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10 wins in hand, New Year’s Six bowl on the way, No. 10 Mizzou finds something proven -Dispatch

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Missouri tight end Brett Norfleet (87) celebrates after scoring a touchdown against Arkansas during the second half Friday, Nov. 24, 2023, in Fayetteville, Ark.

Missouri running back Cody Schrader (7) celebrates next to the Battle Line trophy after the team’s win over Arkansas on Friday, Nov. 24, 2023, in Fayetteville, Ark.

Missouri quarterback Brady Cook reacts after running for a touchdown against Arkansas during the first half Friday, Nov. 24, 2023, in Fayetteville, Ark.

Missouri wide receiver Luther Burden III (3) takes a selfie with fans as he celebrates defeating Arkansas on Friday, Nov. 24, 2023, in Fayetteville, Ark.

FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — In cigar smoke-filled space next to the visiting team locker room, prove became proven.

The transition from present tense to past participle had technically occurred a few minutes earlier when a red-and-white stadium looked much more black and gold as the clock hit triple zeroes and showed that a Battle Line blowout had gone in No. 10 Missouri’s favor — to the tune of a 48-14 road win at Arkansas to close out the regular season.

“It’s the capstone to the year,” said Mizzou coach Eli Drinkwitz, who just moments earlier was passing out cigars to his players as they came off the field.

The Tigers (10-2, 6-2 Southeastern Conference) won their 10th game of the season Friday afternoon in Fayetteville, a feat that hasn’t been done since 2014. On Dec. 3, they’ll find out which New Year’s Six bowl game they’ll play in because they’re currently the No. 9 team in the College Football Playoff rankings — and dominating the Razorbacks for 60 minutes sure didn’t hurt their chances.

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Friday’s win came down to a handful of revealingly clear numbers. MU went seven for seven in the red zone, while the Hogs didn’t cross midfield until the third quarter. Missouri running back Cody Schrader ran for 220 yards, while the entire Arkansas offense only managed 225 yards of total offense. The Tigers — well, freshman tight end Brett Norfleet, to be more specific — scored two touchdowns in 11 seconds of game time. Mizzou’s starting right tackle was ejected after a brawl, yet the team with its sights set on getting to 10 wins scored on the next play anyway.

That’s a winning recipe if there ever was one. But the win didn’t seem to be why there were cigars and celebrations permeating through the cinderblock walls.

“Not a lot of people expected a lot from us, man,” said Schrader. “And this team has continually just proved people wrong. And we’re proving ourselves right.”

Proof. This isn’t about the strength of the spirits that might chase the cigars — no, this has been something circling the Tigers since the start of preseason camp.

Four months ago, it was coach speak — a catchphrase that could become a corny cliché rather quickly if things went south. But there “something to prove” was, stamped all over Missouri football branding, repeated by an unrelenting, undeterred chorus of players and coaches.

“People probably thought we were crazy when we came out with the motto STP,” Schrader said.

Maybe so.

But here’s Drinkwitz, just after the stroke of 2 p.m. on July 30, on the eve of Mizzou’s first practice:

“It really originated with a conversation where we’re not trying to prove that individually, we’re talented,” he said. “We know that we’ve had talent on this football team. We want to prove that collectively, we belong in our league and can play better than we have and produce better results than we have.”

Last year, the Tigers lost to Kansas State, Kentucky, Florida and Tennessee. This season, they beat all four by a combined 51 points. MU will finish second in the SEC East, trailing only No. 1 Georgia in those standings.

Keep going, Coach.

“There’s that component of hearing the noise and understanding that there’s voices outside that don’t believe in our abilities or what we could be, or rankings and all that good stuff,” Drinkwitz said before the preseason.

At No. 9 in the CFP rankings, Missouri is the highest it’s ever been in that particular hierarchy. It could wind up even higher, depending on what happens to a few of the top eight teams during their regular season finales.

MU is the only school with semifinalists for each of the awards given to the nation’s top quarterback (Brady Cook), running back (Schrader) and wide receiver (Luther Burden III). There’s also linebacker Ty’Ron Hopper and cornerback Kris Abrams-Draine, both semifinalists for their positional honors. And the entire offensive line, a semifinalist for a collective honor in the trenches.

Back to Drinkwitz in July.

“But more importantly, it’s about proving to each other, the brotherhood, that you were right to come back and develop into an elite player,” he said. “I want to prove to the rest of the world how good of a coaching staff we really have.”

Pick a player who chose to return here. Hopper led the team in tackles before missing the final two games of the regular season with an injury. Abrams-Draine is tied for second in the SEC with four interceptions. Burden will likely finish third in the conference in receiving yards. Schrader, just short of 1,500 rushing yards, will be atop the conference and third in the MU history books.

As far as the coaches go: Defensive ends coach Kevin Peoples is one of 15 semifinalists for the Broyles Award, which is given to the nation’s top assistant coach. Defensive coordinator Blake Baker and new offensive coordinator Kirby Moore will both generate buzz as potential candidates for head coaching gigs.

A final word from the man behind the podium but ahead of a historic season:

“I want them to see it,” Drinkwitz said. “But the only way they’re going to see it is the results on the field. They’re not going to believe us because we say it.”

Ten wins. A big bowl incoming. The individual milestones, the accolades. Results, all of them, the sort of things that can be measured in stats and rankings and positions on record boards — unobjectionable, objective proof of something.

Maybe it’s something big. Who’s going to tell the boys in black and gold who are playing football at a level Columbia hasn’t seen in a decade, a level that has lofted them into contention with the best teams and athletes in the country, otherwise?

“We’re America’s team,” Drinkwitz said after Friday’s win. “We’re a team built on underdogs. We’re a team built on young men with something to prove.”

Mizzou football coach Eli Drinkwitz meets with the media on Monday, Nov. 20, 2023. (Video by Mizzou Network, used with permission of Mizzou Athletics)

Photos: Mizzou football wraps up regular season with blowout win at Arkansas

Arkansas quarterback KJ Jefferson (1) fumbles the ball as he is tackled by Missouri defensive back Daylan Carnell (13) during the first half of an NCAA college football game Friday, Nov. 24, 2023, in Fayetteville, Ark.

Michael Woods – freelancer, ASSOCIATED PRESS

Missouri wide receiver Luther Burden III, front right, makes a catch in front of Arkansas defensive back Lorando Johnson, left, during the first half of an NCAA college football game Friday, Nov. 24, 2023, in Fayetteville, Ark.

Michael Woods – freelancer, ASSOCIATED PRESS

Missouri quarterback Brady Cook reacts after running for a touchdown against Arkansas during the first half Friday, Nov. 24, 2023, in Fayetteville, Ark.

Michael Woods, ASSOCIATED PRESS

Missouri quarterback Brady Cook (12) runs past Arkansas linebacker Jaheim Thomas (28) to score a touchdown during the first half of an NCAA college football game Friday, Nov. 24, 2023, in Fayetteville, Ark.

Michael Woods – freelancer, ASSOCIATED PRESS

Missouri defensive back Sidney Williams (3) sacks Arkansas quarterback KJ Jefferson, right,during the first half of an NCAA college football game Friday, Nov. 24, 2023, in Fayetteville, Ark.

Michael Woods – freelancer, ASSOCIATED PRESS

Missouri tight end Brett Norfleet (87) scores a touchdown against Arkansas during the second half of an NCAA college football game Friday, Nov. 24, 2023, in Fayetteville, Ark.

Michael Woods – freelancer, ASSOCIATED PRESS

Missouri running back Cody Schrader (7) celebrates next to the Battle Line trophy after the team’s win over Arkansas on Friday, Nov. 24, 2023, in Fayetteville, Ark.

Michael Woods, ASSOCIATED PRESS

Missouri tight end Brett Norfleet (87) celebrates after scoring a touchdown against Arkansas during the second half Friday, Nov. 24, 2023, in Fayetteville, Ark.

Michael Woods photos, ASSOCIATED PRESS

Missouri wide receiver Luther Burden III (3) takes a selfie with fans as he celebrates defeating Arkansas on Friday, Nov. 24, 2023, in Fayetteville, Ark.

Michael Woods, ASSOCIATED PRESS

Missouri defensive lineman Jayden Jernigan (0) gets past Arkansas wide receiver Andrew Armstrong (2) as he returns a fumble for a touchdown during the second half of an NCAA college football game Friday, Nov. 24, 2023, in Fayetteville, Ark.

Michael Woods – freelancer, ASSOCIATED PRESS

Arkansas running back Isaiah Augustave (23) gets past Missouri defensive back Sidney Williams (3) on the way to a touchdown during the second half of an NCAA college football game Friday, Nov. 24, 2023, in Fayetteville, Ark.

Michael Woods – freelancer, ASSOCIATED PRESS

Missouri running back Cody Schrader (7) is knocked out of bounds by Arkansas defensive back Hudson Clark (17) during the second half of an NCAA college football game Friday, Nov. 24, 2023, in Fayetteville, Ark.

Michael Woods – freelancer, ASSOCIATED PRESS

Missouri’s Kris Abrams-Draine (7) and Sidney Williams (3) celebrate with the Battle Line trophy after the team’s win over Arkansas in an NCAA college football game Friday, Nov. 24, 2023, in Fayetteville, Ark.

Michael Woods – freelancer, ASSOCIATED PRESS

Arkansas quarterback Jacolby Criswell (6) drops back to pass against Missouri during an NCAA college football game Friday, Nov. 24, 2023, in Fayetteville, Ark.

Michael Woods – freelancer, ASSOCIATED PRESS

Missouri running back Cody Schrader (7) is knocked out of bounds by Arkansas defensive back Lorando Johnson (1) during an NCAA college football game Friday, Nov. 24, 2023, in Fayetteville, Ark.

Michael Woods – freelancer, ASSOCIATED PRESS

Missouri quarterback Brady Cook (12) drops back to pass against Arkansas during the second half of an NCAA college football game Friday, Nov. 24, 2023, in Fayetteville, Ark.

Michael Woods – freelancer, ASSOCIATED PRESS

Missouri offensive lineman Armand Membou (79) is escorted off the field after being ejected from the game during an NCAA college football game against Arkansas Friday, Nov. 24, 2023, in Fayetteville, Ark.

Michael Woods – freelancer, ASSOCIATED PRESS

Missouri coach Eliah Drinkwitz, left, and Arkansas coach Sam Pittman shake hands after an NCAA college football game Friday, Nov. 24, 2023, in Fayetteville, Ark.

Michael Woods – freelancer, ASSOCIATED PRESS

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