PowerMizzou - Commentary: Drinwitz starts with a splash
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Commentary: Drinwitz starts with a splash

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For years, I've been the skeptic on Mizzou recruiting. As the message board is flooded with talk of ace recruiters and coffee being denied to Mizzou coaches and salesmen posting their analogies between their job on the used car lot and the head coach's job at Mizzou, I've simply said this: A salesman is only as good as the product he's selling.

Eli Drinkwitz is making me rethink that position.

Today opens the three-day early signing period for the Class of 2021. Missouri currently has 21 players on its commitment list, plus Oklahoma transfer E.J. Ndoma-Ogar on the offensive line. Ndoma-Ogar doesn't count toward the Tigers' team ranking, but the rest do and as I write this column, it stands at No. 20.

That's uncharted territory for Mizzou.

Rivals.com has records going back to the Class of 2002. That's two full decades of data now. Missouri has never finished higher than 21. It has cracked the top 25 twice. Mizzou's average recruiting ranking in the Rivals era has been 36.5. It has had more classes ranked 40 or worse (seven) than it has had in the top 30 (six).

You can argue all day what rankings mean. I'll say a few things on that and get them out of the way:

*On an individual basis, rankings mean nothing. We miss individual kids all the time. On a larger scale, they're usually pretty accurate. The teams ranked the highest on signing day are usually among the better teams in the country. The teams ranked the lowest tend not to be very good.

*There are exceptions to every rule. Gary Pinkel was an exception. His average recruiting ranking was 34.5. In other words, he recruited a little bit better than Barry Odom did. But it wasn't by much. Odom's four years dropped the average recruiting ranking by a grand total of two spots, done in mostly by his 2020 class (during which Drinkwitz was hired a week before the early signing period) which was ranked 54th. Doing what Gary Pinkel did is not a blueprint for success because almost nobody does what Gary Pinkel did. He took the players other schools didn't want that recruiting services didn't think were all that good and turned them into teams that won two Big 12 North titles, two SEC East titles and were within a half of playing for the national championship one time in each conference. It was an absolutely phenomenal achievement by a coach who is criminally underrated by most people in college football and most Missouri fans themselves. But it's not something very many people are going to be able to replicate.

So we can start with the assumption that to produce better results on the field, Missouri is in all likelihood going to have to produce better results on the field, right? Let's look at those two classes which were Missouri's most highly regarded.

The first one happened in 2008, coming off Missouri's 2007 season, the best in school history (at least to that point, you can argue 2013 was as good or better). It included five-star quarterback Blaine Gabbert, along with four-stars Andrew Jones and Dan Hoch. Gabbert was Missouri's starter for two seasons and went 18-8, including a tie for the Big 12 North championship in 2010, which Missouri lost on a tie-breaker to Nebraska. The Tigers also beat top-ranked Oklahoma that season, one of the biggest wins of Pinkel's career. Among the three-star standouts in that class were Jacquies and Aldon Smith, and Zaviar Gooden, all of whom were NFL Draft picks. And then there were Pinkel two-star specials Michael Egnew and Jerrell Jackson.

The highest ranked class of Pinkel's career was the 2010 group. It was ranked 21st. It included a record seven four-star propsects, four of whom (James Franklin, Kony Ealy, Marcus Lucas, Jimmie Hunt) who went on to be productive starters for the Tigers and key players on the 2013 SEC East title team that ran out of gas in the second half against Auburn. Mitch Morse, EJ Gaines and Marcus Murphy all played in the NFL and we haven't even mentioned solid (or better) starters like Lucas Vincent, Bud Sasser and Henry Josey.

So, sure, you can find exceptions (the 2006 class that was ridiculously underrated at 47th with Danario Alexander, Jeremy Maclin, Sean Weatherspoon, Tim Barnes, and Pig Brown, with Maclin as the only-four star comes to mind; that might have been Pinkel's best class in the end) but they are exceptions. It would be tough to replicate a class with so many underrated individuals in a single signing class anywhere in the country. The point is, the better your class, the more likely it is to end up in good things on the field. Especially if you hit on the quarterback.

To test this theory, I ran some numbers. Here are the four-year recruiting averages of the class along with the record for the season. To figure this, the 2002-05 classes are the 2005 season.

Table Name
Season Record Recruiting Classes Average Ranking

2005

7-5

2002-05

29

2006

8-5

2003-06

35.75

2007

12-2

2004-07

35

2008

10-4

2005-08

36

2009

8-5

2006-09

36.25

2010

10-3

2007-10

29.75

2011

8-5

2008-11

33.5

2012

5-7

2009-12

35

2013

12-2

2010-13

35.25

2014

11-3

2011-14

38.75

2015

5-7

2012-15

33.25

2016

4-8

2013-16

37.25

2017

7-6

2014-17

36.75

2018

8-5

2015-18

40.5

2019

6-6

2016-19

42.25

2020

5-4

2017-20

44

What can we draw from this? Mostly that we don't know if better recruiting is going to lead to better results because Missouri has never really had substantially better recruiting. The two years that included both of Pinkel's best classes were 2010 and 2011. They were the two most talented rosters, by this measurement, Pinkel had. Those were the Gabbert years that ended with an 18-8 record. Good, not as good as some of the others.

The 2007-08 teams included not only that 2006 recruiting class, but a three-star quarterback named Chase Daniel. The main takeaway from those years was that Rivals missed almost universally on Missouri recruiting.

The last three years were, again using just this one measurement, the least talent Missouri had had on the team. They've gone 19-15. Not good, but not dreadful either.

This metric also doesn't account for things like coaching changes, conference changes, transfers in and out, and plenty else. It's not perfect. It's probably less perfect with Missouri because of what we stated about Pinkel above. He just did it in a way not many people have been able to do it (see the 2014 team which was, on paper, the least talented one he ever coached at Mizzou--and let's be honest, it's still pretty incredible that team made an SEC title game). But still, the general trend shows the talent in the program has slipped almost annually since 2013. The product on the field in those seasons would back that up.

There's one other thing I wanted to look at here: The new coach bump. It's this mythical thing in recruiting, but does it exist? At Missouri, the first two times, it really hasn't. There were reasons for that.

In 2000, when Pinkel took over, he walked into a program that had made only two bowl games in the last 17 years and he took over for a coach who had let recruiting fall apart at the end. Rivals doesn't have team rankings for 2001, but Missouri's class isn't one that probably would have blown a lot of people away on paper. The star of the group coming in was running back Damien Nash, a huge coup for Pinkel early on, who would have to go the junior college route. Pinkel did land some solid starters in that class like AJ Kincade, Sean Coffey, Thomson Omboga, Jason SImpson and Tony Palmer. He landed a future NFL defensive lineman in CJ Mosley. But the standout was Brad Smith, an unheralded quarterback from Youngstown, OH, who changed the program. Recruiting rankings can't account for a guy like Smith. He's worth more stars than you can put on a kid, especially on the ground floor of a rebuilding project.

Barry Odom walked into a situation in December of 2015 that negated any bump that may have occurred. Campus protests that included the football team and Pinkel's abrupt retirement had Mizzou in chaos when Odom took over. He did inherit Albert Okwuegbunam and retain Trystan Castillo then added Damarea Crockett and Cale Garrett late, but the class ranked just 47th that season. His first full class ranked 49th, due in part to the 2015 hangover and in part to a 4-8 debut season. Odom never was able to maintain momentum on the field and it bled over to the recruiting trail. His third class finished 39th and his final full class 34th. The rankings improved, but not enough to translate into on-field success that could keep him in his job.

But in 2021, we're seeing for the first time an injection of energy and hope on the recruiting trail with the hire of a new coach. Missouri could slip a few spots by the time February rolls around, but this looks like a top 25 class. The four-year average for next season's roster is still likely to be around 40, but if Drinkwitz can stack a similar class on top of this one in 2022, Missouri will start to climb back toward the four-year averages it saw during most of Pinkel's good years. If he can add to it in 2023, Missouri could have more talent (again, on paper) than it's had in the Rivals era.

In year one, Drinkwitz is doing things rarely, if ever, seen on the recruiting trail at Missouri. On the field, the Tigers have outperformed nearly everyone's expectations. His job now is to build on it. The new coach bump may be real, but it isn't lasting. Drinkwitz's ultimate success at Mizzou will be determined by his ability to repeat what he did in year one, both on the field and the recruiting trail.