KANSAS CITY – A hurdle remains for Missouri that, if cleared, will sweeten a season turned sour despite early promise.
Missouri coach Gary Pinkel has discussed his program’s milestones before. Victory in Manhattan for the first time since 1989. Winning in Boulder for the first time since 1997. Vanquishing hardship in Lincoln for the first time since 1978.
During the past two seasons, the Tigers have clawed to the cusp of greatness, have staggered and now find themselves teetering on prominence once more. Their journey has been one of both triumph and toil.
Now, Missouri returns to the site where it all began to face heavy favorite and BCS No. 2 Oklahoma in the Big 12 Conference football championship game on Saturday in Kansas City.
“We’ve had to overcome a lot of hurdles since we came here to Missouri,” Pinkel said in a press conference Friday at the Westin Crown Center. “I can’t tell you all the things we have had to overcome. Obviously, this is one that we haven’t yet.”
Missouri (9-3, 5-3 Big 12 Conference) began its flirtation with the national limelight last year in Kansas City.
In Nov. 2007, Missouri rocketed to the top ranking in the BCS by beating bitter rival Kansas at Arrowhead Stadium in a historic matchup between two top-five teams. Missouri’s victory allowed the Tigers to earn a berth in the Big 12 championship game for the first time in program history. Fans dusted off memories of the program’s halcyon era during the 1960s under legendary coach Dan Devine. They dreamed, and Columbia became abuzz with its black-and-gold bounty.
But the honeymoon proved short-lived. A week later, in San Antonio, Oklahoma smacked Missouri from its nirvana and sent the Tigers tumbling to the non-BCS Cotton Bowl.
For Pinkel’s program, it was a fine season. Missouri finished 12-2 and as Cotton Bowl champions. It was his best in seven years since arriving in Columbia. However, his Oklahoma itch had not been scratched.
A year later, roles have been reversed. Oklahoma stands one victory away from claiming its third consecutive Big 12 Conference championship after becoming the first Big 12 Conference program to claim consecutive conference crowns. A victory would present Oklahoma a chance to play for the program’s eighth national championship in January in Miami.
In the meantime, Missouri faces an ultimatum of sorts, despite Pinkel’s denial of the suggestion. Win, and the Tigers clinch a BCS berth in the prestigious Fiesta Bowl on Jan. 5 in Glendale, Ariz. Lose, and the Tigers’ two-year tease will likely stage a hollow final act at the Alamo Bowl on Dec. 29 in San Antonio.
“I don’t look at it that way,” Pinkel said. “We worked hard this year. We would like to have a couple more wins. But our goal was to be at this game and compete for a Big 12 championship, and we’re there.”
To go further, Pinkel will have to overcome his checkered history against Oklahoma. He stands winless in five games against the Sooners, all but two being decided by at least 16 points.
Missouri’s defense faces a difficult challenge. The Tigers rank No. 116 in pass defense, allowing an average of 277.08 yards per game, 44 fewer than last-place Nevada. Oklahoma ranks third in pass offense, averaging 354.3 yards per game, 63 fewer than first-place Texas Tech.
Considered by some to be the Heisman Trophy front-runner, Oklahoma sophomore quarterback Sam Bradford ranks as the nation’s third-best passing leader, having thrown for 4,080 yards and 46 touchdowns to six interceptions.
On Tuesday, Missouri senior cornerback Castine Bridges underwent surgery to repair meniscus in his right knee, torn in the loss to Kansas last Saturday. Pinkel said senior Tremane Vaughns and sophomore Kevin Rutland will play in Bridges’ place.
“In the end, we’re both after a championship,” Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops said in the press conference. “None of us have anything until tomorrow night.
“That’s a lot to go after. Our players understand that. One year to the next doesn’t much matter.”
Stoops could not escape questions regarding the controversial conclusion to the Big 12 South race. On Sunday, Oklahoma was designated as the division’s representative in the Big 12 title game because it ranked higher than Texas and Texas Tech in the latest BCS rankings.
The Big 12’s fifth tiebreaker states that the highest-rated team in the BCS rankings determines a division champion in the event of a three-way tie. Oklahoma, Texas and Texas Tech each finished 11-1 overall and 7-1 in conference play. In the BCS rankings, Oklahoma ranked second, .0128 points ahead of third-place Texas and .1546 points ahead of seventh-place Texas Tech.
“I wonder why Texas Tech’s win over Texas has not been mentioned?” Stoops said, his voice suggesting a hint of annoyance. “Why is Texas Tech not in the conversation? They should be. They beat Texas, so in the end, it’s really not that difficult.”
For Oklahoma, it’s not difficult. A victory Saturday clinches a berth in the BCS national championship game against either Florida or Alabama.
For Missouri, it is. A victory would shock the nation and offer a compelling twist in a season that has failed to deliver preseason promise.
“There’s a fine line,” Pinkel said. “There are about six or seven teams a year that can win 10 or 11 games. It’s hard to do.”