With Drinkwitz hire, Mizzou joins offensive revolution
Like any good thriller, Missouri’s search for a new head football coach was filled with twists and turns, misdirection and false endings. A lot changed during the eight days between the school’s firing of Barry Odom and agreement with Appalachian State coach Eliah Drinkwitz. For the majority of the search, Drinkwitz, who has not yet signed a deal but is expected to be formally approved by the Board of Curators early this week, was rarely mentioned as a potential candidate.
But one thing that remained constant during Missouri’s quest to replace Odom was the characteristics it coveted in its next candidate. Nearly every candidate on athletics director Jim Sterk’s list possessed the same two traits: an offensive background and head coaching experience.
It’s likely not a coincidence that Odom, who finished his Missouri career 25-25, possessed neither of those qualities before Missouri hired him in December 2015. Administrators often react to a firing by seeking opposing qualities in the next hire; Missouri is no different. Odom played linebacker for the Tigers and coordinated the defenses at Memphis and Missouri prior to his hire. Missouri’s job represented his first head coaching experience since his days at Rock Bridge High School, and at times his growing pains were visible.
Drinkwitz, meanwhile, has experience heading a program — but not much more than Odom. The 36-year-old comes to Columbia after just one season as a college head coach, albeit a successful one. After taking over for Scott Satterfield last offseason, he led Appalachian State to a 12-1 record, a second consecutive Sun Belt championship and a No. 20 ranking in the final College Football Playoff rankings. Prior to that, Drinkwitz spent seven seasons as a full-time assistant, including three as a Power Five coordinator at North Carolina State.
But more importantly than his experience, or lack thereof, Drinkwitz has shown he can put points on the scoreboard. Despite the old adage that “defense wins championships,” an offensive revolution has taken over college football. With this hire, Missouri showed that it wants in.
In 2014, the first year of the College Football Playoff, the four teams selected by the committee — Alabama, Oregon, Florida State and Ohio State — ranked No. 18, No. 3, No. 38 and No. 9 nationally in total offense. Scoring was important, of course, but defense still served as a better predictor of success. Oregon was the only team of the four to rank higher in total offense than defense.
Fast forward just five years, and here are the national rankings of the four playoff participants in total offense: 1,2, 3 and 5. Likewise, the four playoff teams all rank among the top five in scoring as well. Clemson and Ohio State are Nos. 1 and 2 in total defense this season, but Oklahoma comes in at 24th and LSU at 32nd.
In short, college football has become an offensive game. LSU, an embodiment of the traditionally ground-and-pound, defense-first SEC, represents that better than anyone. After ranking 69th nationally in total offense a season ago, the Tigers hired Joe Brady from the NFL as passing game coordinator and rebuilt their offense around quarterback Joe Burrow. A year later, LSU leads the nation in total offense at more than 554 yards per game and Burrow is the runaway favorite to win the Heisman trophy. Alabama underwent a similar renovation prior to last season.
The head coach hiring trend reflects that shift toward scoring. Since the end of the 2017 season, 42 of the 53 coaches hired by FBS schools have hailed from offensive backgrounds. Offensive success has routinely been prioritized over experience, with teams trying to replicate the success of Los Angeles Rams head coach and offensive wunderkind Sean McVay. Oklahoma’s Lincoln Riley and Ohio State’s Ryan Day fit the mold of 30-something play-callers tabbed as first-time head coaches in recent seasons.
When he was hired at Appalachian State a year ago, Drinkwitz fit into that category as well. His background suggests Drinkwitz will be up to the challenge of resuscitating a Missouri offense that sputtered down the stretch in 2019. For the first three years of Odom’s tenure, as current Denver Broncos starting quarterback Drew Lock led a high-powered offense, a major knock on Odom was actually that his defense couldn’t stop opponents. But the offense served as Odom’s undoing this year. During Missouri’s five-game losing streak in the second half of the season, the Tigers averaged 9.4 points per game.
It will be the duty of Drinkwitz, who called plays for Appalachian State this season, serving as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach in addition to head coach, to rectify that trend. Drinkwitz’s track record indicates he should be up to the task. Drinkwitz’s teams at NC State ranked 25th nationally in total offense in 2017 and 26th in 2018. With him (and NFL quarterback Ryan Finley) gone this season, the Wolfpack slid to 87th. Appalachian State, meanwhile, ranked 42nd in total offense and ninth in scoring this year.
Efficiency became the Mountaineers’ hallmark under Drinkwitz. They turned the ball over just nine times in 13 games, the third-fewest in the country. They ranked second nationally in fourth down conversion rate and 23rd in third downs. They ranked fifth in red zone touchdown percentage and 22nd in scrimmage plays of more than 20 yards.
In one of the many testimonials about Drinkwitz on his Appalachian State bio, former NFL quarterback Matt Hasselback says, "I've said it many times, I believe Eli Drinkwitz is a rising star and one of the most exciting and innovative play callers I've watched in the last two years. His ability to coach the quarterback and create an explosive offense is what first impressed me most about Eli.”
The other appealing aspect of Drinkwitz’s offensive pedigree is that it should inject some excitement into the fanbase. That may have been the biggest factor in the recent run of head coaching hires from the offensive side of the ball. While dominant offensive and defensive teams can both find success, given the choice, fans would rather watch a squad that is going to win 49-48 rather than 9-6.
That wasn’t lost on Sterk as he set out to replace Odom. During a press conference the day after Odom was fired, Sterk cited a lack of momentum and energy as reasons for the coaching change. He also said gameday attendance factored into the decision, and while he was careful not to commit to a specific coaching archetype, he admitted that high-powered offenses are better at putting fans in the seats.
“Obviously people get excited about scoring a lot of points,” Sterk said. “I hired a coach at San Diego State who's completely the opposite. You talked to Rocky Long and 17 points is a lot of points. So, I think it depends on the type of person that you have and the experience that you have, but it is something that may play into it."
Ultimately, Drinkwitz’s hire poses some risks for Missouri. His lack of experience raises questions about his ability to recruit and develop a program. But his offensive acumen is apparent, and by prioritizing that over the stated desire to bring in an experienced candidate, Sterk has shown that he doesn’t want Missouri to be left behind by the offensive revolution currently sweeping college football.