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TIGER KICKOFF: Missouri's last football game in Lincoln could be biggest

Friday, October 29, 2010 | 5:00 a.m. CDT

COLUMBIA — Gary Pinkel is an underseller. He is an understater. And entering the Missouri-Nebraska game, he has turned in some of his best work.

"To me it's the schedule, it's the next game," the Missouri football coach said Monday. "For our goals, we're facing Nebraska."

Pinkel's goals come in a set of three, the final goal impossible without achieving the others. First, win the Big 12 North, next win the Big 12, then win a national championship. Seven games into the 2010 season, all of those goals are all still attainable for the undefeated Tigers. 

And those goals all hinge on Saturday's game.

Missouri's 36-27 win against Oklahoma made the Tigers' game with Nebraska an unofficial Big 12 North Championship game. Early in conference play, it is a two-team contest in the division, and Saturday's outcome could make or ruin the season for either team.

A Missouri win Saturday would leave the Tigers as the only undefeated team in the conference. Missouri would have to lose three of its four November games to miss playing for the Big 12 Championship on Dec. 4.

If Nebraska wins, it jumps to the top of the North and holds the all-important tiebreaker over the Tigers. Missouri would then be rooting for Iowa State, Texas A&M, Colorado or even Kansas to defeat the Cornhuskers.

It's not just another game on the schedule.

THE HANGOVER

Missouri is coming off one of the biggest, if not the biggest win of Gary Pinkel's tenure. The upset of Oklahoma was the first win for the Missouri football program against a team that carried a No.1 ranking, regardless of poll. 

"It was a big important game on a big stage," right tackle Dan Hoch said. "It was the big game that we wanted to win."

Beating Oklahoma was a first for the Pinkel-led Tigers, but Nebraska poses another possible first. In Pinkel's 10 years with Missouri, the Tigers have not won a road game against a ranked team.

Now the Tigers have to take the big-game focus they had for Oklahoma and replicate it a week later. It's one of the hardest things to do in sports, just ask South Carolina. 

A week after beating No. 1 Alabama on Oct. 9, Steve Spurrier and company lost to lowly Kentucky. 

South Carolina was not a trendsetter. In 2008, Oregon State upset No.1 USC. A week later, the Beavers lost. In 2007, Kentucky beat No.1 LSU. A week later, the Wildcats lost. 

Pinkel knows all about a team's inability to play its best the week after a big win.

In 2002, Texas A&M hosted Pinkel's Tigers a week after the Aggies knocked off No. 1 Oklahoma. The Tigers won 33-27 in College Station, earning their fifth and final win of the season, sobering a week-long Aggies celebration.

Pinkel said he won't suffer a letdown after the win over Oklahoma.

"I'm a pretty dull guy, I came back pretty fast," Pinkel said. "I didn't sleep all night (after beating Oklahoma). It wasn't because of the game, it was because I was worried about Nebraska."

But Pinkel is worried about his team.

Since the beginning of the season, Pinkel has enlisted the services of sports psychologist Rick McGuire to help his team mentally prepare for games. In the middle of the toughest stretch of Missouri's schedule, the coaching staff's emphasis on focus has never been more vital.

"If we don't focus and do the things necessary this week to play our best, we don't have a chance Saturday afternoon," Pinkel said. "If you think about the Oklahoma game all week and don't prep, then we don't have a chance. It's very simple ... it's my job to get our football team to do that."

Pinkel said one player he is not concerned about is quarterback Blaine Gabbert. Pinkel said Gabbert has been locked-in focused for weeks.

After Missouri beat Texas A&M at Kyle Field, Gabbert was asked if he was having fun. 

"It's always fun when you win," Gabbert said in a monotone voice, his eyes as cold as a postgame ice bath.

Gabbert, never a big talker, is saying all the right things in a way that shows his intensity.    

"We've just got to turn the page."

"We have to come to work every day."

"We have to get better every practice."

"Nebraska is another great football team."

Even Pinkel is surprised at the intensity of his quarterback, who is 4-1 as a starter for the Tigers in road games.

"I don't know where that comes from," Pinkel said of Gabbert. "He obviously stays very, very focused."

THE LAST GAME

It's one thing to be focused for a home game, it takes another level of focus to play on the road. And for Missouri, Nebraska's Memorial Stadium is a daunting place to play. Gabbert was a freshman backup in 2008 when the Tigers ended 30 years of losing there. Even so, Gabbert finds confidence in being present for that year's 52-17 triumph over the Cornhuskers.

"This team knows what to expect going up to Lincoln," Gabbert said. "We've won there before, and it's a great environment to play in." 

Missouri went 25 years without beating Nebraska, 30 years without winning in Lincoln. Pinkel takes pride in making the rivalry between Nebraska and Missouri competitive, even if the rivalry will end soon.

"It wasn't even a rivalry," Missouri football historian Michael Atchison said. "It's funny, they have been together for 100 years and very little of that time have they been on anything like equal footing. This seven-year, six-year stretch is probably the longest they have been like equals."

The Cornhuskers will move to the Big Ten Conference at the end of the season, making Saturday's game the last time Missouri plays at Nebraska. After decades of futility against the Cornhuskers, the Tigers have a chance to end the series on top.

"I know it is a big game for the fans," Atchinson said. "Fans have been invested in this thing for 10, 15 years. I doubt it is for the players. They don't remember the 2003 game. What were they, 12 years old?

"To be 20, 21 is to not have a sense of history. It's just another obstacle. They shouldn't be trying to erase history or put an exclamation point on a series. That's too much of a task."

But Atchinson couldn't deny the significance of a Missouri victory Saturday, and all the national championship talk that would follow.

"This season came out of nowhere," Atchinson said. "Many thought that 2007 was a fluke, a flash in the pan. But Pinkel built the depth of the program, done things that no one has done."

On Saturday, Pinkel and the Tigers have another chance to surprise.


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