KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — The situation couldn’t be easier for Missouri heading into Friday’s rivalry game with Arkansas: A win and the Tigers are in a bowl game, lose and they’re at home for the holidays.
However, it depends more on the result than the chance to play another game in December in balmy weather.
The Tigers, who qualified for a bowl game in each of coach Eli Drinkwitz’s first two seasons, are still trying to bring their program back to SEC prominence. And finishing .500 against a tough schedule could be considered a sign of progress, while a second loss to the Razorbacks would give Missouri its first losing season since 2016.
“I think we’re improving the talent. I think we’re improving the way we go through the process. I see a lot of growth. I see a lot of exciting things,” Drinkwitz said. “I think football is about building momentum and confidence as you grow and looking forward to what’s ahead, there are some more favorable schedules that allow you to build momentum.”
This season has definitely been a bearish one.
After an opening win over Louisiana Tech, the Tigers were swept on the road by former Big 12 rival Kansas State, who could be playing for the Big 12 title by the end of the week. After returning home to face Abilene Christian, the Tigers opened SEC play with trips to Auburn and Florida sandwiched around a home game against No. 1 Georgia.
The Tigers have actually done quite well in that stretch.
At least everywhere except the win-loss column.
The Tigers beat Auburn in regulation when usually confident kicker Garrison Mavis fumbled and then won the game in overtime before Nathaniel Peet fumbled the ball while reaching for the end zone. Result: 17-14 loss.
The next week, the Tigers gave the Bulldogs their toughest game to date, taking a 16-6 halftime lead and holding onto the lead until the fourth quarter. Then the Bulldogs scored back-to-back touchdowns to erase a 10-point deficit and the final score with 4:03 left gave Georgia a 26-22 win.
Down in the Swamp, the Tigers rallied from an early pick six to tie Florida at 10 all at halftime. And they were still within a touchdown when Brady Cook’s fourth-down pass near midfield fell incomplete with about a minute left, allowing the Gators to escape with a 24-17 win.
The Tigers lost to Kentucky once again, making it four 18-point conference losses, when a win in any of them would have sent Missouri already heading into the game.
“We all want it to be straight — linear — but rarely in my life has success looked like that,” said Drinkwitz, who signed a contract extension earlier this season. “It’s always been a process in construction and there are days when you stub your toe. It doesn’t mean you cut off your toe. You keep going and working, and it disappoints the fans and disappoints people, but it doesn’t disappoint me when I see the vision of what we can achieve.”
Much of that disappointment could be reversed if the Tigers (5-6, 2-5) take care of the Razorbacks (6-5, 3-4) on Friday.
That would send Missouri to a bowl game — likely the Liberty Bowl, Las Vegas Bowl or Music City Bowl. That would give the Tigers about three more weeks of practice, which is invaluable for a young team. And it would confirm what Drinkwitz has been preaching, which is that his program is on the right track heading into next season.
“I didn’t put any thought into the season review and all that. All I’m focused on is the game, this week, going 1-0, putting together,” Drinkwitz said, “and after the game on Friday, I’ll take 48 hours and reflect on what’s there. But right now I’m thinking about rallying this team to prepare for our best game.”
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