SEC Media Days.
Missouri may have one of the least talented rosters in the SEC, but the Tigers are well-coached and have a track to an 8-4 record and potential top 25 finish this season if things break right. Drinkwitz has this program trending in the right direction.
Conference realignment is all the buzz as rumors are circulating that Missouri could have long-time rival Oklahoma joining the conference as well as former Big 12 member Texas. Drinkwitz did not back away from this talk and believes that things won't change for Missouri. The Tigers will always have obstacles while being a full-time football member in the SEC.
"I've been trying to tell people everybody wants to play in the SEC, man," Drinkwitz told reporters on Thursday morning. "If you can attract a couple of really good schools to come play, that's great. I immediately called my athletic director in Jim [Sterk] and told him that if the commissioner changes and adds two games to our schedule, I think we all understand that Mark Womack is going to put both Texas and OU on Mizzou's schedule moving forward. So we're ready for any challenge that is thrown at us.
Part of the reason the Tigers have some much optimism is because of the amount of returning personnel. Tyler Badie is a playmaker out of the running back position. Case Cook and Michael Maietti are both potential all-conference players on the offensive line. Ohio State wide receiver transfer Mookie Cooper was a big land in the portal. Trajan Jeffcoat was an All-SEC performer at defensive end last year. Ennis Rakestraw has a bright future at cornerback. The head coach is excited about his team.
"We return eight starters on defense," said Drinkwitz. "We return eight starters on the offensive side of the ball and four specialists. We got an opportunity to have a really strong line of scrimmage, which is one thing that we learned last year was needed in order to be successful in this league, and really look forward to returning an all-SEC player at the defensive end position with Trajan Jeffcoat. We were able to bring guys back with the COVID year. So really the defensive line should be a strength for us on the defensive side of the ball.
One of the biggest developments from last season was the emergence of young quarterback Connor Bazelak. The Ohio native will enter his third year on campus as one of the most proven passers in the SEC. If he's good, the Tigers could be a very tough draw for everyone on their schedule. However, improvements are needed.
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"I thought last year he really played within himself," Drinkwitz said about his young quarterback. "He's a maverick. He went out there and went into really difficult situations and gave him an opportunity to play the game. Obviously, there's areas he needs to improve on, deep ball accuracy, red zone completion percentage, and touchdowns.
Climbing the ladder
On Tuesday, Kentucky talked about winning the SEC East and going to Atlanta for the SEC Championship Game. Missouri has the same goal. Drinkwitz did not shy away from the program's ultimate aspirations. The Tigers are chasing Georgia and Florida.
"So we are continually chasing that close-the-gap mentality," Drinwitz said. "How do we close the gap amongst the upper echelon teams of the SEC? It's going to be a process. It's not something that just happens overnight. I've got to remind our fan base that Coach Smart and Coach Mullen have years of experience at their school, and we're trying to close that gap in a hurry, but we're not going to do it overnight.
The new coaches that come into the SEC learn a lesson very quickly. Shane Beamer, Josh Heupel, and Drinkwitz all commented on just how different the line of scrimmage is in the conference. To win games in the league, teams must be able to hang at the point of attack. This is where it all starts in the Southeastern Conference.
Mark Stoops is now in year nine in Lexington and has accumulated a 37-26 record with a 20-22 record in the SEC over the last five years. The 54-year-old has earned a ton of respect around the league as the former Florida State defensive coordinator but a ton of that success was contributed to the Wildcats consistently beating division opponent Missouri. Drinkwitz mentioned beating Kentucky last year as a big accomplishment multiple times for his program during Thursday's Q&A. However, the former App State head coach understands the importance of this series moving forward.
"Whole lot of respect for Coach Stoops and the job that he's done at Kentucky," said Drinkwitz. "Probably the most consistent coach in our league outside of Coach Saban. Just have a lot of respect for who he is and how he runs his program."
"Absolutely going to be a tremendous challenge on the road. First time going to face that kind of crowd, week two of the season, going to be a lot of unknowns."
For Kentucky to keep climbing the ladder in the SEC, the program has to continually beat Missouri on the field. The week two matchup at Kroger Field looms large for both programs. There is no hiding from the impact that game will have as the conference opener for both clubs.