Sunday View: Mizzou should keep winning no matter who's at QB
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This entire column might end up being pointless. Save your jokes about how they all are. But even by the time you read this, everything that follows could be immaterial. It’s possible Kelly Bryant will start next Saturday night against Ole Miss and everything will be rainbows and unicorns.
But what if he doesn’t and what if it isn’t?
Bryant hurt his left knee on Missouri’s final offensive play of the first half in Saturday night’s 42-10 win over Troy. If you listened to his teammates and coaches after the game, they all appeared about as optimistic as possible. So, again, Bryant could be back at practice on Tuesday and he could be under center next weekend against the Rebels.
If he isn’t, it will be Taylor Powell. And I’m about to say something I wouldn’t have said a month ago: I think Missouri’s good enough to win the next three games with Taylor Powell at quarterback.
I don’t honestly have a clue how good he is. We’ve never seen him play. He played a full half on Saturday night and didn’t lead Missouri to any points, but Barry Odom said after the game that the Tigers “called about three plays” with him under center. They simply wanted to bleed the clock and make sure nobody else joined Bryant on the injured list. Mission accomplished.
But Bryant’s injury means we have to at least think about how good this team can be with Taylor Powell running the show. His teammates said all the right things after the game.
Yasir Durant: “I think he did good. I expected that. Taylor been here since I think the same time I been here. I knew that he wasn’t going to do anything bad. Taylor’s a quote unquote veteran guy technically. He ran the offense just as well. There was no skips when Taylor came in the game.”
Jalen Knox: “Taylor, he’s a guy that loves football. He’s going to go out there and give it all he can every time. I have the utmost trust in him. I feel like if he’s needed to go in there and needs to play, I feel like he’d go in there and get the job done for us and we don’t need to worry about him.”
Albert Okwuegbunam: “Fully confident in him. He’s a good player. He works really hard and I think if the opportunity comes he’ll do a really good job.”
Adam Sparks: “I feel like we’re gonna be good. I got trust in him. I feel like what I seen in practice, he take it to the game, we’re gonna be all right.”
I don’t mean to say the quotes don’t mean anything. But what else are the players gonna say? The closest you’ll ever see anyone come to burying a backup is something along the lines of “You don’t just replace a (insert name here). You can’t do it with one guy. Everyone has to be better. But it’s next man up and we’ve got full confidence in (insert other name here).”
So there’s a big difference in players saying they believe Powell is good enough and Powell going out and actually being good enough. You’ve got to do it before anybody thinks you can do it.
Twice in the last six years, Missouri has lost its starting quarterback midseason. In 2013, James Franklin went down with a shoulder injury against Georgia. Maty Mauk stepped in and guided the Tigers to an upset win in Athens. He then hammered No. 22 Florida 36-17, lost an overtime heartbreaker to No. 20 South Carolina and beat Tennessee and Kentucky by a combined score of 79-20 before Franklin returned to win the final two games of the regular season and put Missouri in the SEC Championship game.
In his four-and-a-half games as a reliever Mauk went 60-for-117 for 934 yards, ten touchdowns and two interceptions.
Two years later, it was Mauk that was out of the starting lineup after four games, due to suspension rather than injury. True freshman Drew Lock stepped in. He went 21-for-28 for 136 yards and two touchdowns as the Tigers beat South Carolina 24-10 in his first start to move to 4-1 on the season. Lock would lose his next four starts and six of his final seven in a season he and every Missouri fan would like to wipe from their memories.
So is Taylor Powell more Mauk or Lock?
“It’d be awesome to go out there for four quarters, have the full playbook at disposal. I’ll be excited if that’s the opportunity,” he said. “You’ve got to prepare as if you’re the starter because one play and you are. It’s been happening all over the country. I’m really confident in my preparation and my ability and I trust this team and I trust coach Odom and Dooley.”
Again, maybe we don’t have to find out. But if we do, Powell has a chance to be closer to Mauk than Lock for one simple reason: The team around him is closer to the one Mauk had than the one Lock did.
The 2015 Tigers were a mess. Yes, Lock was bad that year. But Missouri wasn’t very good with Mauk at quarterback either. The running back was hurt, the line was banged up and the offense once went nearly 50 possessions without scoring a touchdown. They scored more than 20 points just four times, never more than 24 against an FBS team, lost games 10-3, 9-6 and 19-8 and actually WON one 9-6. It was a terrible team that was exacerbated by playing a quarterback that wasn’t ready.
In 2013, Mauk came into an offense that had Henry Josey, Marcus Murphy and Russell Hansbrough in the backfield and Marcus Lucas, L’Damian Washington, Bud Sasser, Jimmie Hunt and Dorial Green-Beckham at wide receiver. It had a defense led by Michael Sam’s conference player of the year performance along with Kony Ealy, Shane Ray, Markus Golden and more. It was a team that was a chip shot miss away from an undefeated regular season and a few Tre Mason runs away from a chance at a national title. Mauk wasn’t Superman, but Missouri didn’t need him to be.
Next week, regardless of who hands him the ball, Larry Rountree III will pass James Wilder for 10th on Missouri’s all-time rushing list. Albert Okwuegbunam scores a touchdown more than once every four times he catches a pass. Cale Garrett has scored in three consecutive games and is playing like the best defensive player in the SEC--and maybe the country--right now. The defense as a whole has scored 35 points and given up just 31 in Missouri’s last four games. Hell, even the special teams haven’t killed Missouri so far.
And we haven’t even talked about the schedule. Ole Miss is 3-3, but its two SEC wins are over Arkansas and Vanderbilt. Up next is Vandy, which has beaten only Northern Illinois this season and struggled to do that. The third game is against Kentucky, which might be playing a wide receiver at quarterback next week.
The point is this: We don’t know who the quarterback will be next week. But it shouldn’t matter. This is a Missouri team that should be 7-1 going into Athens, Ga. on November 9th. That is true if Bryant is back at full strength. It is true if he is back as something less than himself. And it is true if Taylor Powell is playing quarterback or even if Connor Bazelak is. The Tigers aren’t likely to do it by scoring 40 points a game or throwing the ball all over opposing defenses, but for the first time in four years, they don’t have to do it that way. They need a quarterback who can turn and hand the ball off to Rountree, who can get it a few yards downfield to Albert O, who can basically hang on to it while his defense suffocates the other team. That’s it. Taylor Powell shouldn’t have to win any games for Missouri. He should just have to avoid losing them.
So while we wait to see if Bryant can play next week, the more important question is can he play next month? Because the Tigers might not be able to beat Georgia with him, but they almost certainly can’t without him. They likely can’t beat Florida without him either. And those are the games that determine if Missouri’s season can take the step from good to great. As long as he’s back for those, the team around him should be good enough to make sure they still matter.