AMES, Iowa – Missouri coach Gary Pinkel showed his affection. He had waited for this moment since falling to Oklahoma in the Big 12 Conference championship game last December, and there remained faces to greet.
He walked along the visitor's sideline with a slight grin wearing a thick black coat seconds before Missouri clinched the Big 12 North championship by beating Iowa State on Saturday night at Jack Trice Stadium.
First, he nudged offensive coordinator Dave Christensen, the architect behind the Tigers’ transition to a no-huddle, spread attack that has delivered Missouri consecutive division titles. Next, he flashed a smile toward sophomore wide receiver Jeremy Maclin, the all-everything firecracker who has helped transform Missouri’s program from floundering to feared. Finally, he embraced senior quarterback Chase Daniel, the decorated field general, who has insisted since October losses to Oklahoma State and Texas that the Tigers’ narrative has yet to be completed.
“We had high expectations for this season,” Pinkel said afterward. “We had our bumps, which you are going to have. Everybody wants to win all your games, but that doesn’t happen. How you handle adversity and grow from it in a positive way, that’s what we try to do.”
Players and coaches enjoyed the moment, but the celebration appeared tempered compared to the reaction after the Tigers’ victory over Kansas last year when they won their first Big 12 North crown. With three games left, they understand much remains to be accomplished, starting in the regular-season finale against Kansas on Nov. 29.
Missouri will use its upcoming bye week to rest and prepare. A primary concern will be senior tight end Chase Coffman’s health. Saturday, he dressed and participated in pregame drills but did not play. Since the week following the Baylor game on Nov. 1, he has nursed a turf-toe injury to his left foot. In his place, freshman tight end Andrew Jones caught seven passes for 61 yards against Iowa State, both career highs. Freshman tight end Michael Egnew also played, catching two passes for 11 yards.
“He probably could have gone (against Iowa State), but don’t know if he would have finished,” Pinkel said of Coffman. “I know we’re going to get him back for sure for the Kansas game.”
Missouri’s opponent in the Big 12 Conference championship remains undecided. The Big 12 South race between Texas Tech, Oklahoma and Texas could become clear when Texas Tech visits Oklahoma next Saturday. If the Red Raiders beat the Sooners for the second consecutive season, they will claim their first division crown under coach Mike Leach and keep alive their national championship ambitions. If Oklahoma wins and the teams finish in a three-team tie atop the division, the highest-ranked team in the BCS standings will become Big 12 South champion.
Logic suggests Missouri will be pulling for Texas Tech to survive. Since 2003, the Tigers have won three consecutive games against the Red Raiders. However, Missouri has never beaten Texas or Oklahoma under Pinkel. If Missouri were to beat Texas Tech on Dec. 6 in Kansas City, it would mark the fifth time since 1996 that a team has been denied an opportunity to play for the national championship by losing in the Big 12 championship game.
“For this program, we don’t care who gets in there,” senior safety William Moore said. “We want a crack at whoever gets in there. It’s going to be a great team, I can tell you that.”
Said senior cornerback Castine Bridges: “The feeling now is that we know how close we got last year. We know what has to be done. We want it bad. We want to go out there and win that Big 12 championship. We want it real bad. I feel like guys are going to give everything during practice and are going to give it everything on the field.”
Last Saturday, Missouri left the field displaying the maturity of a program that has become seasoned by success. Players gathered in a corner and sang Missouri's fight song “Every True Son” with supporters. Daniel jogged along a wall and slapped hands with fans bundled in black and gold. No one doused Pinkel with Gatorade. The scene unfolded like any other victory throughout the fall.
“It’s a big statement for the program,” Moore said.
“We’ve taken Mizzou to another level. Where Mizzou had come from, for Mizzou to win back-to-back North division championships. We’re going to try to take it a little higher this time.”