TIGER KICKOFF: Missouri football team adjusts to winning atmosphere

Friday, October 29, 2010 | 5:00 a.m. CDT; updated 2:29 p.m. CDT, Saturday, October 30, 2010
Missouri football players celebrate after beating Kansas in 2007. The next day, the Associated Press ranked the Tigers No. 1. A week after that, Missouri fell to Oklahoma in the Big 12 Championship.

COLUMBIA — Tim Barnes has seen this before — sort of.

The senior offensive lineman who redshirted his freshman season has been with the team since 2006. He has seen the Tigers go from the bottom of the Big 12 Conference to a national title contender.

He saw it in 2007, and he was there in 2008 when they failed to live up to their preseason No. 6 ranking. In 2009, he stood by as the team struggled to an 8-5 record. In 2010, he is ready to win.

“It's not just a goal,” Barnes said. “It’s an expectation.”

After the Tigers defeated Oklahoma 36-27 they moved into the national spotlight. They entered the BCS rankings, gained ESPN's attention and television live trucks parked outside the athletic complex. What they did on Saturday, though, was more than they had ever achieved in Barnes’s tenure. They got that elusive home victory over a No. 1 team, and for Barnes that makes all the difference. As the team moves forward, it’s relying on senior leaders like Barnes, Kevin Rutland and Carl Gettis to share their experiences and keep players focused.

Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said he is grateful a few of his players have gone through the national attention and the must-win atmosphere before.

“I think that any time you go through something two or three times, I think the most important thing you learn is that it’s about over-preparing and working harder,” Pinkel said. “That’s ultimately how you’re going to play your best.”

Gettis said he can see a lot of similarities between this season and 2007, but that he and his team need to avoid getting caught up in the comparisons. That’s the message that older players and coaches are repeating, repeating and repeating, hoping it will stick.

“We’re having a lot of success right now and a lot of people are liking what we’re doing and liking what they see,” Gettis said. “But we really don’t get caught up in the hype and everything. We’re just taking it one game at a time, trying to reach our goals as a team.”

The team has reached one goal, beating Oklahoma, but what looms ahead on Saturday seems almost more daunting, Gettis said. As much as he would love to savor the win over Oklahoma and enjoy the team’s time in the spotlight, he had to force himself out of the moment.

That’s not as easy as it might sound, though. Gettis and Barnes said there’s a special atmosphere on the field and in the locker room this week, and it’s impossible not to get just a little caught up in it.

“It’s always fun when you’re winning,” Gettis said. “It doesn’t get more fun when you’re playing football with your family, with your brothers, and you’re winning games.”

They are grateful for the fun, for the atmosphere, but Barnes said the team is doing a better job with blocking it out than it did in 2007. Three years ago, he said, the team was less able to focus narrowly on the upcoming game and looked too much at the big picture, at what lay at the end of the season. Now, that’s changed, and right now Nebraska is the focus.

Quarterback Blaine Gabbert said beating Oklahoma was a sigh of relief, and for Barnes and Gettis, who had faced the Sooners before in frustrating losses, the win represented an even bigger milestone. When asked about the significance of the win, Barnes barely paused.

“We’ve actually finally done it,” Barnes said slowly, as if enjoying every word.

Although this Missouri team has never faced what it faced this week in the follow-up to a pivotal home victory, Barnes said he is not worried about the unfamiliarity. In a way, Saturday’s game represented an affirmation for the team.

“Nebraska’s going to be a tough test, there’s no doubt about it,” Barnes said. “But at the same time, we know that we can do it. We went up against Oklahoma. They’re a really good team, and we know we can play with the best.”

Affirmation will only get the team so far, and when helmets collide on Saturday in Lincoln, Neb., only strength and planning will matter. The Tigers will have to continue to play at the level they have reached. Barnes and Gettis said in order to do so, they need to almost forget about the gravity of the situation, the rankings and the attention. None of it matters, none of it.

“It doesn’t matter what the rankings are,” Barnes said. “Some people get upset about rankings, but if you don’t win, it doesn’t matter. You know, if you do win, it doesn’t matter.”

Gettis said younger players have done a great job of staying focused. They understand the situation but they’re doing a good job of staying outside of it and keeping level heads. Barnes said the team is relatively young, but its youth is a benefit. The team lost few players from last year's team, so there’s a level of experience and a shared bond, but many of the young players see this as their first opportunity to prove themselves.

“I think personalities of teams develop,” Pinkel said. “Teams get better.”

That’s the core of Pinkel’s message. This all rests on the team, not an individual. It’s his team’s mentality, his team’s resilience, his team’s ability to concentrate that will lead to success against Nebraska.

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