What Just Happened? Vol. 87
After a longer-than-planned pandemic layoff, Joe Walljasper is back. This column will run every Friday morning on the site through the end of basketball season.
I enter this college football season feeling like I had planned to break up with a significant other, but we already bought nonrefundable airfare for a Florida vacation … and it feels uncomfortable sharing a flight with a person who, in the last three months, has left no fewer than five messages saying, “We need to talk,” as dread-inducing precursors to uncomfortable discussions about needs and feelings … and at the rental car counter, it occurs to me that this person had just the right kind of B.O. on the sticky summer night when we met but now just smells like feet and patchouli all the time (Was it the B.O. that changed, or was it me?) … and as we check into the hotel, after that exhaustive recap of yesterday’s office mini-controversy that requires way more fake interest and faux sympathy than I can possibly convey with my limited arsenal of head shakes and clicking noises, it feels like I have reported to jail … but after three cold ones in the afternoon sun while watching the waves lap against the shore, the imperfections soften … and as the air cools and the evening sky turns pink, well, only a fool would fail to understand that in a life so short as this, one should embrace the temporary pleasures it offers.
So here we are, maybe for 10 weeks, maybe not, but we might as well embrace the college football we have and not dwell on its flaws.
Back in July, the forecast for fall Saturdays was, at best, watching a bunch of fancy Europeans who listened to their egghead scientists and now get to play the boring sport that our most insufferable sports media personalities will be tweeting about in that way-too-knowing manner, so you’re like 100 characters into the tweet before you realize this is commentary about a goal that almost happened in a game involving Tottenham Hotspur. And that was best-case scenario. Worst-case scenario? Probably something to do with a pumpkin patch, apple orchard or, God forbid, professional photos amid the fall foliage, with everyone strongly encouraged to wear earth-tone flannel.
But then a small group of highly paid people came to the conclusion that the best course of action was to not cancel the season. After a few weeks, a different small group of highly paid people who had come to the opposite conclusion started to think, “Why didn’t we think of that?” Long story short, most of college football survived, and it hasn’t been much fun so far, but maybe with the SEC starting and the Big Ten not far behind, it will be a welcome weekend break from our dreary daily lives of personal isolation and online acrimony.
It will be different, though, and not in a good way. There will be no tailgating, few fans and a revolving cast of players who may or may not be harboring and spreading a disease that might just kill a diabetic offensive line coach or two. It is a risk we are willing to take so each Saturday we can take a short break from savaging each other over politics and agree on one inarguable truth: Calling the fade on fourth-and-goal from the 1 is total garbage.
In Missouri’s case, it might be easier to embrace than actually enjoy this season, at least in the beginning. Central Arkansas was swapped out for Alabama. Eastern Michigan was replaced by LSU. Mizzou would have been favored in three of its first four games, and now it will be underdogs in the first three. It might well be underdogs in eight games total. With a first-year coach, a newish quarterback and a roster light on proven SEC players, it’s not an ideal time to face the program’s toughest schedule since the 1970s — back when MU scheduled Alabama voluntarily.
Thus, I’m grading Eli Drinkwitz on the curve this season. I vow to wait until at least Week 4 before writing a statement that begins with, “I can understand some mistakes, and admittedly one-third of the roster is in quarantine, but …” The good news for Drinkwitz is that at Missouri, losing by 40 points to Alabama or LSU doesn’t get a new coach in trouble, but losing to Louisiana and BYU does. Those high-risk, low-reward non-conference games were on the schedule, and now they’re not. Expectations are as reasonable as they’ll ever be.
So what can be expected of this team that has operated in near total isolation and obscurity throughout the preseason?
I haven’t done a deep dive into the schedule, but I’m pretty sure Vanderbilt and Arkansas are on it, and both will have to deal not only with the fighting Tigers but also with 12,000 muffled Mizzou fans scattered sensibly throughout Memorial Stadium. South Carolina is basically Missouri’s clone program, and Mississippi State fired its coach last year, so those games should be competitive. If Missouri actually plays 10 games and can avoid poorly timed COVID outbreaks during weeks when it plays winnable games, I think three wins is a safe guess.
But more than any other year, that win total isn’t worthy of obsession. Without revealing my exact age, I can tell you I am “really starting to get into Steely Dan” years old and have reached the “I’ve taken up pickleball” stage of life, so I have seen a few Missouri coaches come and go. They hardly ever do well in their debut seasons — Warren Powers was the last one who won more than four games, and that was in 1978, before I was paying attention. Way more important than the record in the first year is whether the coach can make Mizzou football attractive to the state’s best high school players and recruit his quarterback of the future. Woody Widenhofer, Bob Stull and Barry Odom didn’t, and they didn’t last more than five years. Larry Smith and Gary Pinkel did, finding Corby Jones and Brad Smith, and they parlayed that into short-term and long-term success, respectively. Drinkwitz’s first full recruiting class is shaping up nicely, and it includes a highly touted quarterback, Tyler Macon, who could be the next big thing.
So when you’re watching Saturday night, even if it’s 49-7 in the fourth quarter, remember that this was never going to be anybody’s romantic ideal of a season, but it’s better than picking apples or watching Harry Winks uncork a gorgeous cross across the pitch that results in nothing in particular (but still, the sheer majesty of that kick will not soon be forgotten). In other words, it’s better than no college football at all.