Former Clemson quarterback Kelly Bryant, who led the Tigers to the 2017 College Football Playoff as their starter, announced his commitment to Missouri on Tuesday night after also considering Auburn, Arkansas, Mississippi State and North Carolina.
Stadium writers Andy Wittry and Chinmay Vaidya discussed what this means for Bryant, Missouri and Head Coach Barry Odom in 2019.
Andy: Having had a day to digest Kelly Bryant’s decision to transfer to Missouri, what’s your initial reaction to the news?
Chinmay: With Drew Lock headed to the NFL, Missouri had serious questions at quarterback heading into next season. Bryant answers those questions. He’ll still have to win the job, but Bryant has more experience and talent than any of the other QBs on the roster. Beating out college football heavyweights like Auburn and Miami in the “KB Sweepstakes” also boosts Missouri’s image nationally.
This was a huge commitment for a program trying to keep the momentum of an 8-4 season going. The Tigers are loaded across the board offensively next year anyway, and now they add a quarterback with playoff experience.
Andy: Definitely. It can’t be understated how important it is that Mizzou now has a reliable QB they can turn to. Let’s stick with the angle of him replacing Lock. Despite having a worse season, statistically, as a senior (3,125 passing yards, 63.2% completion, 7.8 Y/A, 25 TD, 8 INT) than his junior season (3,964 passing yards, 57.8% completion, 9.4 Y/A, 44 TD, 13 INT), Lock will leave Missouri as the school’s second-best quarterback ever, behind only Chase Daniel.
He has thrown for nearly 12,000 yards and 96 touchdowns with a 138 passing efficiency rating in his career.
As for Bryant, he’s a different type of quarterback than the pro-style Lock, whose arm has NFL front offices intrigued.
Lock ran for 145 yards and six touchdowns in 12 games this season. Bryant ran for 144 yards and two touchdowns in Clemson’s first four games while he was splitting snaps with current starter Trevor Lawrence. Bryant’s running ability makes him a potential 600-plus-yard rusher who could throw for 15 to 20 touchdowns next season and run for 10 more.
Bryant also has big-game experience. He was 23-of-29 passing for 252 yards and a touchdown, with another score on the ground, against Miami in last season’s ACC Championship. Clemson isn’t undefeated entering the playoff this season without Bryant’s performance at Texas A&M in Week 2, when he was 12-of-17 for 205 passing yards with 54 rushing yards and two total touchdowns.
How do you see a dual-threat quarterback like Bryant fitting in to Mizzou’s offense and could parts of his game remind Tiger fans of any recent Missouri quarterbacks?
Chinmay: I agree that Bryant is a different quarterback than Lock, mainly due to his running ability. Offensive coordinator Derek Dooley will likely be designing a read-option package with Bryant in mind.
That being said, Missouri has three great running backs returning next season. Larry Rountree III comes back as a 1,000-yard rusher who averaged 5.1 yards per carry and tallied 10 touchdowns. Damarea Crockett averaged 4.8 yards per carry on 147 attempts with seven touchdowns. Freshman Tyler Badie, who will also be involved in the passing game, averaged 5.1 yards per rush on 80 attempts. Missouri will lean on its running backs heavily next season, so it’ll be hard to see Bryant getting a lot of attempts himself.
Bryant reminds me of James Franklin, who led the Tigers to the 2013 SEC Championship Game despite suffering a shoulder injury in the middle of the season. Franklin was a strong runner, but Bryant is the better passing quarterback. Franklin didn’t exactly light the world on fire during that season despite having three NFL-caliber receivers and three efficient running backs.
The one advantage Bryant has over Lock is championship experience at the college level. The guy has experienced two national championship games as a backup to Deshaun Watson and won an ACC title while leading Clemson to the playoff as a starter. Bryant will bring those intangibles to Columbia.
I think Bryant committed to Missouri in part because he saw Dooley’s effect on Lock and wanted to improve his passing skills. He has aspirations to play at the next level and feels that this is the situation that will allow him to accomplish that goal. While the Tigers will largely lean on the running game next season, Bryant will be given ample opportunities to make big plays in the passing game. Missouri ranked 27th in passing offense and 44th in rushing offense last season, according to cfbstats.com. I expect the rushing numbers to go up and the passing numbers to stay the same.
This was also the best situation for Bryant if he wanted the opportunity to win right away. If you examined Missouri’s outlook for next season, is there a path for the Tigers to make serious noise?
Andy: It depends on how we define “noise.” I think there’s a path to Missouri being ranked in the top 15 when the 2019 College Football Playoff rankings debut in Week 10. But in the bigger playoff picture, it’s probably safe to write Alabama in one of the four playoff spots until the Crimson Tide fail to make the CFP. Georgia is the only SEC program that we know is currently capable of playing on Alabama’s level both head-to-head matchups and over the course of an entire season.
So I’m not going to predict Missouri to make the playoff or even win the SEC East, but I think Mizzou will have a (perhaps surprisingly) low number next to its name when it visits Athens on November 9.
In the first nine weeks of the 2019 season, Missouri’s schedule is as follows: at Wyoming, vs. West Virginia, vs. Southeast Missouri, vs. South Carolina, bye week, vs. Troy, vs. Ole Miss, at Vanderbilt and at Kentucky. That’s five home games and only two consecutive games on the road.
Then Missouri has another bye week before it plays Georgia. The SEC East runs through Athens, so if the Tigers beat the Bulldogs, this conversation changes. They finish the season at home against Florida and Tennessee, then on the road at Arkansas. Missouri’s crossover games against the SEC West are arguably as favorable as possible: at home against Ole Miss (5-7, 1-7 SEC) and on the road against Arkansas (2-10, 0-8 SEC).
The reality is that Bryant can potentially lead the Tigers into the fringes of the playoff conversation in early November if everything breaks right.
Next season will be Missouri head coach Barry Odom’s fourth year at the school and the Tigers have steadily improved from four wins to seven to eight, entering their bowl game this season. What does Bryant’s commitment mean for Missouri, its coach and its potential trajectory as a program, especially when you consider what’s going on at Georgia, Florida and Tennessee?
Chinmay: You mentioned the schedule setting up nicely for the Tigers. This likely factored into Bryant’s decision as well. Missouri gets to play in the weaker of the two SEC divisions and has five straight home games after the season opener at Wyoming. West Virginia will be without Will Grier. Missouri gets a bye week before heading to Georgia in what could potentially be the game that decides the SEC East winner.
Georgia and Florida will have the talent advantage over Missouri on paper, but the Tigers won in Gainesville this season and beat the Bulldogs “between the hedges” in 2013. With Bryant at the helm, Missouri should be expected to finish in the top three in the SEC East. Yes, Kirby Smart has built a monster in Athens, and Dan Mullen is off to successful start at Florida, but there won’t be many challengers outside those teams.
From a recruiting standpoint, this is the first high-profile national commitment Missouri has gotten from a player outside the state. Bryant’s commitment alone has put the program back in the national conversation. A 10-2 campaign and a game in Atlanta is not out of the realm of possibilities.
As far as Odom’s future at the school is concerned, he just signed a contract extension through the 2024 season. Which is big considering that after a devastating last-second loss to Kentucky (which Bryant witnessed first-hand), Odom was on the hot seat heading into the matchup with Florida. Prior to that game, Odom was 0-7 against Top 25 teams, and Lock lacked a signature performance against a quality defense. The win at Florida potentially changed the entire trajectory of the program, spurring the Tigers to an 8-4 record and netted Odom some much-needed job security.
But not everything is rosy in Columbia.
As talented as he is, Bryant can’t fix a defense that ranked 104th against the pass this season, according to cfbstats.com. When it comes to the front seven, Missouri’s 22nd-ranked run defense will definitely take a hit with the loss of three key defensive tackles and two starting linebackers.
Over the last three seasons, Missouri’s total defense has ranked 118th, 83rd and 53rd. Odom has made a name for himself as a defensive coach, but he’s yet to field a top defensive unit in his head coaching tenure. Despite the struggles on that side of the ball, the Tigers are 19-18 under him and are staring at another strong campaign. Don’t forget that he’s “Mizzou Made,” which sits well among the fanbase.
Do you think Odom has established himself as the right coach for the Tigers?
Andy: Odom has led Missouri on an upward trajectory since he became the head coach in 2016. The potential combination of Bryant’s commitment, a Liberty Bowl victory over Oklahoma State to cap off a nine-win season and Lock’s name being called early in the 2019 NFL Draft could create a ton of positive momentum for the program heading into next season.
If Odom can capitalize on the opportunity of Bryant’s only season in Columbia, when the Tigers have a favorable schedule and some of their SEC East foes are rebuilding or reloading, Missouri and its coach could be in a really good place one year from now.
Gary Pinkel, Odom’s predecessor, won at least eight games in eight of his nine seasons from 2006 to 2014, including two 12-win seasons. While Missouri cracked the eight-win mark this season for the first time since 2014, Odom’s new task is to do that consistently and give the Tigers the chance to win 10-plus games when the stars align.
If all goes according to plan, that could happen as soon as next season.