Sunday, December 30, 2012

Auld Lang Syne

"For auld lang syne, my dear, 
for auld lang syne, 
we'll take a cup of kindness yet, 
for auld lang syne."

January 1, 2008
Scottish poet Robert Burns wrote the above words in 1788. "Auld lang syne" means, loosely, "long, long ago" or "days gone by." The phrase is even older, appearing in poems hundreds of years before Burns' edition. Two centuries and two decades after he wrote this poem, I heard the song in downtown Dallas, welcoming in the new year.

They called the celebration the "Big D NYE." Cross Canadian Ragweed played for the crowd gathered in a plaza area. No offense to them, but I remember thinking, for a city as big as Dallas, the second most famous "CCR" band may not be quite big-time enough. But they gave a good showing, this was the biggest city I had been in at the time (not counting a 45-minute stint at the Chicago airport), and the glorious 2007 football season had culminated with a Cotton Bowl bid. The just-completed 2007 had been a great one, and 2008 had plenty in store as well.

The Big D put on a show, I drank a bottle of sparkling grape juice (which became a New Year's tradition of mine somewhere along the way), and the Tigers rolled Arkansas the next day. That spring semester we lived in the "Bunker," ate from a giant bag of Fruity Dyno Bites, and had very little in the fridge to offer a woman on the rare occasion one stopped by.

I went to Bay St. Louis over Spring Break to build houses/brave tall scaffolding, and we got to visit New Orleans. Nothing says mission trip like a walk down Bourbon Street.

I resolved to always be gutsy enough to go for it with girls, to never let fear of failure or rejection overwhelm my will to try. ("Not the victory but the action...") I made cookies for a picnic date in Stephens Park, under- or overcooking dozens in an effort to get six or seven that were acceptable. My roommates made the mistakes go away. Bill Self said, "Go out there and relax," and to our horror, it worked very well as Kansas jumped way ahead of North Carolina and then won the national title against Memphis (Calipari!). My sister's high school team won one more district title, and months later she graduated valedictorian.

Back at school in August, we played Wiffle ball on the South Quad, and a ridiculously hot sorority girl happened by and actually accepted our invitation to play with us.

I looked at the Mizzou football schedule and said, "I want them all." I didn't get them all, but did attend all but two of the games in person. I shot an eight-point buck on opening morning of deer season, then drove up with my brother, Brent Foster and his redheaded friend, Danielle, to watch Mizzou beat Iowa State in the frozen north of Ames. Iowa State fans chanted "Wind! Chill!" on alternating sides of the stadium. My friend Seth Maberry and I went to the Stoney Creek Inn on election night, consoling Foster after his GOP's defeat. Nathan Armer won the Fudd Five challenge. His picture still hangs in the entryway of Fuddruckers. This feat kicked off a weekend during which my friends and I took in a Blues hockey game in St. Louis (loss), a Mizzou football game in Kansas City (loss - Stoooops!) and a Mizzou basketball game in Columbia (win!).

January 1, 2009
I spent New Year's Eve with my family. I have many years of fond memories of ringing in the New Year with my family, usually at my grandparents' house. Year after year, we tossed the confetti we made as kids into the air as the sounds of Dick Clark and "Auld Lang Syne" poured out from the TV, one of those console, set-in-wood types common to grandparents' homes.

We waited for hours before my senior year MU-KU game to get good seats, and Tony Romo's future wife walked through the waiting students, interviewing them for KOMU. Zaire Taylor's shot bounced off the rim and in to beat Kansas, and we rushed the court. Missouri rolled Baylor, and I was on the front of the Columbia Tribune Sports section with Leo Lyons, arm raised and yelling in my black Mizzou shirt. I went on a road trip for the ages with Armer and Yount to watch Missouri's NCAA Tournament run to the Elite 8. It was unforgettable (tumbleweeds, Kristin the Buster's waitress, the blue turf, snow and friendly Mormons in Utah, Four Corners, the magnificent palate of colors at the Grand Canyon around sunset, basketball in a football stadium, Denmon's buzzer-beater from the other free-throw line, meeting the great Dick Enberg, the dream dying hard a handful of points from that first Final Four).

On my first trip to Desloge, I met a friend of Nathan Yount's, Caleb Barron, wearing a Cleveland Browns jersey. It didn't seem like a watershed moment, but now I check NBA scores and standings each night before bed to see how his employer, the Suns, are faring.

My Advanced Writing professor Berkley Hudson told us to "Imagine wild success -- specifically." I graduated college and learned the uncertainty of finishing high school is nothing compared to the great unknown after college's finish line. What a finish line it was, honors ceremony on the postcard-perfect quad, grand J-school ceremony Saturday night, reception at the BSU after. Zack Greinke dazzled time after time I watched him pitch, including after a long rain delay, on a buck night at Kauffman the day before graduation, when my friends and I ate 23 hot dogs in honor of his number. Many were free, tossed into the thinned crowd after the long delay by vendors walking by.

I was still using active verbs on Facebook (Ben Herrold: does not like Mizzou's uniforms for the Kansas [football] game...). I got a full-time job and a tiny rental house in Monroe City.

January 1, 2010
I rung in the New Year with my friends at the venerable Green Valley House, up on the hill at the end of Green Valley Drive, with a mixture of ping-pong, tiny hoop H-O-R-S-E and my bottle of sparkling grape juice. I got a job with the Monitor-Index and moved back to Columbia after a cold month in Monroe City.

Matt and Mikki Hayes got married, and a friend (I'll spare his name) and I unwittingly danced with girls who were not quite 18 at the reception. But they easily looked 18. I got a new car, the HHR, and retired the old Monte Carlo, veteran of so many road trips. Nathan and Brittney Yount got engaged, and he, Armer, Mabes and myself had a splendid drive down to Little Rock that summer so he could ask her father for her hand. We sang along to summery country songs like Jerrod Niemann's "Lover, Lover" probably seven times each. It was searingly, wrathfully hot.

I got a Twitter account, and have sent out roughly 5,400 tweets since then. I wrote a Mizzou column that referenced Elmer Fudd striking down Bugs Bunny in "That's Opera, Doc" (SMOG!!!) before Missouri's Homecoming clash with Oklahoma, then the Tigers pulled out the epic win. Gahn McGaffie shook Faurot, Columbia and the college football nation with his opening kickoff return for a touchdown. Jimmer-mania swept the country during college basketball season.

God used the ancient words of Isaiah 41 to comfort and lift me when I was down late in the year. Repeat this phrase for each of these years: God was with me and loved me.

January 1, 2011
I spent my first New Year's Eve in St. Louis, at the Hayeses' apartment. We played games and enjoyed the typical spread of New Year's Eve food and snacks. The next day, I let a Wii controller fly out of my hand on a vicious hack during a baseball game. The projectile/controller knocked one of their Dachshund decorations off the mantle, but they were able to fix it up nearly good as new.

A massive snowstorm dumped over 20 inches of snow on Columbia, and the Younts and I played copious amounts of Mario Cart while snowed in. It was crazy to see Providence devoid of traffic during the blizzard. The world met Kate Upton. Mike Anderson left Missouri for Arkansas and reportedly danced in and out of lanes of traffic to avoid KOMU's Eric Blumberg, the latest chapter in the surreal and wonderful and compelling story of Missouri basketball. Mizzou hired Frank Haith.

I took a sublime trip to New York City to visit a friend and fulfilled my dream of seeing the great Mariano Rivera enter a game and to save it for the Yankees. I also saw young Eric Hosmer, in the big leagues less than a week, face Rivera. From Manhattan's dramatic appearance out my airplane window to standing atop the Empire State Building to bits of wisdom from my friend, the trip was a great blessing.

The Younts got married, the culmination of a long, wild, fun weekend, and I quelled my nerves enough to deliver the best-man speech.

I decided to take up running, saw a "Half-marathon in 10 weeks" running magazine cover, and went for it. On a lovely September day, I ran 13.1 miles around good old Columbia, joined for a few steps by my friend Chase Ruble, who was working a tour team shift on campus. Afterward I watched roughly 13.1 hours of college football, culminating with a thrilling Michigan-Notre Dame game in the Big House's first night game. I watched the Chiefs win against the Chargers at Jacob Pollard's place on a Halloween, when Arrowhead thundered again and Philip Rivers fumbled a snap late in the game and could be seen saying, "Worst... day... ever" on the sideline.

I wrote about redistricting, a World War II veteran's experience as POW in Germany and a survivor of child sexual abuse for the Monitor-Index.

Missouri announced its move to the SEC, and my nostalgic self mourned the death of Big 8/12 tradition, even as I understood the reasons given for the move. Pinkel drank jumbo glasses of wine.

January 1, 2012
I again rung in the New Year in St. Louis, but this time in the Hayeses' house. A sign of us growing up, perhaps, going from their apartment to their home. We played games and ate much and took one of my favorite photos ever, a group shot. Fireworks went off all around at midnight. A few of us sat on the back porch, talked about the year that was and what we wanted for the year to come. New years are fascinating to me, especially so during the thrilling, shifting years after college ends.

I like the phrase and use it sometimes in jest, but Missouri's last scheduled home game with Kansas, last  game at Mizzou Arena with both in the same conference, was truly One For The Ages. Surprise fireworks (yes, indoor fireworks) were a pregame jolt, as was the mass stampede of students outside the doors. The crowd roared all night, the kind of special roar that's only heard at Mizzou Arena when playing Kansas. The Jayhawks seemed to have ground out a win late, shades of sickening losses in Columbia in years past (Tyrel Reed's shot/barking at Mizzou student section, Julian Wright's alley-oops dunks, David Padgett, Langford/Hinrich...). But no. With Missouri down eight, Marcus Denmon, of Kansas City, MISSOURI, scored nine points as the Tigers won by three. Afterward, the band played the fight songs and the crowd cheered and the students held their hands in the air for that "...hands go UP... and they stay there..." song. Nobody wanted to leave.

The return game was a classic on Naismith Drive, in old Allen Fieldhouse. I watched it in Armer's basement with him, Mabes and Barron. Chris Coffman showed up for the second half. His car caught on fire en route. Missouri ran out to a huge lead. Now it was Kansas fans' turn to be sick. But slowly, the Jayhawks reeled the Tigers in. Denmon's shot while falling into the bench rattled in the opening of the rim and came out, and the rally continued. With victory toasts nearby, Kansas won in overtime.

I got a great new job with Missouri Farmer Today. I met Cedar Rapids for the interview/training/ annual meeting. Missouri won the Big 12 Tournament. A decent shot for the Tigers to make the Final Four slipped away gradually, then suddenly (Hi, Hemingway) in their first NCAA Tournament game. The Royals and #OurTime were a bitter disappointment. My brother got married, and I mentioned the DiMaggio brothers in my best-man toast. The Younts returned to Columbia. Armer and the Younts bought houses. I was introduced to bocce ball, and later that night I got Foster to laugh hysterically after (and a little during) the Hunger Games.

I became smitten with Lolo Jones before the Olympics and watched her races streaming live. She was crushed by her fourth-place finish, the toughest possible Olympic finish, so I tweeted her reasons for her to smile, one a day for 30 days. She tweeted back once, at 12:34 p.m., a time that a former J-school classmate once told me was a time for making wishes.

Our slowpitch softball team, the Roadrunners, had a remarkable season in Jefferson City capped by a league title. We raucously celebrated a walkoff win in one of our games, and played in fierce heat most of our games. I golfed at quirky old Railwood with Foster in the oppressive heat.

Mabes went back to school. Missouri and the SEC got acquainted. If Helen of Troy was the face (or maybe some of her other features) that sailed a thousand ships, Sheldon Richardson had the quip that launched a thousand "old man football" jokes the rest of the season. The Tigers lost to Vanderbilt and Syracuse at home and missed a bowl. I wrote a long blog post with a lot of parentheses (this one!).

I saw some great movies at the end of the year, Lincoln and the Silver Linings Playbook. In the latter, at a gripping moment, Robert De Niro's character delivers this gem of a line: "When life reaches out with a moment like this, it's a sin if you don't reach back."

Life's been reaching out to me through these years. I keep trying like crazy to reach back, trying to live God's way, trying to live "all the way up," to act in spite of fear, to be ambitious, to go for it and have fun and love life.

For auld lang syne, my friends.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

After Braggin' Rights win, Tigers head west to face UCLA

For most of last Saturday’s Missouri-Illinois Braggin’ Rights game, Tiger guard Phil Pressey could not get a shot to fall. If you’ve played basketball at any level, you’ve probably been there; when that disobedient ball simply won’t go in the hoop.

But a funny thing happened as those misses piled up: Pressey dominated. Using a combination of effort, determination and his head for the game, Pressey was arguably the most important player on the court. Though he missed his first 15 shots and finished 3-for-19, the junior racked up 11 assists and seven rebounds while playing great defense on Illinois’ Brandon Paul in the second half.

Writ larger, the ability to play winning basketball when the shots aren’t falling is why this Tiger team may be better built for tournament play than last year’s collection of great outside shooters. Missouri (10-1) made less than 40 percent of its shots, including just 5 of 19 three-pointers, but they had a 51-29 edge on rebounds.

It’s still a bit early to know about that, but Saturday’s 82-73 win over the previously unbeaten Illini (12-1) was a huge step forward.

On Friday night, the Missouri basketball team plays its first true road game of the season, against UCLA in the Bruins’ historic Pauley Pavilion (9 p.m. on ESPN2). If you’re only going to play one true road game in the nonconference schedule, there are a lot worse places to play it than Pauley.

UCLA (9-3) is one of the most successful college basketball programs in the nation. The Bruins have won a record 11 NCAA titles, including a run of 10 in 12 seasons under the remarkable Wooden, the “Wizard of Westwood.”

Missouri now gets to experience this heritage firsthand when they go out west for its next-to-last nonconference game before SEC play begins. The players may be more interested in the UCLA dancers wearing that iconic shade of blue, but getting to play at Pauley against UCLA is a great memory for them. Good for them, and good for Missouri scheduling this game.

It’s also another great test for Missouri. UCLA was ranked No. 13 in the preseason poll and has plenty of talent. The Bruins are led in scoring by freshmen Shabazz Muhammad and Jordan Adams. Another freshman, Kyle Anderson, is leading the team in rebounds despite being a guard. The Wear twins, Travis and David, provide UCLA with size inside.

One of the most intriguing matchups here may be the point guards. Missouri fans know well what Pressey is capable of, and he will face UCLA’s Larry Drew II, a transfer from North Carolina who is averaging an eye-catching 8.5 assists per game against just 1.6 turnovers per game.

The Bruins have been disappointing in the early going, losing to Georgetown, Cal Poly and San Diego State so far, dropping out of the polls. While that took a bit of luster off of this matchup, UCLA should still compete for the Pac-12 Conference title, and this could still be another win that would bolster Missouri’s NCAA Tournament resume, especially on the road.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Top-10 Illini provide test for the Tigers

Of all the ups and downs of Missouri’s switch to the Southeastern Conference, the most painful may have been when Tiger fans saw a basketball schedule that did not include the traditional home-and-home games with Kansas.

But with that gone, Missouri must look to Illinois for a rivalry fix. The annual Braggin’ Rights game in St. Louis doesn’t have near the unyielding animosity of the Border War, but let’s appreciate it for what it is, an entertaining game in a great atmosphere with a tidy three-decade history.

Saturday’s Missouri-Illinois game (5 p.m. on ESPN2) also presents the first good test for the Tigers (9-1) in about a month. After the solid Battle For Atlantis tournament in the Bahamas over Thanksgiving weekend, Missouri has been working through some lesser nonconference games.

The Illinois game will be Missouri’s 11th of the season, so it will be interesting to see how Missouri’s roster, made up almost entirely of new players, works together a third of the way through the regular season against a good team. It will also be the Tigers’ first game with a large amount of the other team’s fans in attendance.

Illinois (12-0) has been quite a surprise this season. Expectations were modest for the first year under new coach John Groce, but the Illini have earned a top-ten ranking, winning the Maui Invitational and picking up other noteworthy wins against Butler and at then-No. 10 Gonzaga. Groce led Ohio to the Sweet 16 last season.

The Illini are led by Brandon Paul, who is putting up 19.0 points, 4.7 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game. D.J. Richardson and Tracy Abrams also provide some scoring punch. Illinois is interesting in that no player averages more than 4.7 rebounds per game, but seven players are pulling down between 3.4 and 4.7 rebounds per game.

This is a big opportunity for Missouri to pick up a nice win that can bolster the team’s NCAA Tournament resume. And of course, the Tigers can earn those Braggin’ Rights.

Illinois leads the overall series 20-11, in large part due to a 10-game winning streak from 2000 to 2008. Missouri snapped the skid with an emphatic 81-68 win in 2009, which has started a three-game winning streak for the Tigers.

The teams have met annually in December in St. Louis since 1983, with previous meetings in 1980 and 1981. With the crowd split half-and-half, the momentum swings get magnified as each team’s fans take their turns cheering.

Missouri has had its ups and downs in the rivalry, from the 108-107 triple overtime win in 1993 to the 82-50 loss/dismantling in 2005. Illinois won the first six matchups when both teams were ranked, but then Missouri won the last two such meetings, in each of the last two years.

Saturday could add another exciting chapter to the series’ lore. It will be the first matchup with both teams in the top 15 since 2002, and it should be a great test for these Tigers.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

An early-season portrait of this Missouri basketball team

With the Missouri basketball team currently working through a slog of nonconference mismatches, it’s a good time to look at the big picture. The Tigers advanced to 8-1 last Saturday with a 68-38 win over Tennessee State. It was close for a while, but eventually drama yielded to the inevitable blowout.

With the big picture in mind, here are three positives we’ve seen so far for this team, and three areas of potential concern to watch.

1. The return of Bowers: Senior forward Laurence Bowers returned this season after missing all of last year with a knee injury. There is uncertainty when a player returns from such a major injury, but Bowers has played very well in the early games. Bowers tied his career high with 23 points against Appalachian State and then broke it with 26 against Southeast Missouri. Bowers has shown his usual athleticism and a soft shooting touch. So far, so good.

2. Rebounding: Last year, with a smaller lineup, Missouri narrowly outrebounded their opponents, 32.0 per game to 31.7. This year, the Tigers should get more of an edge here. Bowers’ athleticism and length help Missouri’s rebounding situation, as does the addition of stout forward Alex Oriakhi. Through nine games, Missouri is outrebounding its opponents by 12 rebounds per game.

3. The SEC is down: Florida is very good. Kentucky is very talented but young and prone to inconsistency. The rest of the league looks to be pretty soft. Missouri should be able to rack up plenty of wins in conference play and maybe contend for the league title.

This leads into the areas of potential concern…

1. The SEC is down: Strength of schedule and wins over quality opponents are key criteria for getting a good seed in the NCAA Tournament. While the SEC is a renowned football beast, playing in the SEC in hoops hurts Missouri’s tournament resume. The Tigers must take advantage of what opportunities they have to score big wins. Their next chance to do so will be in the annual Braggin’ Rights game against Illinois, on Dec. 22 in St. Louis.

2. Missing Ratliffe: Tiger forward Ricardo Ratliffe set a school record by making 69.3 percent of his shots last season as a senior. Phil Pressey’s great passes led to points as Ratliffe kept converting around the rim. Don’t expect Oriakhi to make 70 percent of his shots, but if he can get his shooting percentage up over 50 percent, Pressey is that much more effective.

3. Need for ball-handlers: Especially with senior guard Mike Dixon getting kicked off the team, Pressey needs help as the team’s primary ball-handler. In Missouri’s only loss, Louisville forced the Tigers into 23 turnovers. Louisville is one of the nation’s best defenses, but the game exposed a potential weakness for the Tigers. Finding another ball-handler would allow Pressey to rest without disaster ensuing. Negus Webster-Chan and transfer Jabari Brown could possibly pick up some of the slack here.

Missouri is off for finals week, then returns to action against South Carolina State on Dec. 17 at home.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

A look at 2013 for Missouri football

Missouri fans are likely ready to put the 2012 season in the rearview mirror. The Tigers went 5-7 and did not qualify for a bowl game for the first time since the 2004 season.

But the earlier end to the season allows Missouri to shift the focus to 2013 right away.

The nonconference portion of next year’s schedule includes home games against Murray State and Toledo, a game at Indiana and one more game yet to be added, likely a home game against a lesser opponent. This portion of the schedule is pretty manageable and could likely provide the Tigers with four of the six wins needed for bowl eligibility.

As for the conference portion of the 2013 schedule, well, SEC schedules are seldom described as “manageable.” Missouri plays SEC road games at Vanderbilt, Georgia, Kentucky and Ole Miss. The Tigers play conference home games with Florida, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas A&M.
Missouri kicks off SEC play Oct. 5 at Vanderbilt, a game that will be big for both teams as they try to claw their way up the SEC East Division standings.

It’s too early to project much for 2013, but here are three key issues to watch for next year.

The quarterback situation: Missouri’s starting quarterback, junior James Franklin, struggled to stay healthy this season. He missed four starts and was knocked out of two other games.

When healthy, Franklin had some fine moments, but whether it was stronger SEC defenses, injury issues, or the team struggling around him, his stats had noticeable drops this year. In his second year as a starter, his completion percentage fell from 63.3 last year to 59.4 this season, his efficiency rating fell from 139.9 to 123.6, and his touchdown-to-interception ratio dropped from 21-to-11 to 10-to-7 this year.

Expect Franklin to battle for the starting job in spring and preseason practices with Corbin Berkstresser, who will be a sophomore next year but would need to make substantial progress, and intriguing freshman Maty Mauk, who redshirted this season. As a senior next year, I’d still expect Franklin to be the starter, but finding an effective quarterback, and keeping him healthy, is a must.

Replacing Richardson: As expected, defensive tackle Shelden Richardson declared for the NFL draft and won’t be back next year. Richardson made several game-altering plays last year for a Tiger defense that was generally dependable. Defense wins in the SEC, so finding a player to fill Richardson’s playmaking void is another key issue.

Pinkel factor: Head coach Gary Pinkel will be 61 when next season starts. Despite the disappointing ending to this season, maybe because of it, Pinkel said after the last game he couldn’t wait to get back to his office to start working again Monday for next year.

He’s had some off-field issues over the past year or so, and coaching big-time college football can be grinding profession, so it’s hard to guess how much longer he’ll want to coach. But he’ll be the coach for next season, which will be a big one for the program he’d been leading for 12 years. Pinkel’s understandably feeling some pressure after this season, so getting at least back to bowl eligibility will be crucial.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

A season ends

The point was driven home with each Texas A&M touchdown, each highlight by ridiculous Aggie quarterback Johnny Manziel, each punt by Missouri, far past the point of overkill. It was evident going into this game, but painfully obvious by the time Texas A&M took a 42-0 lead over Missouri. The Aggies (10-2, 6-2 in SEC) are having a much better start to life in the Southeastern Conference than fellow newcomer Missouri (5-7, 2-6 in SEC).

Texas A&M benefited from the stumbles of Arkansas and Auburn in its West Division. But first-year coach Kevin Sumlin and Manziel, the freshman known as “Johnny Football who just might win the Heisman Trophy, largely helped the Aggies make their own luck and take advantage of those opportunities.

Like Charlie Brown getting rocks while trick-or-treating, Missouri got injuries, struggles keeping a quarterback healthy and effective and an East Division that was a bit tougher than expected.

But on Saturday night, Missouri was a prop, the necessary “other team” in the story about Johnny Football and rising Texas A&M. If you threw a quarter in a jar each time the cameras showed Manziel on the sideline, you might be buying dinner.

The injury excuse was real for Missouri, particularly on the offensive line. But the Tiger defense had star linemen Sheldon Richardson back Saturday and was pretty much injury-free, and yet Missouri couldn’t force a punt until the fourth quarter, with A&M backups in the game.

The loss ended Missouri’s season and snapped the program’s streak of seven straight bowls. It was Missouri’s first losing season since 2004, and worst overall and conference records since 2002, coach Gary Pinkel’s second year.

Playing five top-10 teams made for a tough road, but it’s the home losses to the likes of Vanderbilt and Syracuse that will likely vex Tiger fans while watching other teams play in the bowls.

This season had its indicators of how narrow the margins are between success and failure. If Ricahrdson plays against Syracuse, if Missouri didn’t drop a potential game-winning interception in the end zone in that game, if quarterback James Franklin doesn’t take a helmet to the knee against Vanderbilt, maybe the Tigers are in a bowl this year. On the flip side, if the Tigers don’t score on fourth-and-long against Tennessee, if they don’t make that goal line stand against Arizona State, if they don’t rally against UCF, this season could’ve been even worse.

But 5-7 is where the Tigers ended up. After Missouri’s last losing season, eight years ago, Pinkel made big changes to the offense. He largely seems to attribute this season to injury woes, but he still may make a few tweaks this offseason.

Missouri also needs a big recruiting year to build up depth. Talent depth makes teams more immune to the injuries and suspensions that are a part of big-time college football.

Tiger fans have a right to be angry and disappointed with this season. It felt like a lost chance to capitalize on all the fan fervor of the move to the SEC. Next year is huge.

Next week we’ll wrap up this season and take an early look at 2013.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Kansas City and Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is one of my favorite days of the year. It's a day where the dominant message is to be thankful. It's a day to savor food and plenty, but also a day that kicks off the season of giving. It's football, it's family, it's wonderful.

My family goes to Kansas City each year on the holiday. Sitting here in Columbia I can picture driving in the sun past fields on I-435 in Kansas to get there. We're a melting pot, fans of Missouri, Nebraska, Kansas, Kansas State, TCU. The Detroit Lions toil away on the big TV* while everyone eats.

* Joe Posnanski: "I love that one day a year I'm allowed, no, encouraged, no, commanded by American law and the powers of tradition to sit in front of the television and watch the Detroit Lions play football." 

When I think of Kansas City, Thanksgiving is definitely high on the list. It fits well with the city, with all those years of Joe Posnanski's clip-and-save-worthy Thanksgiving columns in the Star. The Plaza lighting that night is one of the city's great traditions. For so many years in the magical '90s, Thanksgiving brought lots of excitement that each year could be the one the Chiefs broke through. You could feel the whole city anticipating the playoff success to match all that regular season success. They're still waiting. I'm a 49ers fan, but there feels like a bit of a void this year with no Chiefs hope. Those were special years when I was a kid and Arrowhead roared and anticipation for the Chiefs and the Plaza lighting mirrored each other.

After the meal comes the backyard football game. When I was younger I wore Steve Young and Jerry Rice jerseys out there; Thursday I plan to wear my Michael Crabtree jersey. Oh to have a highlight reel of the plays on that expanse of grass. The "Statue of Liberty" fumble. The defenders-fall-down cutback in the snow. The cracked ribs play. The attempted pump-fake where the ball flew out of the quarterback's hand. All those sensational catches. The interception returns. Defenders bunched for a blitz, the quarterback hastily heaving the ball in the air, through the crisp blue sky, into a forest of hands.

Afterwards comes the end of the Cowboys game at JerryWorld, an iconic football team with a huge, opulent stadium and massive HD video board and the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders and big Salvation Army kettles... about as American an event as you'll find. We often play men vs. women Trivial Pursuit after, a delightful exercise in minutia.

That's a peek at my Thanksgiving. You probably have your own traditions and joys in your celebrations. I'm thankful for a lot, including my Thanksgivings in Kansas City.

Monday, November 19, 2012

On college football...

Some thoughts after last Saturday's wild day of college football, and the accompanying insanity that clings to the sport like a disease.

1. I hurt for Bill Snyder and Kansas State. The soft-spoken, brilliant old coach had his squad from the charming Flint Hills three wins from a national title. They were favored against Baylor, and likely would have been favored at home vs. Texas and against Notre Dame in the national title game. Three wins as a favorite away from a national title from the school dubbed "Futility U" by Sports Illustrated before Snyder arrived in the late 80s.

Back then, K-State was the worst college football program in the nation by far. Snyder impossibly lifted the Wildcats to greatness, remaking the logo, the attitude, the team, the town. When he arrived, Manhattan, Kan., was only accessible by two-lane road. Now the four-lane road from I-70 into town bears Snyder's name, as does the stadium where the Wildcats play. Snyder retired once, then came back and restored the program he'd built after it slipped under Ron Prince. Snyder has 168 wins at KSU. The coach with the second most had 39.

Snyder and the Wildcats were once my nemesis, if you can believe that. They struck at Nebraska's stranglehold on the Big 12 North; they beat Mizzou to win the North with myself in attendance in 2003. But somewhere along the way they won my respect. I love how they play; players underrated by the know-it-all recruiting evaluators, hardworking, minimize mistakes, take pride in your school and your performance. They play like a humble, hardworking Midwestern team. Snyder is a humble, understated, hardworking Midwestern guy. They don't trade on the past reputation of their school; they can't. They have to and do earn every accolade. They stand up to the blue bloods, hit them hard, and often win (see: KSU vs. Texas).

I thought just maybe Snyder would get that brass ring this year, a national title. He was a win away from playing for it in 1998, but a late fumble and blown lead in the Big 12 title game led to an overtime loss that Snyder later compared to the death of his mother. This one stings maybe just as bad. But still, an outstanding season for a team picked to finish in the middle of the Big 12. With a win against Texas, the Wildcats will clinch their second Big 12 title under Snyder. Their last conference title before Snyder saved the program, and possibly the town? 1934.

2. It's kind of exhausting talking college football with SEC zealots. There are perks to Missouri's new membership in the SEC, for sure, but enlightened, fact-based discussion of college football isn't necessarily one of them. Trouble is, every SEC zealot conversation must have the default assumption that every SEC team is superior, even the best teams in other conference aren't that good, and an SEC player must win the Heisman Trophy. Winners from other leagues are the product of systems or inferior competition. Well, I don't care much for default assumptions in such discussions. SEC zealots call Notre Dame a fraud because they have only faced one top-50 offense. Never mind that exalted Alabama has only faced two, losing to one of them.

SEC zealots insist Georgia is good even though the Bulldogs have beaten Florida and... Vandy at home? They insist SEC schedules are brutal, and many are, but they ignore the wide variation in schedules, and that with a 14-team league and an eight-game schedule, teams can duck many of the best teams. They ignore that impartial computer rankings say the Big 12 is the best league this year, and that teams in that league must play all nine of the others. Look, the SEC is a very strong conference, the best in most recent years. But would it kill them to acknowledge there are other good teams and players, and that there are some dog teams in the SEC? I love the league's personalities and atmospheres and am impressed by its talent; I just need some objectivity in my sports discussions.

3. Conference realignment has jumped the shark with the Big Ten adding Maryland and Rutgers. It's a blatant, naked attempt to get the Big Ten Network on cable packages in New York and other East Coast markets. Never mind that New Yorkers are none too fanatical about college football, certainly Rutgers college football. Rutgers is 9-1 and the New York Times doesn't have a Rutgers beat writer. They run AP stories on the Scarlet Knights. The Big Ten needs growth markets with the Great Lakes states declining in population or growing only slowly? So long as Michigan and Ohio State have enrollments of 50,000 or more and keep pumping out graduates/customers, the conference's future is fine already.

Conference realignment has always been all about money, but this is the latest, most extreme example. Maryland and Rutgers bring NOTHING in terms of tradition, football prestige or fit. In a Washington Post poll, 70 percent of Maryland fans didn't want the move. It's tough to imagine Big Ten fans supporting it. Sorry, Northwestern, you get fewer trips to the Horseshoe and Camp Randall, but enjoy New Jersey! And for what? The Big Ten is already quite lucrative and all over ABC. Not ESPN, ABC. Broadcast. Big time, big money. What will schools do with this additional cash? More TVs in the weight room? Build more luxury boxes? Pay higher travel bills? Was Ohio State, one of the nation's biggest athletic department budgets, hurting for cash?

What are we doing here? Nebraska and Missouri will now travel to Atlantic coast states to play games, but they won't play each other. They won't play neighboring Iowa State or Kansas/Kansas State. Years from now, people will look back on the last three years and condemn the leaders of college athletics for their poor stewardship of the game. The game, always corrupt and hypocritical and greedy, has reached new levels. The NFL seems more pure and less commercialized now. It harbors no illusions about what it is, a business. Wow, college football.

4. But after plenty of old-man-yells-at-cloud ranting, let's end a bit better note. This weekend does have the usual incredible slate of Thanksgiving weekend games. (Albeit missing some great rivalries due to the abomination of unyielding conference realignment. No kidding, Iowa State-West Virginia occupies the Friday afternoon ABC slot that Texas-Texas A&M filled for several years. Cancel my appointments.) Notre Dame tries to clinch an improbable spot in the national title game against USC. Oregon and Georgia try to avoid stumbles against their rivals, trying to hang in the national title race. For my purposes, Nebraska tries to clinch the Legends (?) Division title against Iowa and Missouri makes a last, desperate push for bowl eligibility against Texas A&M.

So yeah, college football has its flaws, and people in charge have been harming the game. But there is a reason we keep coming back. Enjoy the weekend.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Tigers must beat A&M to play in a bowl

Missouri’s lost season took a turn for the worse on a chilly November night at Faurot Field last Saturday. A mediocre Big East team, Syracuse (6-5), came to Columbia and snatched the win away from the Tigers (5-6, 2-5 in Southeastern Conference play), one Missouri desperately needed to secure bowl eligibility.

Early on, it looked like a game one would expect with an SEC team hosting a Big East team. Missouri raced to a 17-3 lead, but a Syracuse touchdown before the half ensured this would not be easy for the Tigers.

The Orange tied the game at 17 in the fourth, triggering a shootout of sorts as both teams fought for their sixth win, which means bowl eligibility. Missouri kicked a field goal with less than two minutes to go, but steady senior quarterback Ryan Nassib and the Orange sliced through the Missouri defense for the winning touchdown.

Adding insult on Syracuse’s winning touchdown was that it came when Missouri left Orange receiver Alec Lemon, who had only racked up a mere 227 receiving yards so far, wide open. Lemon ran a wheel route as Missouri blitzed, and due to a coverage breakdown he was able to cruise easily into the end zone with 20 seconds left. Missouri had no answer for Lemon, who finished with 12 catches for 244 yards and two touchdowns, but leaving him all alone had to be frustrating for the Tigers.

Missouri was playing without defensive lineman Sheldon Richardson, its best defender, suspended for breaking team rules. Quarterback James Franklin was knocked out of the game with a head injury in the fourth quarter.

It was the latest adversity faced by the Tigers this season, and the latest example of Missouri being unable to overcome it.

This one will reverberate. Missouri finished the season 3-4 at home, despite generally bigger home crowds and an enthusiasm boost from the move to the SEC. Getting to 6-6 and playing in a lower-tier bowl is nothing to brag about, with over half of Football Bowl Subdivision teams playing in bowls. But going 5-7 and missing a bowl in this day and age is awful. Barring a huge upset at Texas A&M on Saturday (6 p.m. on ESPN2), Missouri will not play in a bowl for the first time since the 2004 season.

Due to schedule quirks, this is Missouri’s third trip in three years to “The Home of the 12th Man.” Missouri won there each of the last two seasons, but this year the Aggies are favored by more than two touchdowns.

Texas A&M (9-2, 5-2 in SEC play) is led by freshman quarterback and Heisman Trophy candidate Johnny Manziel, known by adoring Aggie fans as “Johnny Football.” Manziel led Texas A&M to a stunning upset at then-No. 1 Alabama on Nov. 10, and last week he became the first freshman to throw for 3,000 yards and rush for 1,000 yards in a single season.

If Missouri’s defense plays its best game, I could see the Tigers hanging around, but it’s tough to see them getting the win.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Four overtimes and the Pinkel Slip

Missouri’s 51-48 win over Tennessee in four exhilarating overtimes on Saturday felt like a season-saver. The Tigers headed into the game in Knoxville at 4-5 with the road to a bowl bid in peril.

The Tigers were also a game under .500 last year when they came from behind to win as an underdog on the road, at Texas A&M. This year, Missouri (5-5, 2-5 in SEC play) seemed overmatched in the first half, falling behind 21-7 as Tennessee (4-6, 0-6 in SEC) rolled up and down the field. Missouri was helped by a kick return for a touchdown, a missed Tennessee field goal, and a forced fumble, the specialty of this Tiger defense, all of which kept Tennessee from putting the game away.

Missouri gamely fought back, and after several momentum swings in the overtimes, the Tigers pulled out their first SEC road win. It also felt like redemption for Missouri quarterback James Franklin, who after a four-interception performance at Florida last week was outstanding when it mattered most last Saturday, including a 25-yard touchdown pass on fourth down in the final minute and three more touchdown passes in the overtimes.

Missouri benefited from some questionable decisions by Tennessee head coach Derek Dooley. With his offense on the field on a fourth-and-three in Missouri territory in the second half, Dooley opted to have his quarterback punt the ball away instead of going for it. (Just a tip, if ever you find yourself coaching the 2012 Tennessee Volunteers and can choose to rely on your offense or your defense, go with offense.)

If Dooley is indeed let go, that would mean both of Missouri’s SEC wins came against coaches who were subsequently fired, with Kentucky’s Joker Phillips getting let go already this season. Maybe there should be a term for this phenomenon. Getting the Pinkel slip?

Regardless of the Tennessee’s current state, this was a win Missouri sorely needed, and they came from two touchdowns behind on the road to get it. Well done.

The win moved Missouri within one game of bowl eligibility. The Tigers’ best chance to get that done is this Saturday at home against Syracuse (6 p.m. on ESPNU).

Syracuse (5-5, 4-2 in Big East play) has been far from great this season, but they did pick up a big win last Saturday when they rolled previously undefeated and then-No. 9 Louisville, 45-26. The Orange are 1-4 away from their Carrier Dome this season, with the one win 37-36 at South Florida.

Missouri is favored by nearly a touchdown, although Syracuse has a capable quarterback in senior Ryan Nassib. Nassib has thrown for over 3,000 yards this season, with 21 touchdown passes against just eight interceptions. He tossed three touchdowns with no picks in the win over Louisville. He has capable targets in Alec Lemon and Marcus Sales. The Orange also have a solid group of linebackers.

Given that Missouri’s other remaining opponent is Texas A&M, a team last seen beating No. 1 Alabama on the road, so it would be good for Missouri to get that sixth win against Syracuse. I think they will.

Thursday, November 8, 2012


I joked with some friends the other day that I keep learning a little bit more about women each week and that, in a scant 972 years, I should have them figured out. But other than the whole "read my mind instead of me verbalizing my thoughts" mystery, I actually don't think it's THAT complicated. I mean, it's not rocket science to show other humans you care about them. I guess it's just a question of actually doing the small and not-so-small gestures to show it. And finding the right girl.

Finding her makes all the little indignities of the dating experience worth it. In and around my college years, I took some mighty, Casey-in-Mudville-type hacks*, but they didn't lead to anything. When I was younger I almost desperately wanted to find her, but I surely wasn't ready. Then I realized it was a blessing to start out on one's own, learning about money and running a household (I know, using that term loosely here). In ensuing years, enjoying the autonomy of living alone and perhaps seeing Debra berate Ray one too many times on "Everybody Loves Raymond," I was in no hurry for any of that. Hopefully I've reached a balance in recent years, ready to go for it when I find her but no longer in some great rush. I mean, it is fun to have authoritarian control over the many pointless little decisions that make up a decent chunk of life.

**"And now the pitcher holds the ball, and now he lets it go, 
     And now the air is shattered by the force of Casey's blow."

Really, though, what are we looking for? Well, Kate Upton, who by being on a magazine cover can hold up a checkout line almost as much as someone paying by check. Kidding aside, there's more to it than that. Like personality, to borrow from that catchy old Lloyd Price song.

The other night, I was staying up too late, watching 30 Rock. I'm not sure if it was sleep deprivation, but I found myself debating Liz Lemon's attractiveness, in her quirky sort of way. Why? Well, turns out a woman being smart, funny and witty is pretty attractive. I mean, if I find a woman who can appreciate (tolerate?) my occasionally convoluted quips, and spin a few of her own, then I think we'd be doing okay. More than okay, even.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Election thoughts

Like Leap Days and the Summer Olympics, our presidential elections dance across the stage every four years. With that in mind, here are four thoughts on this election.

1. I love the idea of history being made, how these infrequent presidential election nights are remembered through the ages. My grandparents' first election was 1952, when Eisenhower got elected. My parents' first presidential election was 1976, when they voted for Carter.

I missed the 2004 election by two and a half months, so my first presidential election was 2008. Most people just get one presidential election as an undergrad, and this was a big one to have. Young voters were a key ingredient that year, and campuses always seem to buzz for big elections, with all these ambitious, hopeful young people around. I remember seeing Obama's victory speech that year, then going to the Stoney Creek Inn to hang out with a friend who had had a long day covering election stuff, and had seen his GOP have a rough go of it. Perhaps forever, elections and the Stoney Creek Inn will remind me of each other.

2. For me, the most surprising thing about the 2012 election was that Republicans seemed genuinely surprised that Romney didn't come close in the electoral vote count. As a journalist and generally a fan of bad sports teams, I've long ago separated what I WANT to happen from what I THINK will happen, but maybe this was simply wishful thinking from people who wanted their guy to win. But I think in this day and age, and with the electoral college system, experts are pretty good at projecting elections. The New York Times' Nate Silver gave Romney just a 9 percent chance of winning heading into election day. Silver looks at polls in "swing" states, and more importantly movement and trends within polls, Silver projected every state correctly, right down to Florida being brutally close but an Obama win. Some attacked Silver's methods leading up to the election, but his ridiculous success was vindication.

Never at any point Tuesday night did I think Romney would win. He never picked up a state that wasn't a sure Republican state going into the election. As one headline put it: "Moneyball has come to punditry."

3. I think America deserves (at least) two robust political options, so here's my unsolicited advice for the GOP. Two ideas. One, clear out the "crazies," as New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a Republican, puts it. The far right is dragging them down. Nominating more extreme, tea party candidates has cost Republicans five Senate seats (Akin and Mourdock in 2012, Angle, O'Donnell and Buck in 2010) they definitely could have (should have?) won, which would have given them control of the Senate.

Second, modify the platform/approach. The Democratic Party was a punching bag in the 1980s and had lost five of six presidential elections before strategist James Carville said "It's the economy, stupid" and moderate, economy-minded Bill Clinton got elected in 1992. Republicans should pitch over and over the conservative tenets of leaving people alone to prosper and how they are the party of job creation. Have a stance on social issues, but don't lead with that. Maybe re-evaluate your platform on immigration. The GOP lost on Hispanics 70-30 this year. Imagine if they do that poorly again in 2016 or 2020 as Hispanic populations rise. The idea of losing Texas and/or Arizona as GOP locks should mobilize Republicans. Finding a way to get non-whites to vote Republican is key. (They kept the White House, but my tip for Democrats: Get better at deficit/debt reduction. A lot better.)

4. Most people understandably denigrate or even ignore our political system. It is certainly flawed and has plenty of unsavory characters. But it does beat the alternative. It beats dictators, elections with less integrity or waiting for Charles and Camilla to become your king and queen. I'd just ask, don't assume anyone who voted against your guy is stupid or just doesn't get it. Nearly 60 million people (last I checked) voted for Mitt Romney. That many plus about two million voted for Obama. I'm not going to say 60 million or so Americans are dumb because they disagree with me on something this nuanced. I'd hope you won't either. Obama has said he's learned from mistakes in his first term. Republican leaders seem to be understanding a need to strike a more cordial, cooperative tone as well. We'll see on both. But if you take nothing else away from all this, remember this: You control how you'll live your life, regardless of who won. Don't blame leaders, don't make excuses. Good luck.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

After loss in the Swamp, Tigers head to Rocky Top

For big-time college football, it’s about wins and losses, and Missouri has been losing more than winning lately. That being said, Tiger fans probably were more impressed with the team’s effort in last Saturday’s 14-7 loss at then-No. 8 Florida than in the team’s win over bumbling Kentucky the week before.

Missouri (4-5, 1-5 in SEC play) led 7-0 at the half and battled to the end with the Gators (8-1, 7-1 in SEC play) before over 90,000 fans in Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, menacingly known as the Swamp. Since Steve Spurrier became Florida’s head coach in 1990 and ushered in the modern, dominant era of Gator football, Florida is now 127-18 in this daunting venue. That’s 18 home losses in 23 seasons.

And yet, largely on the strength of its own defense, Missouri found itself with the ball in the game’s final minutes, driving for a touchdown that would force overtime, or give the Tigers a chance to go for two and the win. But the touchdown never came, as quarterback James Franklin tossed his fourth interception of the day, in the end zone.

It was a brutal day for Franklin, still feeling some effects from the knee injury that caused him to miss the previous two games. He completed just 24 of 51 passes. He faced extreme pressure from Florida’s outstanding defensive line, and running back Kendial Lawrence was largely bottled up, making things that much more difficult. Missouri moved into Florida territory on its last six drives, but got no points out of these drives, largely due to those turnovers.

However, Franklin is still Missouri’s best option at quarterback right now. Freshman backup Corbin Berkstresser has showed his limitations this season, and it isn’t worth it to cost redshirting Maty Mauk a year of eligibility by playing him now, with only three games left.

Missouri needs to win two of those three games to run its streak of bowl appearances to eight.
Missouri’s game at Tennessee on Saturday (11:20 a.m. on SEC network, to be broadcast on a local channel; check listings) could quite possibly be one of those needed wins. Tennessee (4-5, 0-5 in SEC play) opened the week as a slight favorite, but the Volunteers are vulnerable.

Tennessee’s struggles have put coach Derek Dooley on the hot seat, but the Volunteers have faced a rugged SEC schedule so far. Tennessee’s five SEC opponents so far are Florida, Georgia, Mississippi State, Alabama and South Carolina. All have winning records in SEC play. The Vols’ close with Missouri, Vanderbilt and Kentucky, which are a combined 4-15 in SEC play.

Tennessee earned a wild 55-48 win over Troy last week. Tennessee gave up 721 yards. The Volunteer defense has had issues this season, but the offense can be potent, leading to near-wins at Georgia and South Carolina.

The Tigers should be able to score, but Tennessee’s offense should also cause plenty of post-score renditions of “Rocky Top.” For anyone nostalgic about the Tigers’ old conference, this one may have the feel of a Big 12 shootout. It’ll just be played on Rocky Top in Neyland Stadium, another classic SEC venue.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Missouri gets first SEC win, prepares for trip to Swamp

Missouri earned its first Southeastern Conference win last Saturday at Faurot Field, prevailing 33-10 over Kentucky. Years from now, if you’re telling future generations about the historic win, you have my permission to embellish just a little to pretty things up.

In reality, it was an ugly win. A strong wind made simply fielding punts an adventure, snaps were botched, and offenses sputtered. Two teams winless in SEC play looked the part for a good chunk of the afternoon.

But Saturday certainly had highlights for Missouri (4-4, 1-4 in SEC play), such as defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson stripping the ball and returning it 60 yards, thwarting a potential Kentucky score on the first drive of the game.

After Corbin Berkstresser threw two third quarter interceptions with Missouri trying to hold a 17-10 lead, James Franklin came into the game, despite being too injured to make his usual start at quarterback. With Franklin in, the Tigers ran the ball 20 times and passed it nine times. This was precisely what Missouri needed to do to put the game away. The Tigers ran the ball 47 times Saturday, led by Kendial Lawrence (108 yards), Marcus Murphy (43 yards) and Russell Hansbrough (37 yards).

Feeble Kentucky (1-8, 0-6) was not a threat to come back so long as Missouri stopped turning the ball over, which the Tigers eventually did. After the first quarter, Kentucky posted just 59 yards of offense.
Field position was huge Saturday, as it seems to be each week in the SEC. Just look at Missouri’s scoring drives against Kentucky: 25, 12, 52, 34 and 12 yards. Missouri needs to win the field position battle to have a chance to win; the Tiger offense needs short fields.

Winning will be a tall order on Saturday, when the Tigers travel to “The Swamp” to take on No. 8 Florida (7-1, 6-1 in SEC play) and its stout defense. The game is at 11 a.m. on ESPN2.

Florida is second in the SEC in points allowed per game, at 12.8, trailing only otherworldly Alabama. Safety Josh Evans, linebacker Jonathan Bostic and tackle Sharrif Floyd lead the nasty Florida defense.
Florida has had some offensive struggles of its own, however, on display in its 17-9 loss to Georgia last Saturday. The Gators are 11th in the SEC in offensive yards per game; Missouri is 12th.

Despite Florida’s occasional offensive struggles, the Gators have some weapons in speedy dual-threat quarterback Jeff Driskel and running back Mike Gillislee, who has ran for 729 yards and seven touchdowns this season.

Florida is no doubt smarting from that loss to rival Georgia, which will likely cost the Gators the SEC East title, and Missouri is a 16-point underdog. At Missouri, coach Gary Pinkel is 3-17 against top-10 teams, with none of the three wins coming in a road game.

The Swamp can be daunting, but it would be nice to see Missouri at least be competitive, establish the ground game and have its defense keep the game close. The Tigers have an SEC win, but life in the conference rolls on with yet another tough test against one of the nation’s better defenses.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Tigers look to get back on track vs. Kentucky

Having a bye the week after playing ultra-physical Alabama, the top-ranked team in the nation, seems appropriate. The Saturday without a game gave the Tigers (3-4, 0-4 in Southeastern Conference games) a chance to rest their bodies and refocus near the middle of what has been a challenging season.

Missouri returns to action at Faurot Field on Saturday with the Homecoming game against Kentucky (11 a.m. on ESPNU). Playing the Wildcats (1-7, 0-5 in SEC play) at home presents a great chance to get for Missouri to get that elusive first SEC win. With it being Homecoming, this game should have a bigger, more enthusiastic crowd than your average matchup of teams with no conference wins.

Kentucky’s struggles this season have put coach Joker Phillips on the hot seat, but the Wildcats did put up a competitive fight against South Carolina and Georgia, both talented SEC East teams.

For any SEC team, particularly this year, losing to Kentucky in football is disaster.

To ensure that doesn’t happen, Missouri would do well to get ahead early. When a team loses frequently, there’s usually a “here we go again” feeling when they fall behind. Also, Kentucky doesn’t really have the passing game to come from behind. An early lead would also get the crowd going, which can be a problem in 11 a.m. kickoff games.

But let the Wildcats hang around, even fall behind to them? Then Missouri would feel the weight of the aforementioned disaster looming overhead, and Kentucky could start to believe. With Missouri being the “new kid” in the SEC East and 0-4 in SEC play, Kentucky could view this as one of its better chances to notch an SEC win this season.

Beyond putting Kentucky in its place early on, it would be good for Missouri to put a lot of bodies near the line of scrimmage to shut down the Kentucky running game and dare the Wildcats to beat them with the pass. With starting quarterback Maxwell Smith out indefinitely with a torn ankle ligament, the Wildcats’ passing offense has struggled. (Not that their rushing attack has been much of a prize, either.)
Getting this win is necessary for the Tigers’ push to make it to 6-6 and qualify for a bowl game.

Making a bowl is a fairly minimal standard given the bloated slate of bowls, but it would still be big for Missouri to make it to one given the struggles of this season. The Tigers have made it to a bowl in seven straight seasons, and they would dearly like to keep some momentum going by making it eight straight.

The two remaining home games, Saturday against Kentucky and Nov. 17 against Syracuse, are must-haves to reach a bowl. If they get those two, the Tigers would need one win in the three remaining road games to get to 6-6. The Nov. 10 game at Tennessee is probably the best chance, followed by the season finale at Texas A&M. The Nov. 3 game at No. 2 Florida is likely out of reach, however.

But before that, it all starts with getting a win against struggling Kentucky on Saturday.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Three things we've learned in Missouri's first SEC season

Last Saturday at Faurot Field, Missouri’s game with No. 1 Alabama had a metaphorical thunderbolt on the second play, as Crimson Tide running back Eddie Lacy rumbled 73 yards for a touchdown. In the second quarter, just as Alabama scored to go up 27-0, an actual thunderbolt relatively near the stadium delayed the game, as though the weather was Missouri’s boxing trainer, throwing in the towel in a fight that was out of hand.

Missouri (3-4, 0-4 in Southeastern Conference games) did get a Marcus Murphy kick return for a touchdown after the delay, but Alabama (6-0, 3-0 SEC) added a couple of second-half touchdowns for a 42-10 win. Alabama outgained the Tigers 533-129 in total yards.

Alabama is one of the best teams Missouri has faced in coach Gary Pinkel’s 12 seasons, and they have dominated every opponent this year, so this loss doesn’t generate outrage.

Fortunately, Missouri has a bye week after facing physical Alabama. As the Tigers regroup, here are three things we’ve learned from the first half of Missouri’s inaugural SEC campaign.

1. SEC fans are as zealous as advertised
It seems arbitrary to me to say SEC fans care more than those in other conferences. As Missouri fans can attest through the years, it’s pretty important to folks in Nebraska and Oklahoma how their Huskers and Sooners fare. Nebraska, after all, is the one with the ongoing record for consecutive sellouts, dating to the Kennedy administration.

But SEC fans do seem particularly crazy and zealous in how they live out their passion for their teams. This fall I’ve already heard about Tennessee fans with their team’s logo on their glass eyes and Alabama fans who survived an emergency private plane landing only to abandon their aircraft and hitchhike to the game. SEC fans also seem eager to tell their tales of fanaticism, as part of the conference’s culture.

2. Sheldon Richardson is having an outstanding season

From saying Georgia played “old man football” early in the season to being heard screaming in the locker room after Missouri’s loss to Vanderbilt, the defensive tackle has had an eventful season off the field. But despite that, and Missouri’s on-field disappointments, it’s undeniable Richardson is having an outstanding season on the field.

Just watch a Mizzou game and notice how often big No. 34 is the one making the tackle, or pressuring the quarterback, or forcing a fumble. The only drawback is Richardson is playing well enough that he is likely gone to the NFL after this season.

3. Missouri has work to do to compete in the SEC

Missouri is 0-4 in conference games for the first time since 1999.

I don’t think the gap between the SEC and the Big 12 is the Grand Canyon, but the conferences do feature different styles of play. Missouri will probably need to build depth on its lines to compete in the SEC. Getting a back who can grind out the tough yards would help as well.

But five games of this season still remain, starting with the Homecoming game against Kentucky on Oct. 27 (11 a.m. on ESPNU).

Monday, October 8, 2012

Struggling Tigers await No. 1 Alabama

Well, forget what I wrote last week. Forget Missouri gaining momentum in October. Forget the Show Me State’s weather being great in this month.

Last Saturday’s 19-15 loss to Vanderbilt brought a jarring end to those notions. The weather did not feel like the idyllic crispness of a Missouri October; it was a cold, raw, in-your-face night. And the Missouri Tigers (3-3, 0-3 in Southeastern Conference games) did the opposite of generating momentum.

Missouri and Vanderbilt have to fight and claw for the scraps of wins available to them in this tough league. Vanderbilt seemed hungrier Saturday, and they were willing to shake things up with some trick plays down the stretch.

Missouri started out with two nice drives ending in field goals to go up 6-0. But quarterback James Franklin suffered a knee sprain on his only carry of the game, and backup Corbin Berkstresser struggled. The first eight drives for Berkstresser: fumbled snap, safety on a punt attempt, punt, punt, punt, turnover on downs, punt, punt. None these drives went farther than 23 yards.

Berkstresser and the Tigers put some points on the board late, helped by a long touchdown on a coverage breakdown by Vanderbilt, but the Commodores held on. Berkstresser completed just 9 of 30 passes. He was hurt by some drops, but that completion rate simply won’t win many games.

Playing quarterback for Missouri right now is like driving on a mountain road with no guardrails, and Berkstresser took some big hits behind an offensive line struggling with youth and injuries against tough SEC defensive lines.

Now, reader friend, I’ve waited as long as I can without mentioning it, but we must talk about what lies ahead for these Tigers.

On Saturday, No. 1 Alabama (5-0, 2-0 in SEC play) comes to Columbia to take on Missouri (2:30 p.m. on CBS). Franklin is out with his knee sprain, giving Berkstresser the task of going against the ferocious Crimson Tide defense.

Since Alabama blew a big lead to bitter rival Auburn at the end of the 2010 season, the Crimson Tide defense has been otherworldly, not allowing more than 14 points against any Division I-A opponent since, a streak of 18 games. This year, Alabama has won by scores of 41-14, 35-0, 52-0, 40-7 and 33-14.

Besides that dominant defense, Alabama has an outstanding offensive line and a veteran quarterback, A.J. McCarron, who has not thrown an interception this season. Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon highlight a punishing running game.

Alabama coach Nick Saban, appropriately born on Halloween, given how he terrorizes the SEC, was teammates with Missouri coach Gary Pinkel at Kent State in the early 1970s, but don’t expect pity.
It should still be an experience for Tiger fans to see their team take on the storied Crimson Tide. But Missouri is 0-3 in conference play for the first time since 2002, Pinkel’s second year. The last time the Tigers started 0-4 in conference games was 1999.

Missouri has looked wobbly in the first half of the season, and the Vanderbilt loss means Missouri will have to pull an upset just to make a bowl game. With a team as good as Alabama, this week probably won’t be that upset.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Tigers have a chance to build momentum

Having avoided disaster with a 21-16 win on the road against a solid Central Florida team, now it is time for Missouri to generate some momentum.

Positive momentum has been tough to find so far this season for Missouri (3-2, 0-2 in Southeastern Conference play), with two games against teams currently ranked in top six, offensive line struggles and an injury for the starting quarterback. But the come-from-behind win over Central Florida was a start.

Missouri needed this one. UCF dominated the first half, running all over the Tigers. But Missouri only trailed 10-7 at the half, thanks to a great defensive stand at the end of the first half.

That set the tone for the second half, during which Missouri gradually took control of the game and then held on, forcing a fumble at the end to seal the win. Missouri threw the ball downfield more, including a long touchdown to highly touted freshman Dorial Green-Beckham. Yes, Missouri, still had issues protecting quarterback James Franklin, but this time that didn’t keep the Tigers from attacking downfield anyway.

As for generating momentum starting with this win, Missouri now plays all three of its October games at home, with a bye week Oct. 20.

Two of the October home games are against historic SEC punching bags Vanderbilt and Kentucky. The other one, ahem, is against No. 1 Alabama on Oct. 13. If Vandy and Kentucky are the punching bags, Alabama is the angry-looking boxer delivering the blows to the punching bag. But the upside with a game like that is Missouri will have everything to gain and nothing to lose. Simply playing Alabama will generate a lot of attention for Missouri.

Going 2-1 in these three games would put Missouri at 5-3 heading into November. But while Missouri started the week favored by about a touchdown against Vanderbilt (1-3, 0-2 in SEC play), the Commodores are not a gimme.

Yes, Vanderbilt is 3-23 in SEC play since the start of the 2009 season, but second-year coach James Franklin, no relation to the Missouri quarterback of the same name, has been trying to make the Commodores competitive. In 2010, Vanderbilt was outgained by 245.4 yards per game against SEC opponents. But last year, Franklin’s first year, Vanderbilt was only outgained by 28.5 yards per game in SEC play and made a bowl game, just its second bowl game since 1982.

Like Mizzou, Vanderbilt’s SEC losses were to South Carolina and Georgia, and the other loss was at currently undefeated Northwestern. So while Vandy has not accomplished much this year, they have played a tough early schedule and are coming off a bye. Especially at home, Missouri should win, but again, Vanderbilt is not a layup.

A second straight win would be a great way to begin October, the heart of the college football season.

Show-Me State native Mark Twain, once said, “Missouri is at her best in October.”

With all home games, including the two easiest SEC games on the schedule, Missouri fans can hope their team will be at its best as well. Enjoy this month, before the chill and three SEC road games of November arrive.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Jeff City-Hickman CVIII

Friday, the 5-0 Hickman Kewpies travel down to Adkins Stadium to take on the 5-0 Jefferson City Jays in the 108th meeting of this storied rivalry.

It's a fascinating rivalry, one that I've heard is the second-oldest high school football rivalry in the state. Columbia is a small city that has that small city, college town vibe, but it can feel bigger, especially with the noise and passion and national attention of being an SEC school during football season. Columbia Hickman is old, Columbia's link to another time, plenty of tradition and notable alumni. The Kewpies won football state titles in 1974 and 2004.

Jefferson City is also a small city, albeit smaller than Columbia, although it can almost feel more like a big small town. I think you can tell a lot about a community by what's the biggest sports game in town. In Jeff City, it's undoubtedly Jay football. With 10 state titles, the Jays have football tradition at least on par with any school in the state. And they could have even more. It seems archaic now, but Missouri didn't have an official state football playoff until 1968, and Jefferson City reeled off 10 undefeated seasons between 1943 and 1967.

Hickman fans wear shirts with a Jay head on a stake (or at least one at last week's game did). Jefferson City sings, "Run the ball clear 'round Columbia; A touchdown sure this time!" in their fight song. Rivalry. They are united perhaps only in their disdain for Rock Bridge, still forced at 39 to sit at the kids' table in the minds of the Jays and Kewpies.

They first met in 1911, a 6-0 Hickman win. They've met every year since then except for 1918, when the global influenza epidemic shut down the season. Hickman built an early lead in the series during the leatherhead days, winning 21 of 22 meetings from 1920 to 1940. The Kewpies won 31-14 in 1957 to take a 34-10-4 series lead.

Then, in 1958, Pete Adkins arrived in Jefferson City. The Jays went 6-1-2 in his first year and embarked on an audacious 71-game winning streak from 1958 to 1966. He beat Hickman eight straight times to begin his Jeff City career, and 13 of his first 14. Hickman struck back to win 13 of 18 from 1972 to 1985, but then Jeff City reeled off 17 straight wins against Hickman ('86 to '99), the longest winning streak in the series. Jeff City was about as dominant a high school football program during this stretch as possible. Check this out, Jeff City's playoff results from 1986 to 1994, Adkins' last nine seasons: semifinalist, semifinalist, state champ, semifinalist, state champ, state champ, semifinalist, state champ, state champ.

Hickman broke through with a landmark 28-12 win in 2000 and won four straight from 2002 to 2005. Jeff City then won five straight from 2006 to 2010 to finally even the overall series, which the Jays have never led. But in a shocking district game result, Hickman stunned the Jays, snatched a spot in the state playoffs and ended Jeff City's season. Hickman now leads the series 52-51-4.

It was a bitter defeat for the Jays, and some are talking revenge this year. They would love to even up the series again, maybe finally take the lead should they meet in district play. Hickman's Kewpies have other ideas, with a stout defense and the typical hard-nosed rushing attack. Fresh off a madcap, rallying win against Rock Bridge, they have growing momentum.

It should be an incredible atmosphere on Friday night. Adkins Stadium under the Friday night lights is a special scene, nestled in the hills and trees along Stadium Boulevard. It's the best big-school high school football environment I've experienced.

(The best small-school football environment? Give me the Trenton Bulldogs' C.F. Russell Stadium. Built in the 1930s as a WPA project, a child of the Great Depression long known as Eastside Stadium, it's not ashamed of its age. The stadium's grandstand roof and support beams, plus wooden bleachers, give it a distinct look, wonderfully different from the hordes of tin-sided press box and metal bleachers of almost every small high school. With the solemn bulldog memorial to a student who died at a game years ago beyond one end zone, trees and a neighborhood beyond another (nestled, Wrigley Field feel), and an encircling track on which Jesse Owens once ran, the place feels perfect for small-school, close-knit-community football.)

High school athletics are very subjective and personal. What's the best high school rivalry? Your high school and their rival. Always. And for the kids getting ready to suit up in Hickman purple or Jeff City red and black, dreaming and craving a win they'll remember forever under those bright lights, this is their greatest game, a Super Bowl for their hometowns.

On Friday, Adkins will be a great arena for the latest installment of Kewpies and Jays. Both head coaches have lengthy ties to their programs, with the son of the Jeff City coach quarterbacking the Jays.  To have played 107 times and have one game separating the alltime series, well that's pretty remarkable. The rivalry has had its turns and shifts in over a century of play. Friday, the Kewpies and Jays renew auld acquaintances for the 108th meeting. Let's do it.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Checking in on Royals & Cardinals predictions

In April, the night the Cardinals and Marlins opened the (U.S. portion of the) 2012 major league baseball season. Those were the days, when Bobby Petrino was still the head coach at Arkansas, the Orioles couldn't compete in the loaded AL East, and Eric Hosmer didn't seem capable of sub-.240 seasons. It was a simpler time.

I had the five people in Armer's basement (the one in Ashland; see, a different time) that night give a guess/prediction for the win totals of the Cardinals and Royals this season. As the season nears the finish line, here's where we stand, after the results on Monday, Sept. 24:

Royals: 70-83
Games left: 9
Possible win total range: 70-79

Cardinals: 83-71
Games left: 8
Possible win total range: 83-91

And here's our picks. All of us but Pointer, married since these long-ago predictions, appear to have bought too much into the ill-fated "Our Time" Royals hype. We could have an exact winner on the Cards; we'll see. We'll take the number of wins away from each team's actual total, average the two, and winner gets, say, a bag of peanut butter M&M's. And pride, enduring pride on which you can't put a price tag.

* Ben Herrold: Cards- 85, Royals- 84
* Cody Pointer: Cards- 86, Royals- 68
* Nathan Armer: Cards- 93, Royals- 81
* Seth Maberry: Cards- 91, Royals- 79
* Chris Coffman: Cards- 91, Royals- 82

Tigers blown out at South Carolina, need win at UCF

There is no shame losing on the road to a top-10 team, but Missouri’s humbling 31-10 loss at then-No. 7 South Carolina last Saturday was still troubling for Tiger fans.

Primarily, for more than three hours, the game drove home how big the gap is right now between Missouri (2-2, 0-2 in SEC play) and the top of the SEC East Division.

South Carolina’s imposing defensive line pressured Missouri quarterback James Franklin all day. The Gamecocks held the Tigers to just 255 yards of offense, 75 of which came on a late touchdown drive against South Carolina’s backup defenders playing prevent defense.

Despite a pretty inspired performance by defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson in the first half, Missouri’s defense missed far too many tackles and allowed South Carolina’s Connor Shaw to complete 20 consecutive passes; his only incompletion was his first pass of the game. Even on special teams, Missouri seemed outgunned.

Missouri is now 2-2, just like it was last year. The upside is that the two East preseason favorites are in the rearview mirror, the downside is that games with No. 1 Alabama and rising Florida remain.
It’s not time to panic about this Missouri team, but if they lose one of the next two games, at Central Florida or home against Vanderbilt, things could really come off the rails.

Looking at the road ahead, the home game with Alabama on Oct. 13 looks like a loss, and the home games against wobbly Vanderbilt, Kentucky and Syracuse look like wins. That leaves four road games, at UCF, Florida, Tennessee and Texas A&M to provide the swings up or down for this team. I said 7-5 at the start of the season, and I’ll stick with that for now.

First is the tricky trip to play at Central Florida on Saturday (11 a.m. on Fox Sports Network). It’s a critical game for Missouri if they’re going to get to that aforementioned 7-5 mark, not to mention the 6-6 required for bowl eligibility.

UCF won the Conference USA title in 2010 and beat Georgia in Liberty Bowl that year. The Knights took a step back last year, falling to 5-7. But they had six losses by seven points or less, and UCF is a C-USA contender again this season. They are 2-1 on the season with the loss being a competitive game at Ohio State. Off a bye week, their fans should be excited and loud, hosting an SEC school.

Former Missouri quarterback Tyler Gabbert, Blaine’s little brother, is a backup at UCF, but sophomore Blake Bortles seems to have a firm grip on the starting job. The terrifically named running back Storm Johnson gives the Knights some ground punch. UCF has a pretty stout defense as well.

Missouri can win, but I think the Tigers need to go on the attack offensively. I know they’ve faced some great defenses, but Missouri has seemed overly concerned with reacting to what opposing defenses do. Missouri should attack downfield and get its athletic receivers involved, or lose trying to do so.

UCF started the week as a slight favorite in the game, but it’s one Missouri has to have.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012


On Saturday, Missouri truly takes the plunge into the world of the SEC when they play at South Carolina. It's not just because they are playing away from Faurot and in the South for the first time in this first SEC season. It's not just because they are going up against the ol' Ballcoach, SEC fixture Steve Spurrier. It is partly due to these, but it's also in large part because Verne is calling their game.

Verne Lundquist, 72, is the play-by-play broadcaster for CBS' weekly SEC showcase game. When he's calling your game, the eyes of the SEC, and more broadly the college football nation, are upon you. When he's calling your game, you've arrived as an SEC member.

The life of Verne seems to be pretty cool. He lives in Steamboat Springs, Colo., with his wife. He gets to call March Madness games, usually with the good time that is Bill Raftery. He also gets to work the Masters each April, linked to some many moments of drama at the gorgeous, risk-reward par-3 16th at Augusta. Then in the fall, he calls those SEC games, which include some of the great showdowns in any given college football season. (Bama-LSU, anyone?)

He's had some pretty great, famous calls through the years, including two of the most famous golf shots ever. Some of the highlights, with links to all but the first:

* The dropped would-be touchdown reception in Super Bowl XIII by Dallas Cowboys tight end Jackie Smith that would have tied the game at 21 and proved to be a turning point in the Cowboys' loss to the Steelers: "Bless his heart, he's got to be the sickest man in America!"

* Jack Nicklaus' birdie putt at 17 that shook old Augusta during the final round of the 1986 Masters, as the Golden Bear made one more charge to win a major at 46: "Maybe... YES, SIR!!"

* Christian Laettner's shot to beat Kentucky in the 1992 East Regional Final and put Duke in the Final Four, one of the most famous buzzer-beaters in NCAA Tournament history: "Here's the pass to Laettner... puts it up... YES!!"

* Tiger Woods' seemingly miraculous chip-in birdie at 16 during the 2005 Masters, where the ball appeared to stop ever so briefly, then tumble in. Still one of the more astounding things I've seen in sports: "Here it comes... Oh, my goodness... OH WOW! In your life have you ever seen anything like that?!?"

* George Mason's stunning overtime win against UConn to advance to the 2006 Final Four (quote at the 2:50 mark): "By George, the dream is still alive!"

Quite a sports hits list. For sure, it'll feel fun and big-time hearing him and analyst Gary Danielson talking about the Tigers. Who can make a play to cause Uncle Verne to say, "How do you do?" (I'd put a wager on Jadeveon Clowney.) When the Kansas State blog Bring On The Cats wrote a ditty about Mizzou's efforts to join the SEC, written for the tune of "You Never Even Called Me By My Name," the tag line at the end of the chorus was, "Just promise you'll let ol' Verne call our games."

On Saturday at 2:30 p.m. central, he'll do just that.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Tigers survive ASU, face tough test at South Carolina

Last Saturday, Missouri was in full-blown survival mode. With starting quarterback James Franklin out, coach Gary Pinkel telling a national television audience it was Franklin’s decision not to play, and the Tigers’ offensive line pieced together due to ongoing injury troubles, Missouri scratched out a 24-7 lead due in part to Arizona State’s blunders.

But then the Sun Devils stormed back, scoring two fourth quarter touchdowns to put the heat on the Tigers, then driving to the Missouri one-yard line in the closing minutes. It was a game Missouri had to have, given the upcoming schedule. But the Tiger defense dug in and held, keeping disaster a yard away, then got a last-minute interception by Kenronte Walker in the end zone on Arizona State’s next drive to seal the win and move the Tigers to 2-1.

It was in a sloppy win, but survival can be admirable. Offensive coordinator Dave Yost called a more conservative game plan to help backup quarterback Corbin Berkstresser, with shorter passes and plenty of quick slants to old reliable, T.J. Moe. Berkstresser played well enough for Missouri to win, completing 21 of 41 passes for 198 yards and just one interception.

Next week, Missouri will need a better effort as they travel to Columbia, S.C., to play No. 7 South Carolina (2:30 p.m. on CBS). The Gamecocks (3-0) have some quarterback injury issues of their own. Starter Connor Shaw hurt his shoulder in the opener at Vanderbilt, missed the team’s second game, then re-injured it last week in the Gamecocks’ win over UAB. Coach Steve Spurier said Shaw should play, but don’t be surprised to see backup Dylan Thompson play some as well.

Either way, expect star running back Marcus Lattimore to get a heavy dose of carries for the Gamecocks.

On Missouri’s side, Franklin said he should be ready to go next week. (Pinkel confirmed Monday that if Franklin is healthy enough, he's the starter.) He would surely be thrilled to get to play, although facing the ferocious South Carolina defensive line is not an enviable task. Keeping the thoroughly terrifying defensive end Jadeveon Clowney off of the Tiger quarterback is a top priority. Clowney recorded eight sacks as a freshman last year and has three in three games this year.

But wait, there’s more. The 6-foot-6 Clowney is actually the shorter of the two starting defensive ends, lined up on the opposite side of the 6-foot-8 Devin Taylor.

The game is in the classic SEC time slot on CBS. The Georgia game was Missouri’s SEC kickoff; this first SEC road game, on CBS, with the venerable Verne Lundquist on the call, is the Tigers’ immersion into the world of the SEC.

Pinkel is 3-15 against top-10 teams at Missouri, with all three wins coming in the state of Missouri (Nebraska in 2003 and Oklahoma in 2010 in Columbia, Kansas in 2007 in Kansas City). Can Missouri get him his first top-10 road win? The defense will have to do the heavy lifting, with the Tigers’ offense currently last in the SEC in yards per play. Crazy things happen in college football, but a win at Williams-Brice Stadium is a tall order for the Tigers right now.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Painful loss, but Mizzou shows it can compete in SEC

So close, and yet so far away.

Last Saturday, Missouri traded punches and momentum swings with No. 7 Georgia for three quarters. The Bulldogs didn’t take a lead until only 51 seconds remained in the third quarter, and as Faurot Field swayed for the Missouri Waltz heading into the fourth quarter, the outcome was very much in doubt.

But that fourth quarter was a wave of Georgia rain on Missouri’s first SEC game parade; the Bulldogs’ emphatic welcome-to-the-SEC message.

A failed Missouri fake punt. Georgia field goal. Georgia linebacker Jarvis Jones intercepted Missouri’s James Franklin and returned it to the one-yard line. Georgia touchdown. Jones forced a Franklin fumble, recovered by Georgia at the Missouri five. Georgia touchdown. Ballgame, 41-20 Dawgs.

Altogether, Georgia closed the game on a 32-3 run, turning the joyful, festive march of Tiger fans to a sold-out Faurot into a dejected, disheveled trudge back to their vehicles afterward.

Despite the loss, the Tigers showed they can hang with the SEC East’s best, at least at Faurot. Missouri actually outgained Georgia, 371 yards to 355.

Georgia, along with South Carolina, are the measuring sticks in the East, until further notice, and Missouri was not crushed. They were simply defeated by a good team and a dominating linebacker making huge plays when it mattered most.

Missouri fans thought their Tigers could compete in the SEC, but now they’ve seen it. Yes, Georgia’s players are big and fast and talented, but they still can make mistakes and get burned for touchdowns. Their fans are passionate and devoted, but they have no superpowers; they’re just good college football fans. Missouri fans have been dealing with that for decades in the form of Nebraska’s visiting hordes.

But Missouri fans have also seen now just how difficult it is to compete in the SEC. Missouri’s next SEC game, Sept. 22 at South Carolina, will be even tougher, making a buzzkill 0-2 conference start quite possible.

But first Missouri has another home nonconference game next Saturday, at 6 p.m. against Arizona State on ESPN2.

Arizona State is something of a blank-slate team. After starting 6-2 last year, including an overtime win over Missouri in Tempe, the Sun Devils lost five straight to finish the season with a losing record. They have a new coach, Todd Graham, and must replace quarterback Brock Osweiler and linebacker Vontaze Burfict.

The general consensus is that Arizona State is a middle-of-the-road Pac-12 Conference team, or maybe slightly below that, and that they can contend for a bowl but not much more. But they do have some talent, such as running back Cameron Marshall, and they did throttle Illinois 45-14 to move to 2-0. But as a disclaimer, Missouri fans know beating Illinois is mostly just an indicator that the season has started, not necessarily that your team is great.

Missouri opened as about a touchdown favorite, and I think they should have a relatively comfortable win. The danger is that this is a classic trap game, in between two games against the SEC East favorites. But this is still a game Missouri should win.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Missouri. Georgia. Saturday.

Up from Georgia come the Bulldogs, barking and singing “Glory, glory, to old Georgia,” carrying the pride of the Southeastern Conference and their fan base’s hunger for a conference title and more.

Awaiting the Bulldogs in Columbia are the Tigers of old Mizzou, chanting “M-I-Z, Z-O-U!,” craving respect from the SEC nobility, aching for a win that would shake the Show-Me State, and reverberate at the SEC offices in Birmingham, Ala.

Georgia is a proud program. They put over 90,000 fans in their Sanford Stadium, where they beat Buffalo 45-23 last week to open the season.

But pride can be wounded. The SEC being what it is, the Bulldogs have to jockey for position endlessly with other titans such as Tennessee, Florida, Auburn and LSU, all below kingpin Alabama. Georgia has been limited to two SEC championships in the last 20 years.

Missouri wants to prove its momentum is still trending upward. The Tigers, who easily routed Southeastern Louisiana 62-10 in the rain last Saturday to start its first SEC season, want to prove they belong. Maybe want isn’t the right word.

Some SEC types questioned Missouri’s addition to the conference. Tiger fans have talked about “stepping up their game” to fit into SEC football culture. But ultimately, it will take wins to prove Missouri belongs.

Maybe most important of all, Georgia is expected to battle South Carolina for the SEC East title. For the Bulldogs, this is the kind of tricky road game they have to secure to stay in the East race. On the flip side, a Missouri win could launch the Tigers into that divisional race.

Most coaches would rather have the NCAA comb through their cellphones and computers rather than say any one game is more important than the rest. But Missouri coach Gary Pinkel has broken form and talked openly about how huge this game is for his program. On Sunday, Georgia coach Mark Richt called this matchup his team’s biggest game of the season. When a game is deemed bigger than Georgia’s creatively named grudge matches (“The World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party” vs. Florida and “Clean, Old-Fashioned Hate” vs. Georgia Tech), not to mention its South Carolina game, you know it is huge.

Saturday’s game (6:45 p.m. on ESPN2) is one of the more anticipated Missouri home games I can recall. Columbia, in its full bloom of football season, will be buzzing.

Leading Georgia into that maw will be Aaron Murray, one of the SEC’s top quarterbacks. He has plenty of talented receivers to target, so Missouri’s secondary will be tested. If the Georgia offense has a weakness, it may be the offensive line, so it will be interesting to see if the Tigers can exploit this. Likewise, Georgia will probably put Missouri's somewhat banged-up offensive line to the test early and often.

Georgia has a strong defense, even by the SEC’s high standards. But some key players may or may not be suspended; Richt is keeping that close to the vest. If safety Bacarri Rambo plays, it will be a big boost to the Bulldogs’ pass defense.

Whatever happens under the lights of Faurot Saturday, Missouri’s SEC era has arrived. What a way to start.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Tigers get back to football

Like a kid finally reaching the Willamette Valley on that old Oregon Trail computer game, or a hack golfer finally arriving at the green of a long par 5, we have at last arrived at football season.

(Pause to allow for celebration.)

Missouri kicks off the season at 6 p.m. Saturday against Southeastern Louisiana at Faurot Field. (For those wanting to watch on television, the game is available on pay-per-view.)

The Lions are a Football Championship Subdivision, or I-AA, team, a level below Missouri’s Football Bowl Subdivision, or I-A, status, meaning Southeastern Louisiana gives a smaller number of scholarships than teams on the Tigers’ level. These games are usually laughably one-sided, if countless runs into the heart of the line while the clock runs and one team is up 50 make you chuckle.

Under coach Gary Pinkel, Missouri is 7-0 against FCS teams, with an average score of 50-5. Even with a massive look-ahead factor to next week’s Georgia game, expect more of the same against Southeastern Louisiana, which went 3-8 last year.

But Saturday still serves as a return to football, a chance for players, coaches and fans to ease back into gameday rhythms before the first Southeastern Conference game next week. Seeing the Tigers run out on the field will be a familiar feeling, like easing back into a familiar sweatshirt after a summer, but it will also feel new again, with the bright new turf, the new uniforms and, yes, that new conference logo. “SEC,” it says. It does not whisper.

In contrast to this newness is Pinkel, the Tiger coach. This marks his 12th season at Missouri, tying Georgia’s Mark Richt for the most years at their school of any SEC head coach.

Looking long term, a fascinating aspect of this move to the SEC is its impact on Pinkel’s legacy. Naturally, a key part of his legacy is that he got Missouri football relevant enough that moving to the SEC was an option. I wonder if, at 60, a coach very familiar with one conference would want anything to do with a move to what’s currently considered the nation’s toughest conference. But Pinkel was a key voice driving the move to the SEC, by all accounts.

If Pinkel wins an SEC title before he retires, expect a statue. But if the Tigers struggle? If his record against conference opponents, perched at 47-44, dips below .500? How would that ending impact the story?

Pinkel’s place in the Missouri coaching pantheon is interesting. He is third on the school’s coaching wins list, trailing Dan Devine by eight wins and Don Faurot by 16 wins, and will likely catch both. But Faurot won three conference titles; Devine won two. Look at their records against conference opponents: Devine 62-23-4, Faurot 61-34-9, Pinkel 47-44.

It can be tough to compare coaches from such different eras, to be fair, but that’s still a noticeable contrast.

Pinkel is clearly third in the Tiger coach pantheon, but he did lift the program from a slumber. This grand SEC adventure will go a long way to determining his final standing.

The SEC cauldron awaits, but first we get back to football against Southeastern Louisiana.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Our greatest autumn

I think I fell in love with Columbia's autumn in 2004.

I've always loved the fall, and football, but 2004, when I first got Missouri football season tickets as a high school senior, really put it all together. October 23, 2004, Missouri lost to Oklahoma State on Homecoming, and I saw the Columns for the first time that night.

But like I say, the autumn and I go way back, and it goes back generations and centuries for my ancestors: we are farmers, and fall means harvest. It also means cooler, crisp weather. It begins with crops and plants turning golden, then continues with impossibly blue skies and leaves turning into an Artist's palate. It's trips to the apple orchard, football games, pulling out those hoodies you've missed.

In the spirit of my fall optimism, let's make this our greatest autumn. If Great Britain could declare its 2012 Olympic team, "Our Greatest Team," and then make it happen, why not do it with this fall? I'm not saying this out of greed or impatience; I'm saying it as a call to act, to dare greatly, to nudge ourselves a little closer to the dreams in our head.

Really, I'm saying enjoy this autumn. Wherever you're at in your life or your pursuit of goals, enjoy the journey. I love sporting events where you're aware during them that you're seeing something great, something memorable, something you could tell your grandkids about. Appreciate the greatness of autumn as it's happening. I think a good chunk of my blog readers are younger, and in old age you might reflect with nostalgia on the beautiful autumn days of your youth. You might be thinking back on these times for decades; lucky you, you get to enjoy them now.

So sure, enjoy the football. The fall of 2007 was one of the great ones, largely because of all my memories following Missouri's football team around the Heartland, watching the Tigers' 12-win season unfold. This year, I'm three exits past excited for three night games to open the year, including the cataclysm with Georgia. I'm excited for high school football and "Armergeddon II" at venerable Adkins Stadium in Jefferson City. I'm excited to pick every single NFL game against the spread on as though I'm a hardened gambler.

Enjoy whatever your career or (hopefully and) passion are. For me it's writing. I've got a few different writing plans and projects I want to get done. Autumn is a wind at my back, and hopefully it'll overcome procrastination and the initial wall of getting started when the chasm of blankness stares unblinking back at you. Never a day without a line, my advanced writing professor said in school. Whatever your "writing" is, be good to it this fall, pour some of yourself into it, make a little extra push for excellence.

And most of all, despite the obvious sorrows and daily frustrations out there, enjoy this time, regardless of where you're at in life. Appreciate the road on which God is leading you; don't compare it to others. "Not the victory but the action..." begins one of my favorite quotes. The glory lies not just in the final victory or achievement, but in the journey to get there, in the daily striving for our goals and dreams. The victory is meaningful because of the effort required to achieve it.

With that in mind, savor this autumn. Take advantage of its opportunities, experience its football and its crispness, appreciate where you're at. And who knows, maybe it will be one of the great ones.