ST. LOUIS — This year’s nationally-televised season-opener between Illinois and Missouri will be more than a border war. This season, both teams potentially come into the game with high national rankings.
Missouri’s 40-34 win last season sent the Tigers on the way to a 12-2 season ending with a win over Arkansas in the Cotton Bowl. At one point late in the season, the Tigers reached No. 1 before losing the Big 12 championship game to Oklahoma.
Illinois rebounded from the loss to win nine games and go to the Rose Bowl. The two teams meet Aug. 30 at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis, with the game to be televised on ESPN. Players from both teams were in St. Louis on Tuesday to promote the sold-out game.
Both teams return several starters. For Missouri, those starters include Heisman Trophy candidate quarterback Chase Daniel, receiver Jeremy Maclin and several other players on offense.
The Tigers rolled to a 37-13 third-quarter lead in 2007, then held on, clinching the win only when Pig Brown intercepted a pass at the Missouri 1 in the final minute.
Maclin, a redshirt freshman in 2007 and an All-America selection, scored twice in his college debut against Illinois — once on a 66-yard punt return and once on a 25-yard reception in the third quarter. He ended the day with 227 all-purpose yards.
Illinois senior linebacker Brit Miller said Missouri has a lot of weapons.
“But we’ll be ready,” Miller said. “We know it’s going to be crazy in there with all the fans and everything. We’re focused and we’ll be prepared. I think this is a great game to kick off the season.”
Missouri senior defensive lineman Ziggy Hood agreed.
“We’ve been working hard. I don’t think people realize that. We celebrated our season and win in the Cotton Bowl but then we started to get ready for this season. We’ve been in the weight room and working out.” Hood said. “We know Illinois is a good team and they’ll be gunning for us,”
Both teams have some holes to fill before the season opens.
Tony Temple, the only running back in Missouri history with consecutive 1,000-yard seasons, is gone. Looking to fill his spot are senior Jimmy Jackson, who had 331 yards and seven touchdowns last year, and sophomore Derrick Washington.
The early departure to the NFL of running back Rashard Mendenhall, the Big Ten’s leading rusher, leaves the Illini looking for a lot of offense and a leader. Daniel Dufrene is Mendenhall’s replacement.