Monday, December 26, 2011

Tigers cap season with big bowl win

It was a resounding win, even if it came in the rain before a sparse crowd. Missouri’s dominating 41-24 win over North Carolina in the Independence Bowl both capped a late-season turnaround to salvage the season and also gave the Tigers momentum heading into an offseason that will include plenty of SEC-mania and discussions over how the Tigers will fare in their new conference home.

The bowl win was more business-like than exhilarating. The Tigers (8-5) were solid favorites, but unlike their last two bowls, they backed that up with a win. Missouri is a better team, and the Tar Heels (7-6), playing with an interim coach who is about to leave for an assistant job at Ohio State, seemed terrifically bored with the idea of played a glorified scrimmage the day after Christmas before a mostly empty stadium in Shreveport, La.

After a North Carolina touchdown on the opening drive, Missouri buried the Tar Heels with this sequence: Missouri touchdown (7-7), North Carolina punt, Missouri touchdown (14-7), North Carolina punt, Missouri field goal (17-7), North Carolina fumble, Missouri touchdown (24-7), North Carolina interception, Missouri touchdown (31-7). Ballgame.

The story of the day may have been Missouri mascot Truman the Tiger dropping the Independence Bowl trophy on the morning of the game, shattering its crystal top. But it’s also noteworthy that Missouri quarterback James Franklin ran for 142 yards, along with 132 yards passing.

Franklin went 8-5 in his first year as a starter, the same as Chase Daniel and Blaine Gabbert, his quarterback predecessors at Missouri. (Those two had 8-4 regular seasons followed by bowl game losses.) In Year 2 as starters, Daniel went 12-2 and led Missouri to a No. 1 ranking at one point, and Gabbert led the Tigers to a 10-3 mark. It’s maybe unfair to put such expectations on Franklin for next year, especially since the SEC hasn’t released its schedules at the time I write this, but Franklin’s progression is obviously a huge storyline for next year.

As for how Franklin progresses, we’ll see. But his maturation will be key in answering the big question for next year’s Tigers…

Can Missouri win the SEC East Division in its first year in the conference? Georgia is probably the favorite, as the Bulldogs won the East this season and quarterback Aaron Murray said “there’s no chance” he would leave school early to enter the 2012 NFL Draft. There are persisting reports that Missouri will get Georgia in Columbia, to open its SEC schedule, which would help the Tigers immensely.

South Carolina should have another strong defense, and head coach Steve Spurrier is a talented offensive mind who should at least field a respectable offense. Florida and Tennessee struggled with several young offensive players this season, but both are daunting programs if they get rolling. Vanderbilt and Kentucky can’t be viewed as contenders until they actually prove they can be.

The very early answer: Missouri can compete for this division right away. But for now, Tiger fans can simply enjoy the bowl victory and the four straight wins to finish the season, the first time Missouri has done that since 1965.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Tigers show mettle heading into conference play

Over the course of a season, all teams face adversity. Every team has nights when they are out-of-rhythm, when the opponent seemingly can’t miss, when opposing fans are roaring and things are just difficult. How a team responds to this tells a lot about the team and how they’ll fare over the course of the season.

Last Thursday’s Braggin’ Rights game against Illinois was one of those nights for Missouri. The Tigers were on fire in the first half, and took a 15-point lead early in the second half.

However, Illinois stormed back to briefly take the lead with a few minutes to play. Part of the rally was improved play by the Illini, but Missouri also allowed the comeback, forcing some quick, lower-quality shots. Missouri couldn’t seem to get much to go right, and Illinois’ half of the neutral-site crowd was at full throat.

But Missouri dug deep, made some plays around the rim, and pulled out the 78-74 win.

It was the kind of win that should look good on Missouri’s NCAA Tournament resume all season long.

It also lifted Missouri to 12-0 heading into a weeklong stretch with no games. It is Missouri’s best start in a generation, since a 19-0 start in the 1981-82 season.

After one more nonconference game, at Old Dominion on Dec. 30 (6 p.m. on ESPNU), Missouri embarks on its rugged 18-game conference schedule, expanded from a 16-game Big 12 slate in previous seasons. The Tigers have shown they’re capable of contending for the regular season conference title, which they haven’t won since the 1993-94 season.

Based on nonconference play, the other leading contenders for the Big 12 title are probably Kansas and Baylor.

Any discussion of the Big 12 contenders must start with the Jayhawks, who have won at least a share of seven straight Big 12 regular season titles. Kansas has showed some flaws early, particularly in turnovers committed by guard Tyshawn Taylor, but the Jayhawks have played the toughest nonconference schedule among the Big 12 teams, facing Kentucky, Duke, Ohio State and some other solid teams.

Baylor is an enigma. The Bears are super-talented, led by Perry Jones III and Quincy Acy. But they were supposedly pretty talented last year, too, and didn’t come close to winning the league title. Also, Baylor has played an extremely weak nonconference schedule, recently playing some team (or someone?) named Paul Quinn. So Baylor is ranked in the top 10, but untested. Once conference play starts in early January, we’ll find out quickly what the Bears have.

Also keep an eye on Kansas State. The Wildcats have finished in the top four in the Big 12 every year under Frank Martin. Coach Lon Kruger has Oklahoma playing well in his first season in Norman. On the flip side, Texas A&M was viewed as a contender in the preseason, but the Aggies have had some stumbles so far, including a home loss to Rice.

These Big 12 challenges await, but Tiger fans have to be feeling good about their team heading into 2012.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Appreciating the Missouri-Illinois rivalry

Missouri rolled overmatched William & Mary on Sunday, one last big win over a weaker home nonconference opponent. Missouri’s 94-56 win came against a team that struggles to score, but it moved Missouri to 11-0 and set the stage for a big game with Illinois on Thursday in St. Louis (8 p.m. on ESPN2).

Illinois is having a pretty good start to the season, as the Illini were undefeated until losing last Saturday to UNLV in Chicago. Despite that setback, this neutral-site game is still the kind that will carry some weight when the NCAA Selection Committee begins handing out seeds for the NCAA Tournament in March.

The Tigers’ annual matchup with Illinois, dubbed the Braggin’ Rights Game, has been played each December in St. Louis since 1983. (The Tigers and Illini also played there in 1980 and 1981.)

It’s an interesting rivalry between the two schools. Speaking from the Missouri side, this rivalry has nowhere near the animosity of the epic rivalry with Kansas, but it certainly gets the juices flowing for their annual, pre-Christmas matchup. The arena is usually always about a 50-50 split of fans from each school, making for a pretty passionate atmosphere.

Especially with the impending end (perhaps temporarily) of Missouri’s heated rivalry with Kansas, Tiger fans are possibly appreciating this rivalry with Illinois a bit more. No, Missouri hasn’t been playing Illinois for a hundred years, but the Tigers and Illini do have a solid 30-year history of some intense and thrilling games.

In 1988, No. 5 Illinois won 87-84 over No. 10 Missouri. The following year, No. 5 Illinois topped No. 4 Missouri 101-93. In 1993, Missouri prevailed 108-107 in triple overtime. Illinois won nine straight from 2000 through 2008, then Missouri broke through with an emotional win in 2009. Missouri then won again in 2010, the Tigers’ first win in the series in which both teams were ranked. Illinois had won the first six meetings in which both teams were ranked. Overall, Illinois leads the series 20-10.

This year’s Braggin’ Rights Game should be a good test for both teams. Missouri has played three neutral-site games so far, but Thursday’s game against Illinois will probably have more fans of the other team than any of Missouri’s games to date, so it will be a nice chance for the Tigers to get used to playing in a hostile atmosphere. Or at least a half-hostile atmosphere.

Illinois has struggled to score at times early in the season. Illinois’ leading scorer is D.J. Richardson, but Meyers Leonard may be the X-factor in this game. Leonard leads the Illini in rebounding and is second in scoring, currently making over 60 percent of his shots. He was big in Illinois’ nice win over Gonzaga earlier this season, but then he was a virtual non-factor in the loss to UNLV.

Missouri can get points from a number of sources, with three players, Marcus Denmon, Kim English and Mike Dixon, who have each scored at least 30 points in a game this year. Both teams are capable, but we’ll see if Missouri can keep rolling.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Haith and the Tigers rolling early

Do you remember when Missouri hired Frank Haith to be its men’s basketball coach?

Most people, myself included, were pretty skeptical of the move, which seemed like a second (or third) choice after Missouri couldn’t lure Matt Painter away from Purdue.

Haith went 129-101 in seven seasons at Miami, but his teams had been 43-69 in Atlantic Coast Conference play, and they only made the NCAA Tournament one time in his tenure at Miami.

Sure, Miami is a pretty poor basketball program and a tough place to win, but after Duke and North Carolina at the top, the ACC had plenty of coaching turnover and mediocrity in Haith’s time at Miami. Throw in explosive scandal allegations that surfaced in August about Miami athletics that at least somewhat involved Haith, and there was doubt about the hire.

Fast forward to now. What a difference winning makes. Missouri, 9-0 through Sunday and ranked in the top 10, is one of just nine remaining unbeaten Division I teams. Haith has the senior-laden Tigers playing outstanding basketball at both ends of the court.

Last year, under coach Mike Anderson, the Tigers were all about pressure and forcing turnovers. Naturally, when the gambles didn’t pay off, Missouri would get burned for easy layups. That’s just a by-product of Anderson’s system, but it happened far too often late last season.

This year, Haith’s Tigers appear to making opponents earn their buckets a bit more, playing sound halfcourt defense.

It’s early in the season, but you can see Haith has Missouri’s key contributors playing well. Senior Marcus Denmon is making 53 percent of his shots, including 49.2 percent of his three-pointers. (If he makes his next three, he’ll have made exactly 50 percent.) Fellow seniors Ricardo Ratliffe and Steve Moore have been improved inside.

Another senior, Kim English, often under extra scrutiny due to his charismatic personality, has been having a great early season. Last year was a struggle for English, as he made only 36.6 percent of his shots. This year he’s making 56.3 percent of his shots and looking very comfortable in the offense. He’s also shown skill at drawing charges, which helps compensate for the team’s overall lack of size.

Sophomore guard Phil Pressey has been a dynamic playmaker, setting up his teammates with great passing, often after breaking down defenses with some dribbling. Pressey averaged 3.9 assists last year; this season he’s at 5.7 per game, with slightly fewer turnovers per game.

Again, it’s early, both this for this team and for Haith’s career at Missouri. They do have quality wins, including routs of Notre Dame (with the now-injured Tim Abromaitis) and California in Kansas City and a win over Villanova in New York City.

But the big tests remain, including the neutral-site rivalry game with Illinois on Dec. 22 (8 p.m. on ESPN2), the first true road game, at Old Dominion, and the 18-game conference schedule.

But the very early returns have been good, so Tiger fans can be optimistic about this season, and their first-year coach.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Pujols and storybooks

"You want the hero to stay and complete the storybook."

-Bernie Miklasz, in today's Bernie's Bytes

I'm a fan of Bernie. I don't read all of his stuff (he's far to prolific at producing content), but when I do, it's usually pretty good. He certainly knows his stuff. The line above got me thinking. I think it describes the sentimental and reasonable disappointment fans have with Albert Pujols leaving the Cardinals to sign with the Angels very well. But...

Pujols leaving now means his career in St. Louis is more like an actual storybook plot arc. Think about it, kids' storybooks usually end right after the climax (in this case, the heart-stopping, improbable pennant race, playoffs and seven-game World Series victory). The Very Hungry Caterpillar becomes a beautiful butterfly and the book ends. In virtually every Disney movie, the guy and girl get together... and they live happily ever after. Roll the credits. Charles Dickens' classic "A Christmas Carol" ends right after Scrooge's life-altering experience. In that sense, the Pujols-as-a-Cardinal book ends with him at or near his fearsome peak, as a champion, with every season one to be proud of.

But we know in reality, life goes on. Whether it's in a year or five years or more, Pujols will decline, as virtually all players do. But that's not supposed to be part of the storybook. We don't read about the Hungry Caterpillar slogging his way through a challenging season, hitting .260 as the fans uncomfortably debate if he should be benched or replaced with the Full Caterpillar.

So yes, Cardinals fans won't have to see the fading years of Pujols' career, won't have to uneasily avert their eyes when he strikes out on a pitch he would have once hit. In a Cardinal uniform, Pujols will forever be sealed in time as the best player in the game for those days, now over.

So why are Cardinals fans upset?

Because they loved him. Because he belonged in St. Louis, and his leaving IS a part of his St. Louis story. The storybook couples don't grow old in most stories, but they sure don't leave each other on the last page.

Sure, they could just trade him in for a newer model, say a shiny 2011 Prince Fielder, like politicians do with their wives. But the fans wanted to grow old with him, watch him use his otherworldly skills to stay in his prime longer than most, to win more, to hit milestones.

Ah, the milestones. I mean, Derek Jeter HAD to get his 3,000th hit as a Yankee, right? Jeter's a rare example of an icon playing with one team for his whole career, and he's also an example of how painful it can be for a beloved player to age under the microscope. He struggled in 2010 and the early part of 2011.

And then, that glorious summer day that he got the 3,00th hit. Jeter smacked five hits that day, including a home run for No. 3,000. Yankee Stadium shook. Jeter took off after that, ended up hitting .297 after the slow start. Suddenly, everyone was reminded many players are useful up until the day the retire. (And given the state of American League shortstops at the plate, .297 looks pretty good.)

Moments like that are what Cardinals fans have been robbed of. An aging athlete putting on a throwback performance is one of sport's greatest thrills. So are those long, goosebump-inducing standing ovations when the beloved icon reaches a milestone or breaks a hallowed past legend's franchise record. And a longtime sports hero digging deep to come up big in the crucible of the playoffs.

The Cards still have Yadier Molina, payroll flexibility and every bit of their rich history. But the Albert Pujols Cardinal storybook is out of pages, and for my money, that's a shame.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Tigers to face North Carolina in Independence Bowl

After much anticipation, Missouri will play North Carolina on Dec. 26 (4 p.m. on ESPN2) in the Independence Bowl in Shreveport, La.

The Big 12 Conference no longer has a tie-in deal with the Independence Bowl, but the league had one more bowl eligible team (eight) than bowl tie-ins (seven). There were concerns among some Missouri fans that the Big 12 might give the Tigers a less-than-desirable bowl destination given Missouri’s pending move to the Southeastern Conference. However, Missouri officials said that Big 12 officials were actually helpful in securing a bowl location for the Tigers. Missouri finished fifth in the Big 12, but the bowls aren’t obligated to select teams in the order they finished, lending to the madness of the bowl selection process.

It’s understandable if Missouri fans don’t get too excited about the team’s third trip to the Independence Bowl in nine years. The players surely aren’t thrilled about spending Christmas in Shreveport, and this matchup of 7-5 teams is certainly less-than-scintillating. But it’s still a game for Tiger fans to enjoy during the holidays.

North Carolina had some preseason controversy when coach Butch Davis was fired 38 days before the season began amid an NCAA investigation of academic misconduct and improper benefits for players. Defensive coordinator Everett Withers became the interim head coach and led the Tar Heels to a 7-5 season. However, North Carolina lost four of its last six games, finishing 3-5 in Atlantic Coast Conference play, tied for fourth in the ACC’s Coastal Division.

North Carolina is certainly known for its basketball tradition, but it has had mild football success lately; a bowl win would give the Heels a fourth straight 8-5 season.

Defensively, North Carolina has some talent on its defensive line that could challenge Missouri’s solid running game. Sophomore quarterback Bryn Renner directs the Tar Heels’ offense with a 68.8 completion percentage and 23 touchdown passes against 12 interceptions. Running Back Giovani Bernard ran for 1,222 yards with a healthy 5.4 yards per carry, and senior receiver Dwight Jones has been a very reliable target, with 79 catches for 1,119 yards and 11 touchdowns.

With no common opponents, it’s tough to gauge how this game will go. In general I’m underwhelmed by ACC football teams, but Missouri has had its inconsistencies this year. With the Big 12’s stronger national reputation and Missouri’s three-game win streak, I’d expect Missouri to be a slight favorite in this game.

Missouri is 12-16 alltime in bowl games, including 3-4 under Pinkel. This is Missouri’s seventh straight year in a bowl, but making a bowl is nowhere near the accomplishment it once was; 58.3 percent of Division I-A teams and eight of 10 Big 12 teams made a bowl.

So in some ways this is just another so-so game on the bloated slate of 35 bowl games. But it’s also a chance for Missouri to win at least eight games for the sixth straight year, avoid losing six games for the first time since 2004, and recover from two straight tough bowl losses. Also, a four-game winning streak to close the season would be nice as the Tigers prepare to move to the wild world of SEC football next season.

What a 16-team playoff would look like this year

Just in case anyone was curious, here is what a 16-team college football playoff would look like this year, taking the 11 conference champions and five at-large teams. Seeding based on BCS standings. For conference champions not in the BCS top 25, I used their rank in the "also receiving votes" portion of the Coaches Poll, which is a third of the BCS formula.

16 Louisiana Tech

8 Kansas State
9 Wisconsin

4 Stanford
13 West Virginia

5 Oregon
12 Southern Miss

6 Arkansas
11 Texas Christian

3 Oklahoma State
14 Northern Illinois

7 Boise State
10 Clemson

2 Alabama
15 Arkansas State

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Taking a look at Missouri's 2011 season

Last Saturday Missouri closed out its regular season and, for the foreseeable future, the Border War with a 24-10 win over Kansas, capping a modest three-game winning streak.

Kansas clawed to a 10-0 lead as Missouri quarterback James Franklin struggled with interceptions, but then Missouri got out of its way and rolled this underwhelming Kansas team (2-10, 0-9 in Big 12 play), scoring 24 unanswered points.

Missouri held Kansas to a paltry 137 yards of offense. It was a great defensive performance, even if Kansas’ offensive players often appear to be running in knee-deep water. On offense, eight different Tigers caught a pass.

The three straight wins to end the season certainly casts a better light on what was at times a frustrating season for the Tigers. Missouri was 4-5 before the three wins, two of which came at home with the other, last Saturday’s game in Kansas City, at a neutral site that was at least a 70-30 fan split in favor of Missouri. The schedule was certainly tougher early on, but credit Missouri for doing what it needed to do against Texas, Texas Tech and Kansas to ensure a winning season.

For me, this season highlighted how narrow the margin is between success and failure in big-time college football. If the formerly reliable Grant Ressel makes a field goal at Arizona State, Missouri has eight wins with a shot at nine should they win their bowl. On the flip side, if Texas A&M doesn’t gag away the game against the Tigers and Missouri doesn’t get a tipped interception inside the five-yard line against Texas Tech, they might not be in a bowl at all.

But things did unfold that way, and Missouri finishes the regular season 7-5, 5-4 in Big 12 play. The rose-colored glasses set of Missouri prognosticators had this team winning nine or 10 games, but most even-keeled media outlets had them going 8-4, also the record I thought they would post. So in that light, 7-5 is an acceptable mark, especially with Missouri having a first-year starter at the most important position, quarterback. Call it a rebuilding year if you must.

The frustration came from the inconsistency, flashes of brilliance mixed with Missouri beating Missouri, as well as what could have been; Missouri lost three games by a touchdown or less.

Next year will certainly be a huge year. Missouri joins the SEC, and the door is open for Missouri to compete in the East Division right away. Also, if this was a rebuilding season, okay, just don’t start stringing them together.

But first Missouri has its 29th bowl game. The Big 12 has a bowl selection order, but the bowls aren’t obligated to select teams in the order they finished, so the resulting process is about as predictable as spring weather. The most likely bowl destinations seem be the Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium in New York City or the Texas Bowl in Houston. The Insight and Holiday Bowls are also possible. The Tigers’ bowl announcement should come on Sunday, Dec. 4.

Monday, November 21, 2011

After a season of distractions, focus shifts to Border War

Seemingly all season long in college football, off-the-field events have overshadowed the actual games, both at Missouri and across the nation. Last week was no exception, with Missouri coach Gary Pinkel’s stunning arrest for drunk driving.

It was an indefensibly dumb move for a coach who makes thousands of dollars a day not to call a cab or catch a ride with someone else. It was disappointing to see the leader of a program that has struggled recently with drinking and driving make such an error. But Pinkel was contrite and apologetic, and the athletic department suspended him for a week and imposed financial penalties totaling over $300,000 in lost bonuses and pay.

Without Pinkel, against an underwhelming Texas Tech team last Saturday, Missouri fell behind, rallied in the fourth quarter, and then Dominique Hamilton tipped a pass inside the 10-yard line and Michael Sam intercepted it at the four to preserve a 31-27 win. The victory improved Missouri to 6-5 (4-4 in Big 12 play), making them bowl eligible.

And now, after a season of conference realignment speculation and a week of hearing that Pinkel told police he couldn’t count down from 72 to 63 under normal circumstances, the focus is squarely on the field for Missouri’s last game, the Border War game with Kansas (2:30 p.m. Saturday on Fox Sports Network).

With Missouri moving to the Southeastern Conference starting next season and Kansas saying it won’t schedule nonconference games with Missouri, this is the 120th and, for the foreseeable future, last meeting between these ancient rivals. And that’s a shame.

The series is legendary for how bitterly and closely contested it is. Since they first met on Oct. 31, 1891, they have played 119 times. Nine times they tied, and each team has won 55 games on the field in the series. (Missouri claims a 56-54-9 series lead, given that Kansas had to forfeit the 1960 game for using an ineligible player. Kansas, naturally, disagrees and counts the results on the field for its 55-55-9 series total.)

It is the oldest college football rivalry west of the Mississippi River and the second oldest overall. The rivalry’s roots stretch back to actual armed conflict before and during the Civil War. It is black and gold versus red and blue. The Columns versus Mount Oread. Missouri’s soybean farmers versus Kansas’ wheat farmers. It is the culture, the history, the rivalry, and a desperate desire to beat the other.

This year Kansas (2-9, 0-8 in Big 12 play) is simply awful. They’ll likely give it all they have against their chief rival, but Missouri has the talent to overwhelm the Jayhawks, who are 1-15 in Big 12 play under embattled coach Turner Gill.

It’s been a season of distractions, and the final outcome of this Border War seems predetermined. But on Saturday take a moment, or maybe several, to savor this rivalry that has meant so much to both schools. Here’s hoping that someday the Tigers and Jayhawks find a way to battle it out on the gridiron (and the basketball court) again.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Missouri's defense dominant in win over Texas

In the Southeastern Conference, Missouri’s conference home starting next year, teams usually win with dominating defense. Last Saturday, Missouri did just that, shutting down Texas in a 17-5 win.

Missouri (5-5, 3-4 in Big 12 play) held No. 16 Texas (6-3, 3-3 in Big 12) to just 247 yards of offense a week after yielding nearly 700 at Baylor.

It was something of a watershed win, as Texas was the one Big 12 school Missouri coach Gary Pinkel had never beaten. Texas had won 15 of its last 16 games with Missouri, including three straight wins by at least 25 points. Fairly or unfairly, Texas has been portrayed as the conference bully responsible for driving Missouri and three other schools away from the Big 12 over the past year and a half. (That is, the off-the-field bully; Oklahoma has ruled the conference on the field, to chagrin of the Longhorns.)

To be fair, two of Texas’ top three running backs were out with injury, and the other, Fozzy Whittaker, was knocked out of the game with a knee injury on the first drive. Texas’ two quarterbacks, David Ash and Case McCoy, are limited passers at this point and were almost completely ineffective on a gray, windy day at Faurot Field, completing only 44.4 percent of their combined pass attempts.

But make no mistake, this was still a fine defensive performance by the Tigers. Missouri stood strong at the line of scrimmage and made some nice open-field tackles to prevent big plays.

Against Texas’ strong defense, Missouri did enough offensively, scoring two first half touchdowns. But the black mark on an otherwise encouraging day came in the third quarter, when Missouri running back Henry Josey, already a 1,000-yard rusher on the season, suffered a gruesome knee injury, tearing his ACL, MCL and patellar tendon. Doctors expect a full recovery, but he will miss the rest of this season and quite possibly some of next season.

The silver lining is that Missouri’s two remaining games are against maybe the two worst teams in the Big 12, Texas Tech and Kansas.

To call Texas Tech (5-5, 2-5 in Big 12) an enigma would be an understatement. The Red Raiders scored an epic upset at Oklahoma in October, snapping the Sooners’ 39-game home winning streak. The very next week, Texas Tech was roasted at home by Iowa State, 41-7.

Tech supposedly has an explosive offense, but then last week No. 2 Oklahoma State humiliated the Red Raiders 66-6 in Lubbock. That gasp-worthy final score makes you wonder how Tech could possibly bounce back against Missouri on Saturday in Columbia (2:30 p.m. on ABC), except for Tech’s aforementioned unpredictability.

Texas Tech quarterback Seth Doege can be dangerous when he gets rolling. Tech’s pass-based offense plays more to Missouri’s defensive weaknesses than Texas’ ground-based attack did.

However, Texas Tech’s defense isn’t very good, ranking 117th out of 120 Division I-A teams in run defense. Even without Josey, I expect Missouri to have a big day on the ground and get the win to become bowl-eligible.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

SEC-bound Tigers mess with Texas

“S-E-C! S-E-C! S-E-C!”

The chant rose up from Baylor fans last Saturday in Waco after their Bears had sealed a 42-39 win over Missouri, mocking the Tigers’ efforts to join the Southeastern Conference even as their on-field Big 12 Conference performance has faltered this season.

The loss, in which Baylor did pretty much whatever it wanted on offense, rolling up a school-record 697 yards of offense, dropped Missouri to 4-5, including 2-4 in Big 12 play in its last season competing in the conference.

Sunday morning brought the long-awaited official confirmation from the university that Missouri would leave the Big 12 for the SEC, effective July 1, 2012. After more than a century in the Big 12 and its forerunners (Big Eight, Big Six, Missouri Valley), Missouri’s schedule will no longer include longtime adversaries Kansas State, Iowa State, Oklahoma and Kansas.

I certainly see why Missouri went to the SEC: stability, perhaps more money and a chance to get away from the seemingly dysfunctional Big 12. I am excited to watch Missouri against the tradition-rich, passionate SEC programs. But my nostalgia wishes it would have worked to stay in the Big 12. Kansas has said it won’t schedule nonconference games with Missouri, and the loss of the Border War rivalry is a crushing blow to the soul of Mizzou and college sports in general. Life goes on, but the end of the oldest football rivalry west of the Mississippi River is a shame, regardless of whose fault it is.

As for the immediate future, the conference realignment hysteria can’t entirely overshadow the struggles Missouri is having on the field this season. The Tigers seem like a competitive bunch, and yet they’ve trailed by double digits in the fourth quarter in five of six conference games this year.

Now 4-5, Missouri must win two of its last three games to be bowl eligible at 6-6. Next up is Texas at home (11 a.m. Saturday on FX). It makes for fascinating timing, given that Texas’ overwhelming influence has been blamed in some circles for driving Big 12 teams away. Texas athletic director DeLoss Dodds has said, “We don’t keep up with the Joneses. We are the Joneses.”

Tiger fans can hope Missouri’s announced departure won’t give Texas any extra motivation, because the Longhorns have been playing pretty good football. After a 5-7 disaster last season, Texas is 6-2 and could finish third in the Big 12. They aren’t great yet, but they seem to be improving.

After the young Longhorns were blown out by more experienced Oklahoma in the Red River Shootout, Texas has bounced back, playing a competitive game with unbeaten Oklahoma State and then dominating Kansas and Texas Tech at home. Texas is a rare Big 12 school that can actually play good defense. They also have a punishing ground game led by running backs Fozzy Whittaker and freshman Joe Bergeron.

To win, Missouri must avoid falling behind yet again, because coming back against a defense and run game combination like Texas has could be too much to ask.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Missouri defense sparks rally, Baylor up next

One of the great thrills of college football is that one dramatic play can turn around a drive, a game, a season. Last Saturday, the Missouri defense made such a play, which could have great implications for the team going forward.

Missouri was a double-digit underdog at then-No. 16 Texas A&M, trailing 28-17 early in the fourth quarter. Venerable Kyle Field was rocking, and the Aggies were driving into Missouri territory, looking to put the game away. Missouri was 3-4, and another loss would have seriously jeopardized the Tigers’ bowl chances, given their remaining schedule.

But then, the play. Missouri defensive end Brad Madison roared around the edge and hit Texas A&M quarterback Ryan Tannehill’s arm as he tried to throw. This caused the ball to sail off target, and Missouri’s Randy Ponder intercepted it, returning it all the way to the A&M 30 yard line.

With new life, Missouri took just three running plays to score a touchdown. The defense forced a three-and-out from A&M, and then Missouri drove 79 yards in six plays to take the lead.

The Aggies would force overtime, but Missouri scored a touchdown and then stopped A&M to pick up the 38-31 win, the Tigers’ first road win over a ranked team since 1997, over Oklahoma State.

Blowing big leads has kind of been Texas A&M’s thing this year. In each of their three losses, the Gaggies have coughed up double-digit leads in the second half.

Now 4-4 (2-3 in Big 12), the Tigers are surely feeling some relief and also the new life that comes with winning a game that sure looked like it would be a loss.

Missouri needs to split its four remaining games (at Baylor, Texas, Texas Tech, Kansas in Kansas City) for bowl eligibility and take three of four for a winning regular season.

The Baylor game (6 p.m., Fox Sports Network) should be a wild and wacky Saturday night in Waco. Some early lines have it as a toss-up, pick ’em type game.

Baylor has an explosive offense led by quarterback Robert Griffin III and receiver Kendall Wright. However, the Bears defense has been pretty bad (giving up 44 points per game in Big 12 play, better only than the abominable Kansas defense). Baylor finds itself 4-3 (1-3 in Big 12) after an encouraging 3-0 start.

Last week, No. 3 Oklahoma State rolled to a 49-3 lead over the Bears before showing some mercy en route to a 59-24 win. It had to be demoralizing for Baylor, given the Bears’ rising aspirations.

It’s tough to pick a winner in a coin-flip game like this. It is Baylor’s Homecoming, which may give the Bears a boost. Griffin presents a special challenge with his track-star speed and improved passing ability. Tight games often come down to turnovers, and Baylor is last in the Big 12 in turnover margin. If that trend continues, Missouri should pick up a second straight road win. But if and when Baylor’s offense gets going, anything can happen in Waco.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Big 12 schedule is proving tough for Tigers

With Missouri’s seemingly inevitable move to the Southeastern Conference, much is being made about how difficult it would be to compete in the SEC, generally regarded as the best football conference in the nation.

Turns out, the Big 12 is proving to be plenty tough in its own right, thank you very much. Five of the league’s 10 teams are ranked, with two more knocking on the door. There are few easy weeks in this Big 12, a point driven home with Texas Tech’s stunning win at Oklahoma, the Sooners’ first home conference loss in 10 years.

No longer shielded by the divisional format used when the Big 12 had, you know, 12 teams, Missouri (3-4, 1-3 in Big 12 play) is feeling the full force of the teams that formerly made up the Big 12 South Division.

The latest example was last Saturday’s 45-24 home loss to Oklahoma State (7-0, 4-0 Big 12). Oklahoma State, now ranked No. 3, has a breathtaking offense that roared to a 21-3 lead. Missouri rallied to close within seven at the half. But in the second half, with OSU super-receiver Justin Blackmon out with injury, running back Joseph Randle and the rest of the Cowboys’ offense kept humming along. Combine this with a rash of Missouri turnovers, and the Tigers were doomed.

Now Missouri is scrambling to make a bowl game (they have to get to 6-6 to be bowl eligible), but the meat-grinder schedule continues. If Missouri is to make something of this season, not to mention salvage some dignity for that likely walk out the door to the SEC, I think the next three games are critical. Missouri has a chance in all three, but may be underdogs for each game. These games are at Texas A&M, at Baylor and home against Texas. Games with Texas Tech and Kansas afterward present their own challenges, but if Missouri whiffs on these next three the season will already be lost by then.

At No. 16 Texas A&M (11 a.m. Saturday on FX): The Aggies blew large leads to Oklahoma State and Arkansas, but they’ve won all five of their other games, including three straight. A&M has a balanced offense, ranking in the top 20 nationally in passing and rushing yards. A&M’s defense has been merely average, but winning at Kyle Field is tough.

At Baylor (Nov. 5): After a 3-0 start, Baylor has lost its first three Big 12 games. It may be four by the time Mizzou travels to Waco, given Baylor’s game Saturday at Oklahoma State. Like many Big 12 teams, Baylor is all about offense, with sensational quarterback Robert Griffin III and freakishly athletic receiver Kendall Wright.

Texas (Nov. 12): Texas is tough to gauge. The Longhorns have beaten four lesser teams and lost to Oklahoma and Oklahoma State. They have talent, but have lost seven of their last eight Big 12 games. Texas is the only Big 12 school Missouri coach Gary Pinkel has never beaten. This may be his best shot, and it may be a game his team sorely needs.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Tigers win big on Homecoming, prepare for No. 6 Cowboys' visit

Last Saturday was a good day to be a Tiger.

Skies above were blue, like the fight song says, and Missouri celebrated its 100th Homecoming with a 52-17 win over Iowa State. The weather was perfect, the stadium was sold out, and the Tigers did not commit a single penalty. Nothing would ruin this day in the sun, a portrait of autumn at Faurot Field.

Perhaps soothing some of the pain of the Tigers’ 2-3 start, the win was a critical dose of confidence and success prior to a tough four-game stretch for Missouri (3-3, 1-2 in Big 12 play).

Against the Cyclones (3-3, 0-3 Big 12), Missouri quickly put to rest any notion of an upset. The Tigers came out running, with plenty of carries for dynamic running back Henry Josey, who posted 129 yards on 19 carries.

Missouri scored touchdowns on each of its first four drives to take control of the game at 28-3. The Tigers were much better at converting third downs, doing better on first and second down to make things easier.

Keeping drives going will be critical on Saturday, when No. 6 Oklahoma State (6-0, 3-0 Big 12) comes to town (11 a.m. on FX).

Oklahoma State has a powerful offense, a machine led by quarterback Brandon Weeden, running back Joseph Randle and Justin Blackmon, who won the Biletnikoff Award last year as the nation’s top receiver. The Cowboys are averaging 49.2 points per game, including 46 per game in Big 12 play.

Oklahoma State’s defense is less accomplished, but defensive coordinator Bill Young is well respected, and he’ll at least keep Missouri honest.

Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy, who played for the Cowboys in the 1980s and is the school’s second leading passer, first gained national fame for a memorable postgame rant in defense of a player (“I’m a man! I’m 40! Come after me!”). But now he has won 15 of his last 19 conference games. He’s built a legitimate conference title contender at his alma mater.

These Cowboys will be the best team to face Mizzou this season at Faurot, where the Tigers have won 10 straight, tying for the school’s second-longest home winning streak.

That other 10-game home winning streak? Pesky Oklahoma State ended that one, in 2008. The Cowboys came to Columbia as two-touchdown underdogs, but they knocked off then-No. 3 Missouri 28-23, shattering any Tiger fans’ dreams of running the table following the unforgettable 2007 season in which Mizzou finished No. 4.

Prior to that, Oklahoma State’s last trip to Columbia came in 2004, when the Cowboys rallied from a 17-0 deficit to beat the Tigers 20-17 on Homecoming. Killjoys. As you can see, Missouri owes Oklahoma State one at Faurot Field.

With that history, and both teams’ ability to score in bunches, I’m expecting a wildly entertaining, shootout game. Winning this one will be tough, but if Missouri has an edge in turnovers and establishes its run game like it did against Iowa State, the Tigers have a chance.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Tigers need a Homecoming turnaround

After No. 20 Kansas State’s meticulous 24-17 win over Missouri (2-3, 0-2 in Big 12 games) last Saturday, the Tigers’ bowl eligibility chase is on, and it might be an uphill climb.

As thrilled as Kansas State fans must be over their win, which was yet another coaching clinic by the venerable Bill Snyder, Missouri fans are probably equally frustrated. Despite coming off a bye week, Missouri had the same problems: crippling penalties, an inability to stop the other team’s offense when most critical and struggles converting third downs.

Missouri had penalties in the worst situations, such as a crushing and obvious roughing the kicker penalty in the third quarter. Kansas State built a touchdown drive off that miscue.

Snyder put his run-first quarterback, Collin Klein, in positions where he could succeed, with option runs and high-percentage passes that kept Kansas State drives going. Missouri’s best offensive threat so far, running back Henry Josey, didn’t touch the ball in the first quarter (Missouri called for passes on six of its seven first-quarter plays) and finished with 12 carries for 55 yards. Josey had some big runs early, but half of his runs, including his last four, were for two yards or less.

As for Missouri’s season-long third-down issues, it appears to also be a first and second down problem. Missouri struggles on third down when a lack of success on the first and second down puts the Tigers in third-and-long situations. Missouri needed an average of 8.9 yards on third downs to get a first down and keep its drives going. Kansas State, in contrast, faced a more manageable average of 6.1 yards to go.

Now 2-3, Missouri must get to 6-6 to be bowl eligible. The Tigers will likely be underdogs in four straight games beginning Oct. 22 against Oklahoma State, so an upset is likely needed to make a bowl, which is a fairly minimal standard given that 70 teams play in a bowl game.

Fortunately, Missouri first has its Homecoming game with Iowa State Saturday (1 p.m., no TV), which may be just what the Tigers need to get back on track. It’s the 100th anniversary of Homecoming at Mizzou.

Iowa State (3-2, 0-2 Big 12) started the season with three straight wins, including an upset of rival Iowa, but was soundly defeated in its first two conference games by Texas and Baylor. Coach Paul Rhoads said this would be “a very pivotal week” for his team.

Iowa State tackle Kelechi Osemele may be a first-round pick in the next NFL draft, but he has been battling an ankle injury. Primary running back Shontrelle Johnson has also had injury issues, and quarterback Steele Jantz has been inconsistent.

On defense, the Cyclones have two linebackers, Jake Knott and A.J Klein, who are very sound tacklers.

I think this is a game for Missouri to get back on track. The Tigers are heavy favorites and, barring outrageous turnovers and penalties, they should send the Homecoming crowd home happy.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Why I want Mizzou to stay in the Big 12

Mizzou alumni, fans and students, if you were offered a deal in which the university would receive $5 million annually, but in exchange the Columns on the quad would have to be torn down, would you take the deal?

Maybe some people would grudgingly, painfully sign the Columns' death warrant, likely arguing persuasively that economic times are tough, money keeps getting more scarce, that it just makes sense to take the money. Times are changing.

But I also suspect some of you would say "Hell no" to the money. I walked through those Columns as a terrified yet excited freshman, you might say. I watched College Gameday by those Columns. I saw bats flying around Jesse Hall by those Columns. I saw people streaking from my vantage point on those Columns. I took engagement pictures by those Columns. I graduated by those Columns.

I'm aware it's not a parallel comparison, but I think Missouri's decision on whether or not to leave the Big 12 for the SEC follows the principle of the hypothetical question above. For my money and memories (I have more of the latter), Mizzou's heritage of playing schools in the Big 12, particularly Kansas, are as much a part of the university's soul as those beautiful columns. I'm not sure you can put a price tag on them.

I didn't pull that $5 million figure from nowhere. An article by Mike Dearmond in the Kansas City Star last week said SEC schools revenue sharing total is $18.3 million. The average for a Big 12 school right now is $13 million to $14 million, according to the article. There's your additional $5 million. But conference revenue totals are obviously complicated.

First, if Mizzou has to pay an exit fee of $30 million, the estimated fee Texas A&M will pay, then it will take years for this move to pay off. (And if Mizzou leaves, does it get its share of that A&M exit money?) Second, conferences constantly pass and get passed by others based on who has negotiated its TV deal most recently. Each new deal is bigger than that the last. Third, if Mizzou joins the expansion-minded SEC and that league adds another school, the total pie grows but Mizzou gets a smaller slice. The 15th and 16th schools, if added, would have to add more than 1/14th of the SEC's total value to be logical additions financially.

But the key case for joining the SEC is stability. This is maybe a naive post, but it's also very naive to just assume Mizzou would be entrenched in a stable SEC, immune to the insanity taking over the college athletics landscape. Leagues do break apart. Additions could alter how much money Mizzou gets. Any long-term budgeting based on TV revenue projections in this climate is risky. History is littered with people and institutions who thought they were stable.

Of course, the SEC is the Rock of Gibralter compared to the Big (House of) 12 (Cards). But the league is making progress. Revenue sharing. The granting of TV rights helps, even if the reported six-year figure is a bit laughable. The ironclad Big Ten has a grant of rights of more than 20 years. But this upheaval has got the remaining Big 12 schools re-evaluating things. Perhaps most critically, big dogs Texas and Oklahoma learned the grass isn't more welcoming on the Pac-12 side of the fence. Commissioner Chuck Neinas actually appears capable of leading.

But in the end, my argument for the Big 12 goes back to that soul of the University of Missouri. If athletic department officials are so smugly confident in "the Missouri brand," the school will be fine even if it gives the Big 12 another try. Instead, look at what's lost if Mizzou bolts.

The rivalry with Kansas suffers tremendously. It loses the juice of being a conference clash. It's not a guaranteed game, and let's not forget these two athletic departments can't even agree on what the football series is. (See the 1960 controversy.) It could endure in football, but basketball is where the Border War would take its greatest hit. Even if they played every year, that still means every other year, Kansas is not on the home schedule. That's tragic. Mizzou Arena (and the Hearnes before) is simply a different, more electric atmosphere when KU is in town. Imagine going 24 months between those experience. Even worse, I could easily see the hoops matchup being played annually in Kansas City. In this case, Mizzou Arena would never have that special buzz, and the hoops game would likely feature a 70-30 KU crowd every year. (And so help me, I'd miss Mizzou's annual chance at a epic victory in the Phog.) Lastly, a November noncon between the two pales compared to a Saturday/Sunday senior day game on CBS or a Big Monday clash in January/February.

In closing, think of your greatest moments as a Mizzou student. Maybe you think of a miracle A on an exam you had no business passing. Maybe it was the rare gem of a snow day or perfect fall weather. Maybe it was that girl you'll still remember on sunny spring days when you're old and gray saying she'll go out with you.

...And maybe you'll remember rushing the court and seeing your friend brought to tears after beating those high and mighty Jayhawks. Maybe you'll remember Todd Reesing driven into the frozen Arrowhead Stadium turf because it was the perfect intersection of not just rising to No. 1, but rising to No. 1 by beating No. 2 Kansas, your ancient rival. Maybe you'll remember a picturesque fall evening when the Tigers beat No. 1 Oklahoma, special not just because it was the No. 1 team but because those powerful Sooners have been the standard of excellence in your neighborhood for decades. Maybe you'll remember listening to and watching Big 12 Tournament games in Kansas City, MISSOURI.

Missouri's heritage is the Big 12 and its predecessors. It's chasing Kansas in basketball and Oklahoma and Nebraska (gone now) in football. It's battling the mystical old sage Bill Snyder out in wonderfully quirky Manhattan. It's annual battles with Hilton Magic and the manic Gallagher-Iba Arena in Stillwater. Even the Texas schools, conference family for a scant 15 years, share lots of overlapping history, styles and geography with the old Big Eight schools. It's traveling familiar roads or watching the team play on TV in familiar venues. It's hearing familiar fight songs. Texas Fight? Boomer Sooner?

So, yes, it looks after today's Curators meeting like Mizzou is leaning ever more to the SEC. Yes, I'd still be a crazy college sports fan, and I have to admit trips to those incredible SEC venues would be fun. The SEC is the best college football conference out there right now, and being part of it would be a thrill and a challenge.

But competing in the Big 12 and the Border War uninhibited are the very soul of Mizzou. Just like those columns.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Missouri takes on Snyder, unbeaten KSU

This Saturday provides a fascinating matchup for Missouri (2-2, 0-1 in Big 12 play) as the Tigers travel to the Flint Hills to take on the old tactician Bill Snyder and his surging Kansas State (4-0, 1-0 Big 12) team in Manhattan (2:30 p.m. on ABC).

For opposing coaches, playing Kansas State is about as much fun as being audited. That’s because the legendary Snyder, who turns 72 on Friday, still leads the Wildcats. Snyder, a brilliant game-planner and motivator, authored the “Manhattan Miracle,” taking Kansas State from by far the worst Division I football program and making it a national power.

When Snyder, who played quarterback in college for one season on Mizzou's freshman team, took over at the end of the 1988 season, Kansas State had a 27-game winless streak and virtually no talent on hand. Snyder slowly built the program into one that won at least 11 games in six of seven seasons, capped by a stunning win over Oklahoma in the 2003 Big 12 title game.

Snyder retired once, but after a failed three-year stint by Ron Prince, he came back. He appears to be building the program up again. Last Saturday, Kansas State finally solved the riddle of dynamic Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin late in the game, rallying for a 36-35 win over the then-No. 15 Bears.

Now Missouri travels to No. 20 Kansas State off a bye week, trying to stop the Wildcats’ momentum. Even though Missouri hasn’t beaten a Football Championship Subdivision team in over a month, the Tigers opened as slight favorites. This is probably a testament to Missouri having better athletes overall, but Baylor clearly had more explosive players on offense than Kansas State, and that didn’t keep them from losing.

Expect Kansas State to use similar tactics that it used against Baylor in its effort to slow down Missouri. The Wildcats will likely run the ball and let the play clock run down before taking the snap to keep Missouri’s offense off the field. Kansas State has a good running back in John Hubert, and quarterback Collin Klein is fourth in the Big 12 Conference in rushing and second nationally in rushing among quarterbacks.

Missouri can expect the Wildcats to mix things up. Clearly Klein is more dangerous as a runner, but there he was in the fourth quarter last Saturday, throwing on nearly every play on the final drives. Klein’s passes meander through the air more than cut through, but it’s surprising how often they arrive right on time. Keeping Klein bottled up will be critical for Missouri.

On offense, Missouri will need to get better at converting third downs to keep the pressure on Kansas State’s sometimes-vulnerable defense. The Wildcats allowed several long completions against Baylor, so it would be nice to see Missouri let quarterback James Franklin take some chance down the field.

Starting with Kansas State, six of Missouri’s next seven games are against teams currently ranked. I’m not saying Missouri will struggle for bowl eligibility, but the schedule is tough, making the game at K-State feel like a pivotal one. Expect a close game. 

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Sooners send Tigers into bye week with a loss

When the Oklahoma band plays “Boomer Sooner,” I’m not sure if a Sooner is booming or if a Boomer is doing something earlier. (My limited knowledge of the Oklahoma land rush makes me think it’s the latter… or both.) But I do know this: the Sooner band plays the song over and over and over. Along with the rest of the Big 12 Conference, I also know this: the Sooners pretty much never lose at home under coach Bob Stoops.

Missouri’s 38-28 loss last Saturday was No. 1 Oklahoma’s 38th straight home win. The Sooners are an otherworldly 74-2 in Norman under Stoops. So the result was predictable, but credit the Tigers for coming out ready to play. When Missouri (2-2) took a 14-3 lead in the first quarter, it broke a streak of 20 straight home games in which Oklahoma had never trailed.

However, Oklahoma blitzes and the Sooners’ up-tempo machine of an offense gradually ground down Missouri. Oklahoma scored 28 unanswered points over two quarters to put the game away. The Tigers looked like a good team, just not championship caliber.

Thanks to a tougher early schedule than recent years, Missouri is 2-2 through four games for the first time since 2005. With a bye week ahead before eight straight Big 12 games, it’s a good time to look at where the Tigers are and what lies ahead.

Despite some key injuries, the offense has been pretty good. Henry Josey, who ran for 133 yards on 14 carries against Oklahoma, has been a revelation. Quarterback James Franklin, a first-year starter, continued to look good Saturday (291 pass yards, 103 rush yards), despite only one completion in the second quarter.

The key for the offense will be finding a way to get better at converting third downs. The Tigers came into the Oklahoma game 105th nationally in converting third downs, and they succeeded on only 3 of 12 attempts. Missouri has to get better on third down to sustain drives and give the defense a break.

That defense has struggled against the two good teams Missouri has played. The defensive line was supposed to be a strength, but it hasn’t generated enough pass pressure. The Tigers recorded only one sack of Arizona State’s Brock Osweiler, and Oklahoma’s Landry Jones, one of the nation’s best quarterbacks, was able to got about his work largely unbothered, shredding Missouri’s secondary for 448 pass yards.

I’m thinking improving the pass rush is a top priority for defensive coordinator Dave Steckel heading into the bye week.

Missouri hasn’t looked that bad in its two losses, but nevertheless the Tigers are 2-2 with a tough slate of games to play. The game at resurgent Kansas State on Oct. 8 could be a season-turner. That is followed by the Homecoming game against currently unbeaten Iowa State, and then a huge four-game stretch: Oklahoma State, at Texas A&M, at Baylor, Texas. All four are ranked in the top 17, and each could be a coin flip game.

The road ahead is difficult, but Missouri can take comfort in this: the Tigers are done hearing “Boomer Sooner” for this year.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Tigers face big test at No. 1 Oklahoma Saturday

Last week, it couldn’t get much easier for the Missouri Tigers (2-1), who rolled to a 69-0 win at home against Western Illinois. That tied for the most points Missouri has ever scored, and running back Henry Josey ran 14 times for 263 yards, all in the first half. Truman the Tiger did enough post-score pushups to make Jack LaLanne proud.

This Saturday, however, it couldn’t get much harder for the Tigers, as they travel to Norman, Okla., to take on the No. 1 Oklahoma Sooners (7 p.m. on FX). Under coach Bob Stoops, the Sooners have been nearly invincible at home, going a ridiculous 73-2 at Oklahoma Memorial Stadium, including 37 straight wins.

What’s more, word is the Sooners are itching to avenge their 36-27 loss at Missouri last fall.

But let’s be positive, and realistic. Missouri has very little to lose on Saturday (except for some dignity if the game gets too lopsided), and an enormous amount to gain should they hang with the Sooners or, dare I say, pull the upset.

On the little-to-lose side, almost everyone already thinks Missouri will lose. By the point spread, the Tigers are the biggest underdogs they’ve been since a 2003 game… at Oklahoma. I mentioned Stoops’ home record above, and Big Game Bob has mostly ran roughshod over the Big 12 Conference, posting an 85-19 mark against conference opponents and winning seven Big 12 titles since 2000. (Everyone else in the Big 12 combined during that span: 4 conference titles.)

But, oh, if the Tigers pull the upset. It would possibly be the biggest win in Missouri football history, on the road against No. 1 and a historical nemesis. Missouri hasn’t won in Norman since 1966, dropping 17 straight there.

Also, it’s widely reported Oklahoma may leave the Big 12 to join the Pac-12 Conference. After decades of dominance by the Sooners, wouldn’t Mizzou fans love to send the Sooners scurrying westward, much like Oklahoma’s Joad family in “The Grapes of Wrath,” with the Tigers having beaten them twice in a row?

It would take an effort for the ages. Mizzou’s defense, which dominated overmatched Western Illinois, will have its hands full with Oklahoma’s offense. Sooner quarterback Landry Jones is a Heisman Trophy frontrunner, and he’s surrounded by plenty of options, including receivers Ryan Broyles, an All-American, and Kenny Stills. Missouri’s defense will have to dig in and get some big stops. Forcing turnovers is a must. Last year Oklahoma had three trips inside the 15-yard line that didn’t lead to any points, which helped Missouri spring the upset win.

The Sooners defense was outstanding in the team’s 23-13 win at No. 5 Florida State last Saturday. Oklahoma held the Seminoles to a mere 246 yards of offense, including 27 rushing yards on 26 carries. Still, Missouri needs Josey to break free for some big runs to take some pressure off sophomore quarterback James Franklin.

Winning Saturday will be very, very difficult. But it’s still an opportunity for a huge win, and a chance for the Tigers to measure themselves against the best.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

My memory of Sept. 11, 2001

September 11 started out just like any other day; a regular day, a Tuesday. It would not be a regular day.

I was a freshman at Gilman City High School. I was in a health class on the southwest corner of the school’s third floor. A classmate said, “Did you hear they bombed the World Trade Center?” Within minutes I learned it wasn’t a bomb, but a plane. Then two planes.

I went to my next class, in the Ag building. The projector was hooked up to a computer, which was showing the MSN home page. It showed an image like something out of a movie. One of the twin towers was smoking, the other captured right at the moment of impact, a cartoonish explosion shooting out all around it from the exploding jet fuel.

I remember being unnerved as our nation frantically struggled to capture the scope of what was happening. There was another plane that hit the Pentagon. And another crashed in a field in Pennsylvania. How many were there? So many people bravely and selflessly responded to help. The towers fell.

Mercifully, there was no Twitter back then, or the bird might have exploded.

Somehow, we kind of kept our routine going. We finished the full school day. As I left school, I learned there were long lines of people trying to buy gas at the Gilman City station. They assumed we were at war. It was scary stuff.

I had a fastpitch softball game that night (several very small schools in northwestern Missouri play this sport instead of football). In a development that seems so bizarre in hindsight, we played our games as scheduled. I mean, even the NFL took a week off. But I guess playing softball beat sitting around worrying.

I remember being at my grandparents’ house before the game, watching the coverage on TV. It was the same room that my grandparents watched coverage of Kennedy’s assassination, Nixon resigning, and the Gulf War starting. I remember while I watched they showed the clip of the second plane hitting. The person on the clip was talking about the first tower smoking. Then the second plane hit and he just gasped and lost words.

The sky was starting to get that crisp, blue look it gets in Missouri in the fall, but I’ll always remember how bizarre it was at the softball game to look up at the sky and not see any plane jetstreams arcing across the sky.

I was not a great hitter that year, but somehow I got four hits in four at-bats and then we all went home.

I remember the aftermath, seeing the gripping images, watching those unforgettable World Series games in New York afterward when the Yankees hit all those huge homeruns even as Ground Zero still smoldered.

Like everyone says, I can’t believe it’s been 10 years. It’s still so poignant, so vivid, so real. I got goosebumps several times writing this.

This May I visited a friend in New York City. She lives in the building right next to Ground Zero. I took the walking tour, and it was my turn to be at a loss for words. But the new One World Trade Center, dubbed the “Freedom Tower,” is rising toward its symbolic height of 1,776 feet.

America is marching on, even if the memories of that September day seem like only yesterday.

Playing on the road is tough, but a good idea

Missouri may have lost, 37-30, in overtime at Arizona State last Friday night, but simply playing that game helped the program. Frustrating as the loss was, playing a solid opponent on the road will help Missouri when conference play starts… with two road games.

The loss snapped a streak of 22 straight nonconference wins for the Tigers (1-1), but that streak was peppered with mediocre-to-weak opponents. Missouri was favored in 21 of those 22 games, and the streak included only three road wins. Only one of the road wins came against a school from one of the six major conferences (Mississippi in 2007), and that team was winless in conference play.

The purpose of these nonconference games is to prepare a team for the conference games that follow. Some coaches like to schedule weak opponents to build their teams’ confidence. I understand that and get that it can be useful to play an easier team or two. But I also think it’s good when coaches challenge their teams. It’s more fun for the fans. I also like to think Missouri is ready as a program to play some big-boy type nonconference games.

Think about it: what gives Missouri a better chance to win at Oklahoma on Sept. 24, playing at Arizona State last weekend on national TV or playing at home against, say, Bowling Green?

Also soothing the pain of the loss is the reminder it’s hard to beat even a decent team on the road. Missouri isn’t Alabama, which last Saturday rolled into Penn State’s massive stadium, unpacked the nation’s best defense, and rolled to a win. Very few teams can do this regularly. Coach Gary Pinkel is now 20-26 at Missouri in road games, but only three of the 10 Big 12 coaches have a winning record in road games at their current schools: Texas’ Mack Brown (46-10) Oklahoma’s Bob Stoops (36-16) and Oklahoma State’s Mike Gundy (16-15).

But what made the loss so frustrating is that the Tigers could have won and didn’t. Missouri, helped by an Arizona State muffed punt return, roared back from a 30-14 deficit to tie the game. They had a field goal attempt to win the game, but the normally reliable Grant Ressel missed the 48-yarder wide left.

There were positives, such as the breakout performances of quarterback James Franklin and running back Henry Josey. But there were ominous signs as well. The pass defense looked bad, allowing 388 yards through the air. Also, running back De’Vion Moore was knocked out of the game as injuries continue to pile up for the Tigers.

This Saturday Missouri plays Western Illinois at home (6 p.m., pay-per-view TV) in the Tigers’ last nonconference game. WIU plays in the lower-level Football Championship Subdivision (formerly I-AA), but a weak opponent the week before the looming trip to Oklahoma might not be a bad idea. WIU went 7-5 last year and made the FCS playoffs. They had a fairly competitive loss to Purdue last September.

Still, Missouri should win easily and cruise into its Big 12 opener at No. 1 Oklahoma.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Tigers head to desert for showdown with Arizona State

A win’s a win, right? That was the thinking of Missouri players and fans after the team’s often-ugly 17-6 home win over Miami (Ohio) in the season-opener last Saturday.

With temperatures in the middle-90s, the crowd seemed to melt as the long, hot game progressed. The defense played well, making some huge plays in the red zone to stop Miami scoring chances. The offense did just enough, although the highly anticipated starting debut of quarterback James Franklin wasn’t especially impressive.

Franklin completed 17 of his 26 passes, but for just 129 yards. His 5 yards per attempt is pretty low; 8 yards per throw is a good number in that department. He also threw an interception and, with his team clinging to a 10-6 lead, he threw a pass that many cornerbacks Mizzou will face would be able to pick off and return for a touchdown. The Miami defender wasn’t able to do so, but it still didn’t look good. It was just Franklin’s first start, but these passing difficulties are a big reason why Missouri only converted 2 of 13 third down plays.

Against Miami, it was enough to get the win. Next week, the heat on the Tigers will be much higher, literally and figuratively, as the Tigers will travel to scorching Tempe, Ariz., to take on the Arizona State Sun Devils on Friday night (9:30 p.m. on ESPN).

Even with the evening kickoff (7:30 in Arizona time), temperatures will still likely crack 100 at kickoff. Don’t expect Tiger players to be amused by any “But it’s a dry heat” jokes.

Climate aside, this very well could be the biggest nonconference game of coach Gary Pinkel’s 11 seasons at Missouri, a true road game against a ranked opponent. Arizona State is a pretty loaded team, picked by Sports Illustrated to win the Pac-12 Conference’s South Division. Last year the Sun Devils were 6-6, but four of their six losses were by a total of nine points. Also, Arizona State returns 17 starters, and they seem to be on the verge of a breakout season.

On offense, Arizona State has nine starters back, including all five members of the offensive line, which may be among the nation’s best. The Sun Devils run an up-tempo spread attack, which could challenge Mizzou’s depth in the desert heat. The Tigers will likely be without defensive end Jacquies Smith, out for at least a week with a dislocated elbow, and linebacker Will Ebner, probably out for a month with a high ankle sprain.

Mizzou’s offensive line will be challenged by the Arizona State defense, which led its conference in rushing yards allowed last year.

This is a big game for the Tigers. A win on this national stage would make the biggest statement of any of Pinkel’s nonconference wins. A loss, when coupled with the ugly win over Miami, would raise early concerns about the team. With their defense, the Tigers can hang in any game, but Friday night will be a strong challenge for Missouri.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Big 12 college football countdown: Oklahoma

The program

The program, indeed. Oklahoma has a strong case as the best program in college football history, though a few other schools do as well. They have been and are, as one Oklahoma sportswriter wrote, "the terror of Middle America" since World War II. Since World War II, the Sooners have the most wins and best winning percentage in Division I college football. Last year they became the eighth program in NCAA history to win 800 games.

Oklahoma holds a massive amount of NCAA records. Under legendary coach Bud Wilkinsson, Oklahoma won 47 straight games. They have been No. 1 in the AP poll and in its top five more than any other school. They have the most 10-win seasons (32) and 11-win seasons (20) and fewest losing seasons of any program (I'm sure there's a minimum number of seasons played here). Oklahoma is the only school with four (!) coaches with 100+ wins (Stoops, Switzer, Wilkinson, Owen). They have seven national titles (all since 1950, no pre-poll titles here), five Heisman Trophy winners and 43 conference titles.

And under Stoops, the Sooners are still rolling, albeit after a serious lull in the 1990s. In 12 years at OU, Stoops is 129-31 overall and 78-18 in Big 12 play (plus 7-1 in Big 12 title games; the "Big Game Bob" moniker still rings true in Big 12 games). The rivalry with Texas? Please. OU has won 7 of the last 9 Big 12 South titles, and six of the past nine Big 12 titles. (Texas has won two of each in that span, respectable, but an obvious second fiddle to OU in Big 12 country.) Stoops and OU have also won seven of 11 against Texas, and will be favored this year. One more: Stoops is 72-2 in Norman, including 36 straight wins.

But even more, Oklahoma simply is college football tradition. It's decades of battles with Nebraska for the Big Eight, including the Game of the Century in Norman. It's that covered wagon barreling around the field and one finger held aloft during their alma mater song and, of course, "Boomer Sooner" over and over and over and over and over. It's Barry Switzer, who could teach all these confused kids today what Swagger really is, sitting with his feet propped up on his desk and smoking a cigar on the Friday before an enormous game. I've read they used to sell shirts with Switzer's face on them reading, "Hang a half a hundred on 'em." It's titles and trophies and getting everyone's best shot and Bedlam Games. It's "No excuses, win the Big 12." In short, it's always a big game when you play the Sooners.

Best player ever

Billy Sims, RB
Just an avalanche of candidates here, from crushing defensive players to the prolific quarterbacks of recent years. Landry Jones could have a case by the time he finishes his career. But I'll go with Sims, the 1978 Heisman winner. After two injury-plagued seasons, Sims exploded for 1,762 yards on an incredible 7.6 yards per carry. Add in his bowl-game stats, and he ran for 1,896 yards that season. After that season, he scored two touchdowns against Nebraska in the (in)famous "rematch" Orange Bowl. He had another great season as a senior and is still the leading rusher in Oklahoma history (4,118 yards).

2011 outlook

Oklahoma begins the season ranked No. 1 and it feels like a national-title-or-bust kind of season. They are pretty solid about everywhere. They do have to deal with the injury to linebacker Travis Lewis, who will miss several weeks.

But junior quarterback Landry Jones pilots a prolific offense. Jones, a leading Heisman candidate, led the Big 12 last year with 4,717 yards and 38 touchdowns. Ryan Broyles is an incredible receiver, one of the best in a league full of good receivers. Kenny Stills is also a very good receiver. Last year's leading rusher, Demarco Murray, is gone, but the Sooners still have the dynamic-yet-diminutive Roy Fitch. Led by center Ben Habern, the OU line is pretty solid as well.

The defense, third in yards and points allowed vs Big 12 teams last year, may be the best in the league this year. OU was +161.3 yards per game in conference play last year, by far the best. With all their defensive playmakers, the Sooners could actually have a wider margin than this.

The big question: Can Oklahoma make it to the national title game? No one can fully predict how a college football season will play out, but OU seems to have the parts needed to get through its tough schedule unscathed. I'm not sure how powerful the run game will be, but the passing game should soften things up for it quite a bit. That beings said, the Big 12 is loaded with teams capable of scoring the upset.

The fame at Florida State is a tough early test, and then come the nine conference games. Four are at home (72-2 there under Stoops), another is at a neutral site (Dallas) against Texas, and another is still in the state of Oklahoma, even if it's at rival OSU. The three out-of-state road conference games are at Kansas, at Kansas State and at Baylor, a pretty seemingly manageable slate. Assuming Stoops can keep rivals Texas and Oklahoma State under control, and take care of Texas A&M and Mizzou at home, they'll be on their way to a national title appearance... most likely against a monstrously difficult SEC team.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Big 12 college football countdown: Texas A&M

The program

Well, this is a timely topic. Today Texas A&M officially announced it would leave the Big 12 at the end of this school year and seek affiliation with another conference for next season. A&M's Big 12 tenure was but a blip compared to its lengthy Southwest Conference tradition, but switching leagues will mean the Aggies will be in a different league from seemingly eternal rivals Texas and, to a much lesser extent, Baylor and Texas Tech.

Texas A&M has a good football tradition. Not among the nation's elite, but very respectable. The Aggies have won 18 conference titles, including 17 in the SWC and a Big 12 title in 1998, thanks to a rally and overtime upset of No. 1 Kansas State. A member of the SWC throughout the conference's lifetime (1915-1996), the Aggies won at least one SWC title in every decade from the 1910s to the 1990s. A&M also won a national title in 1939, and halfback John David Crow, one of coach Bear Bryant's famed "Junction Boys," won the Heisman Trophy for the Aggies in 1957.

Beyond the on-field achievements, Texas A&M is probably best known for its fan/program traditions, such as the 12th Man, the Reveille dog mascot (who goes to class; class is dismissed if the dog barks), the scoreboard at the Reveille cemetery next to the stadium, Midnight Yell Practice, kissing after touchdowns, Yell Leaders in white, the white rally towels waving, the "Gig 'em" thumbs up gesture, the Aggie War Hymn, so many random chants and cheers, the massive stands at Kyle Field swaying, the band playing the ultra-dramatic "When Johnny Comes Marching Home" during tense moments... on and on and on it goes.

In Sports Illustrated's farewell to the SWC, Gary Cartwright wrote that "Aggies were zealots, superpatriots, bumpkins." He also wrote that his grandmother, a devout Aggie fan, would kill a chicken on every gameday, study its entrails, and then put the "appropriately colored" candle in the window before listening to the Aggie came on the radio.

And then there is A&M's ancient grudge of a rivalry with Texas. They always play (played?) on Thanksgiving weekend, and A&M used to have a huge bonfire as a pep rally before the game, until it tragically collapsed in 1999, killing 12 people. Texas holds a sizeable 75-37-5 lead in the series, but the Aggies have scored some stunning upsets in the series and the games are often fiercely contested. A&M won in Austin last year. It's an obsessive rivalry. Texas sings "it's goodbye to A&M" in "Texas Fight." Much of the Aggie War Hymn is anti-Longhorn venom, singing, "Goodbye to Texas University, so long to the orange and white" and "saw Varsity's horns off." The Aggies are fairly obsessive about sawing the Longhorns' horns off, even selling shirts reference a Bible verse about "sawing off the horns of the wicked."

Finally, it seems A&M's desire to get out from behind Texas' shadow, and that irritating Longhorn Network pushing the envelope, have led to the Aggies' secession. A&M will surely try to keep this series going as a nonconference game, but it's tough to know how Texas would react to that. I'm afraid all those goodbyes in their fight songs could come true, in a way in which no college football fan wins.

Best player ever

John David Crow
There are plenty of good choices here, but I'll go with Crow, the school's only Heisman winner. A&M celebrates traditions, maybe like no other school, and Crow has almost mythical status in College Station. He played both ways, a marvel of an athlete who could both run and throw. In 1956, he was on the first Aggie team to beat Texas at Darrell K. Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium. In 1957, although injuries limited him to seven games, he ran for 562 yards and six touchdowns, passed for five touchdowns and racked up five interceptions on defense. Coach Bear Bryant told Heisman voters they should "do away with the thing" if they didn't vote for Crow. Vote for him they did, making Crow the only player Bryant ever coached who won the Heisman.

2011 outlook

The Aggies may be the primary challenger to Oklahoma in their last year in the Big 12. Last year coach Mike Sherman, with his team on a three-game losing streak, made the gutsy decision to bench quarterback Jerrod Johnson, only the school's alltime leading passer. He went with backup Ryan Tannehill, who led A&M on a six-game winning streak to close out the regular season, ramping up expectations for 2011, Tannehill's senior season.

Tannehill is surrounded by a loaded offense. Running back Cyrus Gray is the leading rusher returning in the Big 12 (1,133 yards, 5.7 yards per carry, 12 touchdowns). The receiving corps features Jeff Fuller, who had over 1,000 receiving yards in 2010, and Uzoma Nwachukwu, who battled injuries while having a down year last season. Skill position players need a good offensive line to shine, and the Aggies have one of the Big 12's best offensive lines.

The A&M defense has improved in each of Sherman's three years. The defensive line and secondary are especially strong, but questions at linebacker could be a concern.

The big question: Can A&M post its first 10-win season since 1998? A 10-win campaign would likely mean a BCS berth for the Aggies. They will no doubt have pressure/a target on them since they've announced they are leaving the Big 12. The Aggies surely wouldn't enjoy being on the other end of a 16-2 flag disparity against a team leaving the league (re: A&M's home upset of Nebraska last year). But, assuming it's just the home teams getting a few calls, per normal procedure, this is a talented Aggie team. I do have pause picking a team with a .500 coach to win 10 games. And now teams will be ready for Tannehill. He no doubt benefitted from teams spending the offseason preparing for Johnson only to get the backup quarterback.

The schedule is favorable. A&M has five of its nine Big 12 games at home, including key matchups with fellow Oklahoma-chasers Oklahoma State, Missouri and Texas. They have a brutal game at Oklahoma, tricky trips to Texas Tech and Kansas State, plus a nonconference game with Arkansas in Dallas. I think A&M is good, but I also think a lot of Big 12 teams between Oklahoma and Kansas can beat each other, so I can't justify picking A&M to win 10 in the regular season. But we'll see. Either way, it's going to be an interesting autumn in College Station.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Tigers kick off 2011 season against defending MAC champion

On Saturday, the Missouri Tigers kick off the 2011 season, their 86th at Faurot Field, with a home game against Miami University of Ohio (11 a.m. on Fox Sports Network).

The game serves as a tune-up; one of two games on Missouri’s schedule against teams not from one of the major six conferences. But even with Missouri as a heavy favorite, Miami at least provides legitimate competition.

Miami, located in Oxford, Ohio, won the Mid-American Conference last year, capping a dramatic turnaround from a 1-11 mark in 2009 to 10-4 last year. It was the first time in NCAA history a team has gone from double-digit losses to double-digit wins in the following season.

Miami also features a talented, experienced quarterback in junior Zac Dysert as well as a solid group of receivers. The Redhawks also have arguably the best defense in the MAC.

Of course, the level of play in Mizzou’s Big 12 Conference is significantly higher than the MAC. Miami has a team that has a chance to defend its MAC crown, but Missouri probably isn’t ripe for an upset or anything like that. Last year, the Tigers defeated Miami 51-13 last year in Columbia. Missouri took all of eight seconds to score its first touchdown. That’s a long time if you’re riding a bull; not so much in a football game.

Even more, Missouri has won seven straight home games and 21 straight nonconference games.

Still, Miami provides enough of a test for Tiger fans to get some very early returns on the key questions facing the team. Here are a few key things to watch as the Tigers get their 2011 season started:

James Franklin’s accuracy Franklin takes over as Missouri’s new starting quarterback, and he’ll need to take to the position quickly as the Tigers’ second game is at Arizona State, who could be ranked in the top 25 for that game. Missouri’s system and its talent advantages against Miami should make for some very open receivers, but look to see if Franklin hits his receivers in stride and still puts his throws on the money. Times will come in future games when he’ll need to thread the needle. Of course, if Franklin makes mistakes against Miami, Redhawk cornerbacks Dayonne Nunley and D.J. Brown could make him pay.

Missouri’s secondary Missouri has relatively young players at cornerback and free safety. That Miami quarterback, Dysert, and his backup, Austin Boucher, can both be dangerous passers, so the secondary’s youth will have an early test to prepare them for that Sept. 24 date with Oklahoma and the prolific Landry Jones.

The first quarter Last year Missouri jumped out to a 21-0 first quarter lead against Miami en route to a big win. But the week before that, Missouri let San Diego State hang around and nearly lost. All the hours of preparation have finally gave way to real games, so it would be encouraging to see Missouri rise to the occasion and look good in their tune-up before the schedule gets more difficult.