Tigers still eyeing football title, for now

Thursday, October 16, 2008 | 10:58 p.m. CDT

COLUMBIA - Losing the sixth game of the season isn't new for the Missouri football team. It's exactly what they did last year. The only differences are that this time, the loss happened in Columbia, and the perpetrator was Oklahoma State, not Oklahoma.

After that loss, the Tigers reeled off six straight wins, advanced to the Big 12 Championship and ascended to No. 1 in the rankings before a second loss to Oklahoma.

Who's in front of Missouri

A look at the 10 teams ahead of the Tigers:

No. 1 Texas
Games remaining against Top 25: Missouri, Oklahoma State, at Texas Tech, at Kansas, possible Big 12 title game
Outlook for Missouri: Positive. The Tigers control their own destiny, and without beating Texas, their national title hopes are sunk anyway.

No. 2 Alabama
Games remaining against Top 25: at LSU, possible SEC title game
Outlook: Dicey. Besides LSU, every opponent before the SEC title game has three losses. Missouri’s hopes might hinge on the SEC East champion.

No. 3 Penn State
Games remaining against Top 25: at Ohio State, Michigan State
Outlook: Difficult. The Nittany Lions have never won at Ohio State since joining the Big Ten, but their remaining games are much easier and they have no title game.

No. 4 Oklahoma
Games remaining against Top 25: Kansas, Texas Tech, at Oklahoma State, possible Big 12 title game
Outlook: So-so. The Sooners could be No. 1 but not play in the Big 12 title game if Texas’ only loss is Missouri. But if the Tigers own two wins over the only team to beat Oklahoma, that could weigh in their favor.

No. 5 Florida
Games remaining against Top 25: Georgia, at Vanderbilt, possible SEC title game
Outlook: Not bad. The Gators’ loss was bad, to Mississippi at home. Voters would have a difficult call if both Florida and Missouri finish with one loss.

No. 6 Southern California
Games remaining against Top 25: California
Outlook: Not bad. The Trojans lost to Oregon State at home, and other than California, there are no chances to impress voters. If Missouri leapfrogs USC this week, the Trojans are no longer a factor.

No. 7 Texas Tech
Games remaining against Top 25: at Kansas, Texas, Oklahoma State, at Oklahoma, possible Big 12 title game
Outlook: Positive. Tech plays all four tough opponents in consecutive games, and if they survive, Missouri will get a shot at them anyway.

No. 8 Oklahoma State
Games remaining against Top 25: at Texas, at Texas Tech, Oklahoma, possible Big 12 title game
Outlook: Irrelevant. The Tigers are the Cowboys’ biggest fans right now, because the more OSU wins, the better the loss looks. If Oklahoma State runs the table, Missouri gets a chance to avenge its loss.

No. 9 Brigham Young (if Cougars win tonight against TCU only)
Games remaining against Top 25: at Utah
Outlook: Positive. Missouri will probably jump BYU anyway with a win, and the Cougars can’t make that up if the Tigers don’t lose.

No. 9 Brigham Young (if the Cougars lose tonight to TCU)
Games remaining against Top 25: at Utah
Outlook: Irrelevant. TCU knocked BYU out of the race last night.

No. 10 Georgia:
Games remaining against Top 25: Vanderbilt, at LSU, Florida, possible SEC title game
Outlook: Very positive. The Bulldogs’ schedule is brutal, and Missouri probably jumps them by beating Texas anyway.

So the mindset of the Missouri players is clear: A lot of things might have to break in the Tigers' favor, but this season is far from over.

"We know it's a long season," linebacker Sean Weatherspoon said. "It was this time last year when we dropped one to Oklahoma, and coach Pinkel got us in here and got us refocused. We're starting out our mission to get to the end of the season."

But if the focus of the mission is to get to the national championship game, the mission could be over before it starts if the Tigers aren't able to go down to Austin, Texas and defeat the top-ranked Longhorns.

"I think that what we should focus on is what we are focused on, and that's Texas," quarterback Chase Daniel said. "Whether we're underdogs, overdogs, whatever you want to call us, they're the No. 1 team in the nation."

Daniel might joke about his team's underdog role, but that doesn't mean he's happy about it. The loss to Oklahoma State forced the Tigers out of the top 10 and the nation's focus, and they want back.

Even coach Gary Pinkel, who says he isn't concerned with the polls at this point, said he prefers for Missouri to be the team under pressure.

"I'd rather have (the focus) right here," Pinkel said while pointing to his face.

Given the importance of polls in college football, that makes sense, because only the teams with pressure on them in the middle of the season have a real chance to play for the national title. That especially holds true for teams with a late stretch of lesser opponents on their schedule.

Of the Tigers' next four opponents after Texas, only Kansas State has a winning record. That means a second loss could be a critical blow to Missouri's national title hopes, even if history suggests otherwise.

"I don't know if you watched the national championship last year, but the team that won it had two losses," Weatherspoon said. "Hopefully, that can calm them (the fans) down a little bit."

That's true, but the LSU team that did win the title also had six victories over ranked teams, including a 41-point thrashing of ACC champion Virginia Tech. With the schedule that remains, it would be almost impossible for Missouri to overcome a loss to Texas.

With that in mind, the Tigers know that the mistakes they made against Oklahoma State have to be corrected now.

"One loss is not the end of the world," defensive tackle Ziggy Hood said. "I consider that point a change in the season to wake us up and (make us) perform better. Great teams are going to have to go through that every once in a while. The only thing that we can see from it is how you're going to bounce back and get a win."

For Weatherspoon, that means that the team's leaders have to ensure that the Tigers focus completely on Texas and avoid the mistakes of last week.

"It's just getting this football team back focused," he said. "This week has to be the best week of practices we've had since we've been here. Any guy that's been here three or four years, it has to be the best week we've ever had. Everybody knows that now."

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