COLUMBIA — The mark of a great football team is one that finds ways to win in the course of a season, and during games, by making adjustments.
Some structure and rigidity exists, so they do not satisfy the words of Bruce Lee, to be "formless, shapeless, like water," but still there is an element of receptiveness and sensitivity to the opponent's tendencies, and of seeking the easiest, most efficient way through, over or past.
It's the kind of offense Missouri head coach Eli Drinkwitz hopes he has coached into this Tigers team, the qualities he is looking for as his squad meets the No. 2 Alabama Crimson Tide at 6 p.m. tonight on Faurot Field. The game will be televised on ESPN.
In his own words, the offense is "pro tempo"; professional football concepts — shotgun/pistol formation, a base offense of three wide receivers, one running back and one tight end — married to a college spirit of variable speed and a few tricks.
"We'll be able to play as fast as we want to, as slow as we need to in order to affect the defense," Drinkwitz said of the system a month ago.
But the mark of a great program is to be able to take that success of individual teams, and create a culture, a system, open to such change on a slightly longer timescale. This has been the success of Alabama football in the Nick Saban era.
Saban's success at LSU and his early success at Alabama was built in the trenches: a suffocating front seven on defense and an offensive line and running back who buried you under the turf if you got within arm's reach, both designed to hit you and keep hitting you until the game was no longer fun. Throw in a transcendent wide receiver to keep the defense honest, and it was hard to find a winning edge.
But the game of football changed. A bundle of poor kicking and a string of mercurial quarterbacks mostly in the Southeastern Conference, from Cam Newton to Johnny Manziel, Cardale Jones, Bo Wallace, Deshaun Watson and Trevor Lawrence, moved the ground from underneath Alabama's feet.
The string of competent game managers who won titles under center for the Tide — Greg McElroy, AJ McCarron, Jake Coker — was no longer enough. Saban and Alabama responded, without a dropoff in recruiting at any other position, by landing transcendent talent at quarterback, too. And after a decade of averaging about 35 points per game on offense, as recently as 2017, to 45.6 points per game in 2018, third nationally, and 47.2 points per game, second nationally only to national champion LSU's 48.4 points per game.
And despite near-constant turnover at coordinator positions, as other Power 5 programs try to get a hit of the Saban magic, and despite LSU's upsetting of the apple cart last season, the Tide begin the 2020 season still on top, heavy favorites to win the conference and play in their fourth College Football Playoff final in the last six years.
Drinkwitz joked in his weekly Zoom meeting the Alabama coaching staff has "more coaches as analysts with head coaching experience than I think I am years old, with Coach (Charlie) Strong, Coach (Mark) Stoops, Coach (Butch) Jones."
Gone are quarterbacks Jalen Hurts and Tua Tagovailoa, but in steps Mac Jones, who still completed 68.8 percent of his passes last season for 1,500 yards and 14 touchdowns. Of course, the Tide still have a bruising offensive line and running back Najee Harris, who rushed for 1,224 yards and 13 scores last year, and the hyper-talented duo of DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle at receiver.
"Obviously it's a huge challenge," Missouri defensive coordinator Ryan Walters said Wednesday. " It is a challenge, but I'm excited to go compete, and what a way to start off the 10 SEC game stretch, with Alabama. They have set the standard for what the elite looks like in college football."
One of the biggest storylines of the game will be a personal one. The Tigers are starting a true freshman at cornerback, Ennis Rakestraw, who chose Missouri rather than Saban's program. Drinkwitz's excited reaction to the decision went viral on social media, earning Rakestraw some of the most preseason hype for a true freshman in recent memory.
With the ultimate goal of the NFL, Rakestraw bet on the Tigers, on Walters and Drinkwitz's ability to get him there, with the goal to play immediately, rather than as a back up in a talented Alabama secondary group.
Rakestraw's teammates have prasied his footwork, his "bulldog" approach and his competitiveness. Those qualities are what won him the starting job today, and the opportunity to match up against Waddle and Smith, a trial by fire.
"When a freshman earns the job, it can't be close, you know what I mean?" Walters said. "He's got to go take the job, and then he did, and I don't think anybody would argue with that. He looks like a starting SEC corner, so that's why this is where he's at. He didn't come here to be a backup or go sit on scout team or go redshirt."
Outside observers have placed almost no weight of expectation on Missouri's shoulders for this game. The Tide are four-touchdown favorites on the road. So for Drinkwitz, today will whether the program is meeting internal standards on the field.
"It's going to be a great opportunity to see where we're at, and where we have to be in order to compete in the future," Drinkwitz said. "And I, for one, and our coaching staff and I know our senior leadership and the captains on this football team are excited about the opportunity to compete. We're excited about the test that it's going to be."