SAN ANTONIO— Losing a player whose name can be found on almost every page of Missouri’s record book means the Tigers would have to surprise just about everyone in 2009 to earn an elusive berth in a BCS bowl game and improve on past successes.
But unlike past exits by senior classes, almost no one is wondering if the Tigers can keep their heads above water.
Instead of asking whether they can win at least half their games with a new leader taking snaps, most are left searching for a team that could deny the Missouri Tigers an unprecedented Big 12 North three-peat.
“We’ve gotten this program to a point where it’s reloading, it’s not rebuilding,” said quarterback Chase Daniel, who struggled in the Tigers' 30-23 Alamo Bowl win over Northwestern Monday before tossing the game-winning touchdown in overtime. “Take me out, plug Blaine in. Take so-and-so out, and plug them in.”
Remarkable considering the state of the program before Daniel took the reins. He and his senior class will leave with 37 wins, and an average of 11 wins in their final two seasons.
Daniel believed Pinkel could make good on his promise to turn Missouri into a championship contender after a season in which the Tigers won just five games, and Pinkel believed that quarterback from outside of Dallas could take them there, even when most disagreed with both.
And after four years, it’s clear just how intertwined the two have become.
While making their way into the tunnel after the first half Monday night, Pinkel accosted a fan who was heckling Daniel for a less-than-stellar first half, a rare emotional outburst for an ordinarily stoic individual.
“You get close to these guys,” Pinkel said. “I know they’ve got my back, and I’ve got theirs.”
That won’t change anytime soon. Daniel and Pinkel were adamant that Monday’s win was anything but the end of an era.
“Brad Smith, he had an era here. He was part of something special,” Pinkel said. “I don’t think as much the team is like that, but certainly the quarterbacks, if they’re successful, that’s part of the deal. That’s the great thing about college football that I always liked, and I’m real excited for the future.”
And no matter how hollow the Tigers’ desire to win 10 games may have sounded, most of the seniors don’t agree that in the new age of 14-game seasons, 10-win seasons are any less extraordinary.
“Coach Pinkel’s been preaching to us since we lost the Big 12 Championship game,” Daniel said. “Do you want to be special? Do you want this season to be special? Do you want to be known as one of the elite teams in the nation? Because if you do, you’re going to win 10 games.”
And although perhaps his most memorable senior class has taken their final bow, Pinkel remained optimistic for his team’s future.
“The good news is, that just sets the bar higher for the next group, which is awesome,” Pinkel said. “I can’t really put into words what they’ve done and what they’ve accomplished.”