USA Today Portrays Drinkwitz as Lion, Yurachek et al as Lambs, around SEC Football Schedule

Hunter Yurachek, Eli Drinkwitz, Arkansas football, Missouri football, Arkansas vs Missouri
photo credit: Nick Wenger / Missouri Athletics

Eli Drinkwitz isn’t normally typecast as a bastion of brawn and manliness.

The Missouri football head coach and Arkansas native usually finds himself at the bottom of any SEC coaches ranking that involves, say, physical toughness or however you want to define the opposite of jock-geekiness.

Consider the backlash that writer Barrett Sallee got for daring not to put Drinkwitz last on such a list last August:

Fast forward to May 2023 and Sallee revised his “Who Would a Fist Fight Among SEC Coaches” ranking to put Drinkwitz at dead last and Arkansas football coach Sam Pittman at No. 1. No question, Pittman definitely gets portrayed as a hoss way more often then Drinkwitz, who graduated from Arkansas Tech in 2004 after serving as the student body president.

And yet, in the recent debate about whether the SEC schedule should expand to 8 or 9 games once Texas and Oklahoma join the league, the widespread perception of Drinkwitz was temporarily flipped thanks to a glowing column from USA Today’s Blake Toppmeyer.

Eli Drinkwitz Gets Lionized

Toppmeyer portrayed Drinkwitz, who grew up in Alma, as a veritable lion of resolve by so strongly supporting the SEC adding an additional conference game. Drinkwitz, like other proponents for a 9-game SEC slate, threw out reasons such as:

9 SEC games allow for the preservation of more rivalries after the SEC gets rid of divisions following this season.

SEC games and rivalries fuel fan interest.

The move would mean the SEC joins the Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac-12 in playing nine conference games for years.

Toppmeyer also wrote those coaches who either wanted to remain at 8 games or appeared to waffle on the matter “should have worn chicken feathers while they clucked toward noncommittal stances. When asked whether they preferred eight or nine conference games, coaches like Nick Saban and Kirby Smart, hemmed, hawed, demurred and declined to plant a flag.”

Saban has noted that in future seasons Alabama, like some other top SEC teams, will play a tough non-conference schedule with two Power 5 opponents. Like other coaches and adminstrators who favor remaining at 8 games, Saban doesn’t see the point of adding an additional conference game to an already brutally tough slate when the current format is putting plenty of SEC teams into the College Football Playoffs (and presumably will produce more CFP teams once the playoffs expands to 12 teams in 2024).

Where Hunter Yurachek, Sam Pittman Stand

At the time Toppmeyer wrote his column at the SEC spring meetings, Hunter Yurachek and Sam Pittman hadn’t yet shared their opinions on the matter. What the Arkansas athletic director and Arkansas football coach eventually said, however, would put them in the “refusing to plant a flag” camp that the USA Today writer criticizes.

For Yurachek and Pittman, they are fine with either an eight-game schedule with one annual opponent and seven rotating opponents, or a nine-game SEC schedule with three permanent opponents and six rotating.

The former was eventually voted on as the model for the 2024 season with no decision on the format beyond then.

On an appearance on the “Paul Finebaum Show,” Yurachek said that going to a division-less format (where Arkansas doesn’t have to play the likes of Texas A&M, Alabama and LSU every year) benefits the Hogs more than the number of games overall. “I think a more balanced schedule is what’s best for the University of Arkansas,” he said. “And whether it’s eight or nine games, coach and I will figure out what it looks like after that.”

When referencing all the consistency with which SEC teams make the College Football Playoffs, he said: “The eight-game formula has worked so if that’s what we decide and move forward with it’s going to be what’s best for the Southeastern Conference.”

And later: “With eight it’s not broke. If they decide to go to nine we’ll do that as well.”

Mike Irwin’s Arkansas Football Sources

Meanwhile, Mike Irwin, the longtime Arkansas sportscaster, checked with a source in the Arkansas athletic department and seems to have confirmed on the inside what fans are on the outside are already fearing: Adding an extra SEC games + adding Texas and Oklahoma to the SEC = likely pain.

According to Irwin’s source, adding an extra SEC game by taking away what usually would be a Group of Five opponent would more likely hurt a team’s chance of making the playoffs, even when it expands to 12 teams.

“We’re still trying to build our [Arkansas football] program up,” Irwin relayed from the source on “Ask Mike.” “We’re fixing to allow two traditional football powers into a league that’s already tough as it can be. We know how tough it is. Every week, there’s somebody that can beat you… And now, you’re going to throw Texas and Oklahoma in there?”

In the end, the SEC will likely go to 9 games anyway. This may happen in 2025, as soon as the conference can squeeze the money out of ESPN that they want for such a deal. “SEC schools would like to see rights holder ESPN kick in more money for an extra conference game with Oklahoma and Texas joining the league in 2024, according to multiple sources within the conference,” ESPN’s Chris Low reported. Buying time for that negotiation is the real reason why, ultimately, the eight-game schedule was kept for 2024 but probably won’t last beyond that.

Next year, if by then the offer is on the table, there may not even be a debate any more. At that point, perhaps no reasonable person would dare stand in the way of progress and riches.

Expect that the rest of the conference would join Drinkwitz at that point. “Missouri’s coach has become the voice of reason,” Toppmeyer wrote, “while his coaching peers shrink into the shadows.” Of all the ups and downs of the SEC offseason so far, this one may be the most unexpected: Somehow, the man Irwin commonly refers to “Dinky-witz” made out as a hero while the likes of Saban, Smart and Pittman/Yurachek were portrayed, fairly or not, as shrinking violets.

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