Missouri hopes its Burden can carry the load

Missouri fan
COLUMBIA, MO - OCTOBER 02: A Missouri fan muscles up her support for the Missouri Tigers during a game between the Tennessee Volunteers and the Missouri Tigers on October 2, 2021, at Faurot Field at Memorial Stadium in Columbia MO. (Photo by Rick Ulreich/Icon Sportswire)

Guess how many five-star recruits the Missouri Tigers have had in their history. Take a little bit of time, but not too much time. Zero? Ten? Twelve?

By Matt Zemek

The answer is three.

Luther Burden, a receiver ranked No. 3 in the Class of 2022, is the third five-star the Tigers have ever pulled in. Eli Drinkwitz is the coach who scored this major haul on the recruiting trail. Given that he is an offense-first coach, bringing in someone who plays on his side of the ball is an added bonus. Drinkwitz should have a natural understanding of how to use Burden in his offensive system. The Tigers have the kind of downfield weapon they have rarely had in their history. It’s a foundational element this program needs in order to recall the glories of the Tigers’ first few years in the SEC. With a player of the caliber of Burden added to the Tiger roster sports betting advocates must consider his ability to enhance the Tiger offense.

It seems so long ago, but it’s not even a decade old: Missouri won the SEC East in both 2013 and 2014. The Tigers didn’t win either of their SEC Championship Game appearances, but unlike Kentucky, Ole Miss, and Vanderbilt, they can at least say they have played for the SEC title. Missouri’s two SEC Championship Game berths are more than South Carolina and Mississippi State, which have played in the big game only once each. Missouri has also beaten Texas A&M to the punch. The two SEC newcomers both had very high hopes when they stepped into the conference, and interestingly enough, it was A&M which made the bigger initial splash in 2012, when Johnny Manziel won the Heisman Trophy. Yet, Missouri beat the Aggies in the race to see which school would play in the SEC title game first. Missouri then went back-to-back to affirm its legitimacy within the SEC.

Then the Gary Pinkel era ran out of steam, and the Tigers have struggled to reach that lofty standard ever since.

Getting a player of Luther Burden’s quality gives them at least a glimmer of hope. It’s a great conversation topic, but more than that, it at least opens the door for Drinkwitz to tell other recruits what he is building in Columbia and what he is capable of doing. Now Missouri and its coach have to translate that recruiting momentum and positive energy into tangible on-field results which keep the program moving in the right direction.

Missouri Tigers CheerleaderMissouri has not achieved at an elite level the past two years, but the Tigers faced tough schedules in each of the past two seasons and have fared better than most analysts expected them to. In 2021, Missouri played a difficult road game at Boston College in nonconference play and faced Texas A&M as one of its crossover SEC West opponents. The Tigers lost those two games. Given the difficulty of the slate, they had to pounce on opportunities elsewhere on the schedule. They had to beat the teams they were expected to beat in order to make a bowl game. They did precisely that, handling North Texas, Vanderbilt, and South Carolina. They also had to grab a game they probably didn’t count on winning at the beginning of the season. That win came against a slumping Florida squad which played Alabama on even terms in September but then cratered in the second half of the season. While Alabama and Georgia expect to compete for national championships, Missouri’s most realistic goal at the start of 2021 was to make a bowl game. The Tigers were in trouble when they stood at 4-5 after nine games, but Drinkwitz never let his players get discouraged. Their resilience helped them to a 6-6 record and a bowl bid which was a due reward for this team’s determination over the course of the 2021 season.

The magic number for Missouri in 2021 was 30. If an opponent scored above 30, Missouri went 1-6. If an opponent scored below 30, the Tigers went 5-1. This does not make Missouri unique among FBS college football teams. Instead, it shows how the sport has changed. In the 1980s, the idea of allowing 28 points per game would have scared the daylights out of nearly every coach in the country. Giving up that many points in an era dominated by running backs and tough defense meant that a defeat was highly likely. Today, though, giving up 28 points often gives a team a chance to win. Giving up almost any point total under 30 is often a good thing for college football teams, especially if they have the right quarterback and the right offensive system. Missouri was just such an example last year, and now Drinkwitz will try to take this operation to the next level.

As long as Kirby Smart is on the job, Georgia will be the SEC East favorite heading into the season. However, with Billy Napier getting settled in at Florida, Kentucky having to shift around some pieces of its roster, and with Josh Heupel knowing his Tennessee defense needs a lot of work, second place in the SEC East is very much up for grabs. South Carolina will think it has a chance to make some noise in this division as well. There is no reason Missouri should not think that second place in the division isn’t attainable. There are way too many questions surrounding each of the non-Georgia teams in the division.

Missouri has a history of suffering a profound gut-punch moment just when a big victory was within its grasp. The Matt Davison “Flea Kicker” against Nebraska in 1997 snatched a massive triumph from the Tigers’ paws. Several years earlier, in 1990, the infamous “Fifth Down” game enabled Colorado to escape with a victory it did not earn. Missouri players and fans could not believe it then, and the 32-year-old memory is still oppressive even now for any Mizzou diehard.

The Tigers will start all over again this year. Maybe the fates will be kind. Maybe the defense can hold more opponents under 30. Maybe Luther Burden will be ready to shoulder the load. Missouri can at least say it is putting itself in position to do something. The Tigers are giving themselves a chance to become relevant.

Let’s see if their caliber of play enables them to seize this latest opportunity.

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