[Update: And in addition to all of this, head coach Gary Pinkel announced Friday afternoon that this is his final season, due to a battle with lymphoma.]
A week ago, Missouri fans were still drying off. The football team had played Mississippi State in a deluge, and the biggest concern was coming to grips with missing a bowl game. At 4-5, the Tigers have been awesome on defense but are fraught with their worst offense in decades.
Now, football is only beginning to seep back into fans' minds. The Missouri basketball team debuts on Friday, and Gary Pinkel's Tigers take on BYU on Saturday at Arrowhead Stadium.
Since my Monday piece on everything Mizzou and football's role, a lot has happened. UM system president Tim Wolfe resigned, and chancellor R. Bowen Loftin, under fire from a completely different constituency (faculty, mostly), was demoted. For protesters, the call has shifted from "What do we want?" to "How do we get it?"
There is still tension, if you're looking for it. Two 19-year-old white males from different areas of the state have been arrested for making online terror threats, and Tuesday, Twitter assisted in an awful game of Telephone. Even student body president Payton Head passed along rumors, confirming members of the KKK were seen near campus when no such thing had happened.
For those who have followed the racial protests of the last 15 months or so, things took on a familiar, depressing tone. An online hoard looked for details to pick apart, with the idea being that discrediting one thing discredits everything. Hunger striker Jonathan Butler's family is rich! Therefore he couldn't possibly care enough to go on a hunger strike! And if Head blatantly lied about the KKK on campus, then he must be lying about all the other incidents! And has anybody even seen the poop swastika?
Mizzou players are only this powerful
This episode is a bit different in that, with the football team involving itself by boycotting until Butler's hunger strike ended once Wolfe stepped down, people with sports backgrounds have felt empowered to weigh in. Some have done a decent job, and others have proved themselves completely unworthy.
The result has been what the result always is: those looking for a reason to believe that the protesters' cause is illegitimate have claimed the ammo they need. They can say, "So-and-so raises some interesting questions ..." while having no intention of looking for answers. And when those answers are found -- photographic evidence of the Poop SwastikaTM, for instance -- they have already stopped paying attention, having reached the conclusions they were looking for.
Time for kickoff!
It is within this environment that Missouri plays a football game (7:30 p.m. ET, SEC Network).
It is a game that already carried some magnitude. Mizzou needs to win two of three to reach bowl eligibility. The offense is coming off of its best performance in weeks (technically a true statement; 13 points against Mississippi State was its best output since early October, 338 yards its best since late September) but will need to further improve against an aggressive, if occasionally glitchy, BYU defense. Running the ball will likely be the best option, while Mizzou's pass rush should keep BYU's offense in check. From my game preview at Rock M Nation:
The numbers don't really like Missouri's chances in this one, just as they haven't for the last month. S&P+ gives Mizzou just a 21 percent chance of winning with an average score of BYU 30, Mizzou 16. I don't see that many points being scored, honestly, but something like 23-13 still feels about right to me.
As usual, the script for a win here is pretty clear and isn't totally unrealistic. But the burden of proof is all on Missouri. The Tigers' offense must build on the progress of the run game and keep Drew Lock from getting completely mauled. The pass defense must tighten up a little bit -- it wasn't bad against MSU, but it wasn't good enough. Corey Fatony must produce as he was before last week in the rainstorm. And perhaps most of all, the team must show that there are no ill effects from the drama of last weekend's proposed boycott.
That's a lot of musts.
Missouri can obviously win this game but probably won't. And that's a shame because holy moly, would a win be a pretty good thing right about now. Not only would it keep Mizzou within shouting distance of a bowl bid, but it would also simply provide some good feelings for a fan base that lacks them at the moment. Mizzou became a pretty fractured place this week, and while a football game is only going to do so much good, well ... if this week has proven anything, it's that football has more of an effect on us than it should.
What about the impact of this week on recruiting and fan support?
Our Mizzou blog
Our Mizzou blog
Pinkel got a chance to prove the lengths to which he would go to stand behind his players, which has always been one of his most passionate selling points to recruits, so maybe that helps. Monday, he tried to fight a press conference to a draw as he described his support for his players' football boycott as being about Butler's hunger strike, rather than about Butler's stance on the system president. Or maybe the unrest will affect the decisions of recruits who just want to play football.
Missouri's 2016 class was mostly full heading into this week -- the Tigers have 16 commitments and, barring an exodus, are expected to only sign about 20 players -- and nothing has changed yet.
Because of Missouri's 4-5 record, attendance was already projected at far less than capacity at Arrowhead. And there is at most schools a pretty clear correlation between wins and season ticket sales and offseason donations. A sparse crowd might be pinned on this week's events, as might a drop in 2016 sales, but it will be hard to separate the effects of a disappointing season from the effects of the protest.
Reactions from Missouri fans this week have ranged from "I support this team now more than ever before. I've never been more proud" to "I'm never watching or donating to Missouri athletics again, I've never been more ashamed." (The latter is more frequent on talk radio.)
Of course, if sports were easy to give up, they wouldn't be this popular. When the team takes the field, we'll see how many people still choose to stay away. And we'll see whose principles soften if the Tigers actually pull off a win on Saturday.