Missouri began the 1981 season, Warren Powers’ fourth as head coach, coming off three straight winning seasons. The Tigers opened with three straight home games, testing the resolve of tailgaters.
First was a 24-10 win over Army on Sept. 12. The Tigers then had heaping helping of Rice, beating the Owls 42-10. Then Missouri rolled to a 34-3 win over Louisville on Sept. 26.
Missouri then traveled to Dixie for their second game in three years at Mississippi Veterans Memorial Stadium in Jackson. But after playing Ole Miss there in 1979, Missouri completed its Egg Bowl box set by playing Mississippi State there. The Bulldogs were ranked No. 9, but unranked Missouri pulled the upset, notching an impressive 14-3 win.
That lifted the Tigers to a No. 13 ranking heading into Big Eight play. The Tigers hosted Kansas State on Oct. 10. The Wildcats would finish last in the conference that year, and Missouri cruised to a 58-13 win to move to 5-0.
Missouri climbed to No. 8, but then came a trip to Ames. You don’t trifle with playing the Iowa State Cyclones on the road, it seems. With future Texas coach Mack Brown as offensive coordinator for the Clones, Iowa State hung 34 points on the Tigers on the way to a 34-13 win. The Cyclones had taken back the Telephone Trophy.
No. 19 Missouri then hosted No. 15 Nebraska on Oct. 24, and the Huskers pulled out a presumably hideous 6-0 win before a big crowd of frustrated Tiger fans and more than a few loud and red-clad Nebraska fans.
Next up was a Halloween matchup with Oklahoma State at Faurot Field. I’m not sure if Halloween was the ridiculous costume exhibition it is today in college towns, but we can hope so, because any diversion would’ve been welcome after the game, which Missouri lost 16-12 to the Cowboys. After a 5-0 start, Missouri was now 5-3.
November started better for the Tigers, with a 30-14 win at Colorado in the thin air of Boulder. Then came a memorable Saturday in Columbia when No. 15 Oklahoma came to town. The Tigers won 19-14. It was Missouri’s first win in nine tries against Barry Switzer’s Sooners, and the Tigers’ first win at all against Oklahoma since 1969, when Dan Devine was coaching Missouri.
The season finale was at Kansas on Nov. 21. After three straight demolitions of the Jayhawks, this Border War was different. Don Fambrough had the Jayhawks playing well, and Kansas won 19-11.
Missouri finished the regular season at 7-4 and headed to Orlando to play No. 18 Southern Miss in the Tangerine Bowl. Missouri won 19-17 and linebacker Jeff Gaylord was the game’s MVP.
It was another 8-win season for Missouri, another bowl game, and the Tigers finished the season ranked No. 20 in the coaches poll and No. 19 in the AP poll.
1981: 38 years ago, fifth in the Big Eight
Record: 8-4, 3-4 in Big Eight