5 questions Eli Drinkwitz and Mizzou football must answer in 2021

Eric Blum
Columbia Daily Tribune

Missouri football kicks off its 2021 season against Central Michigan on Saturday.

Here are five questions second-year coach Eli Drinkwitz and the Tigers must answer in 2021, highlighting some of the main storylines for the team:

1. How much will Connor Bazelak's development push the team forward?

Bazelak is the unchallenged starting quarterback.

(Not that Drinkwitz would have a problem pulling him if he can't generate points; the coach proved that with the switch from Shawn Robinson to Bazelak last season). 

Missouri quarterback Connor Bazelak (8) passes the ball against South Carolina last season at Williams-Brice Stadium in Columbia, S.C.

No one is expecting Bazelak to regress in 2021 based on his potential displayed last season, when he came off knee surgery to be named Southeastern Conference co-freshman of the year. He's had a full offseason to develop in Drinkwitz's offense and build a further rapport with his teammates.

Bazelak will be integral to Missouri achieving greater success this fall.

If he proves to be the top-tier SEC quarterback many expect, how much will that open up other elements of the offense?

And more importantly, how far could he help the Tigers rise?

2. How will Missouri respond to any continued COVID-19 impacts?

Last year was a giant exercise of wait-and-see, especially with scheduling.

This season is set to start on time, with the potential to have far fewer interruptions, but pandemic guidelines are not yet a thing of the past.

At SEC Media Days last month, Drinkwitz said his team was approaching the 85% vaccination rate needed to relax the league's testing protocols, with his expectation being the team would get there by its first game day. 

Drinkwitz confirmed this past week his program is now above the 85% threshold.

At Auburn, new head coach Bryan Harsin recently tested positive for COVID-19, missing time with his team at a crucial time. The former Boise State coach has been noncommittal about getting his team vaccinated. During fall camp last year, most of Auburn's offensive line spent time in quarantine and the team's offense suffered.

Will Missouri continue as an example of how to appropriately handle the situation, so as to remain healthy and not be at a competitive disadvantage?

3. Who becomes Missouri's offensive playmaker?

There will be a scenario this season where a game will be decided by one play and Missouri's offense will be on the field.

What play will the Tigers run?

Last year, it was safe to say running back Larry Rountree would touch the ball. Two years ago, the ball was going to tight end Albert Okwuegbunam by default. 

Missouri wide receiver Barrett Banister (11) runs against LSU safety JaCoby Stevens (7) during a Southeastern Conference game last season at Faurot Field.

There are a few options this year for Missouri. If it's a pass play, the likelier option, Bazelak could go to Keke Chism, primed to be his No. 1 wide receiver. 

There also are trick-play options with elusive freshmen Mookie Cooper and Dominic Lovett. What about "Mr. Consistent" Barrett Banister, who routinely converted third downs in 2020?

If it's a short-yardage situation, does Drinkwitz stay with Tyler Badie, the expected No. 1 running back? Or does he go with bigger backs such as Dawson Downing or Elijah Young?

4. Can Missouri's defense shut down SEC offenses?

Tennessee wide receiver Josh Palmer (5) makes a catch over Missouri defensive back Ennis Rakestraw (2) during a Southeastern Conference game last season at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, Tenn.

Losing Nick Bolton, Joshuah Bledsoe and Tyree Gillespie to the NFL leaves three huge holes in the defense. 

There are reinforcements in Columbia in the form of transfers and freshmen.

There is plenty of experience in the front six with a younger secondary behind them. There is also no red flag among them.

Does new defensive coordinator Steve Wilks' NFL experience help Missouri make pivotal stops that could swing the momentum of a game?

5. How will the team keep its fan base engaged when turbulence hits?

Missouri likely won't be favored in two of its first four games and three of its first seven. 

Throughout his time in charge of the Tigers, Drinkwitz has leveraged many things into positives for the program.

The one thing that can't be applied positively? Losing. 

Missouri place kicker Harrison Mevis (92) celebrates with offensive linemen Drake Heismeyer (69) and D.J. Bullard (71) after Mevis' game-winning 32-yard field goal against Arkansas as time expired last season at Faurot Field.

After a loss to Texas A&M or Boston College, how does Missouri keep the program moving forward?

One way is recruiting. Even with Drinkwitz reaching two full years in Columbia by season's end, there are still stigmas about the program he inherited that he didn't create but is working to overcome.

Do Drinkwitz's comments in the press endear him even more to the fan base? 

Keeping fan interest is a huge priority for 2021.

Contact Eric Blum at eblum@columbiatribune.com. Follow @ByEricBlum on Twitter.

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