COLUMBIA — The Sooners could blow out Missouri, and the Tigers know it. Another part of them — no one knows for sure how large or small — believes they can pull an epic upset over a team on its way to the BCS title game.
It’s an outcome possible only by ignoring the numbers. Forget that Missouri’s No. 116-ranked pass defense is up against the nation’s No. 3-ranked passing offense. Don’t remind the Tigers that Oklahoma scored more than 60 points against then-No. 2 Texas Tech and No. 12 Oklahoma State. And pay no mind that the Sooners have only lost two fumbles all season.
“No one is going to predict us to win,” MU linebacker Brock Christopher said. “Only the ones in the locker room believe we can do it. The 11 guys on the field know we can do it.”
The Tigers have admitted little public doubt following three losses. MU coach Gary Pinkel and his players point to strong opponents and "out-execution" as reasons for their defeat, then claim each week that problems have been fixed. From a public relations standpoint, Missouri has the right game plan.
“(This week) it’s about us going out there and executing the offense, defense and special teams and putting all three phases together,” quarterback Chase Daniel said. “We haven’t done that very often this year, and we still win ball games, so if we go out there and put all three phases together we feel good about our chances.”
It is hard to know how much of the optimism is just for the media, but college athletes are confident and competitive by nature. A defeatist attitude doesn’t bring them closer to victory. The Tigers can only embrace the underdog role and dream of a movie ending.
“This is awesome,” Pinkel said. “This is what you’re in it for. That’s why you play.”
Oddsmakers put Oklahoma as 17-point favorites, though it could be a lot worse. The Sooners have won their past five games by an average of nearly 32 points. After Missouri’s loss to Kansas and before the team knew its opponent from the South, Daniel confessed that the Tigers would “get embarrassed” in the Big 12 Championship if they did not regain focus.
By Monday, players had that “focused” message ready.
“We want to dominate and we want to win,” junior defensive tackle Jaron Baston said. “Whoever comes in with that mentality is going to win. We can do that.”
With the numbers against Missouri, players grasp at the intangibles to convince themselves and others that a win is within reach. They cite frame of mind and desire, even familiarity with the field and better preparation for the weather as reasons why the game could swing in their favor.
“Everybody will be talking about OU,” said junior wide receiver Danario Alexander . “Maybe that gives us a chance to sneak up on them. If we play our best game, anything can happen.”
The Tigers say they are looking for a quick start. Missouri has not come from behind to win all year, and the team was down in the first quarter of each of its three losses. A win Saturday will require a near perfect game from the Tigers.
“We’ve got the talent, we’ve got the tools,” Baston said. “We just got to get it done.”
But Missouri hasn’t been able to do that when it matters most. The defense gave up two touchdowns to the Jayhawks in the last five minutes of the game Saturday. Daniel had two interceptions, a fumble and forced a safety. He said he knows if Missouri gives up turnovers against Oklahoma, “Then it’s going to be a long day.”
Still, that comment is the most negative you’ll hear from the Tigers leading up to the championship. The players want respect, and until they get it, they say they will use their underdog status as motivation.
“It’s human nature to look at the name on the jersey, ‘Oh it’s Oklahoma,’ and think we don’t have a shot,” Baston said. “I told the guys we got to start seeing us as Mizzou and think of us as big time too. You need a mentality of ‘We’re the team to beat.’”