Missouri quarterback Conor Bazelak should have a pretty good idea how to dissect the Arkansas defense on Saturday.
His old coach is the one running it.
Barry Odom didn't wander far after he was fired by as the head coach of the Tigers late last year, accepting a job as the defensive coordinator under new Razorbacks coach Sam Pittman. Now, the two budding SEC rivals — by proximity more than anything else — meet with the intriguing subplot of Odom trying to slow down Bazelak and the Tigers.
“The way I look at it this week is I'm not playing against him. I'm playing against the players that are going to be on the field,” said Bazleak, who was recruited by Odom to Missouri out of high school. “Yeah, he's coaching them, he's the defensive coordinator, but this offense and myself are playing against the Arkansas players.”
The game was supposed to be played last week, but COVID-19 testing within the Razorbacks program forced the game to be postponed. The SEC wound up sending Vanderbilt to a blowout loss in Columbia while Arkansas got the week off.
Now, two teams that have surpassed expectations meet with potential bowl games in the balance.
The Tigers (4-3, all SEC) have won two straight and four of their last five, their lone loss coming to Florida. They unleashed a dominant ground game against the Commodores and began to show glimpses of the offensive ingenuity of Eli Drinkwitz, the former Appalachian State coach who was chosen to replace Odom in Columbia.
Despite losing three of their last four, the Razorbacks (3-5) already have more wins than each of the past two seasons.
“They’re standing in our way from accomplishing what we want to accomplish this year and we’re standing in their way, so that's rivalry enough,” Drinkwitz said. ”There’s plenty of storylines, however you want to create them. But the bottom line is it’s a players' game, and on Saturday at 11:00, whichever team is ready to play the most is going to win. And, you know, both of us desperately want to win. So rivalry or not, I think we’re both going to get each other’s best shot.”
Especially given the Razorbacks will be nearly healthy after injuries and COVID-19 positives the past few weeks.
“We anticipate having a close to full roster. Our testing went well (this week),” Pittman said. “We were able to do some walk-throughs and meetings last week with the anticipation of playing Missouri, and now we're just having a regular week.”
SENIOR DAY, SORT OF
Missouri still has a home makeup game against Georgia on Dec. 12 or Dec. 19, but Drinkwitz didn't want to leave anything to chance given the uncertainty of the pandemic. So he decided to honor the Tigers' senior class Saturday, even though there's a chance some of the 17 could be back next season under NCAA rules put in place for this year.
Missouri is coming off its most complete offensive performance of the season against Vanderbilt. Bazelak was 30 of 37 for 318 yards through the air while Larry Rountree III ran 21 times for 160 yards and three touchdowns.
TWO OF THE BEST
The Butkas Award finalists were announced this week, and two of the 15 linebackers up for the award will be on the field Saturday. The Tigers' Nick Bolton has been a tackling machine the last couple of seasons while Arkansas counterpart Grant Morgan is a big reason why Odom's defense has been dramatically improved this year.
Arkansas running back Rakeem Boyd announced Tuesday that he was opting out of the remainder of the season to prepare for the NFL draft. He led the Razorbacks with 1,133 yards rushing last season but has dealt with injuries and ceded time to Trelon Jones this year. He had just 309 yards on 82 carries.
Tigers tight end Daniel Parker could be back from an undisclosed injury that has forced him to miss three straight games while wide receiver Jalen Knox — whom Drinkwitz called “tough as nails” — is dealing with a lower leg injury.
“If he's got an opportunity to play,” Drinkwitz added, “he'll be out there for us.”
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