TIGER KICKOFF: Missouri football faces 'toughest' nonconference game against Arizona State

Thursday, September 8, 2011 | 11:30 p.m. CDT; updated 1:25 a.m. CDT, Friday, September 9, 2011

COLUMBIA — The Missouri football team got lucky.

It might not seem that way on the surface, considering the Tigers and first-year quarterback James Franklin are going on the road to face a ranked opponent in the desert heat. More than 70,000 Arizona State fans are expected to be on hand Friday for the Sun Devils’ first big matchup of 2011.

But after Illinois decided not to continue the annual season-opening matchup with Missouri, the Tigers were left looking to find another BCS conference opponent to fill out the 2011 schedule.

Normally these types of games are scheduled three or more years ahead of time, but Mark Alnutt, MU's senior associate athletics director, said the first inroads for Friday’s game weren’t made until late December 2009 and early January 2010. Alnutt, who is in charge of finalizing the football schedule, said that to find an opponent the caliber of Arizona State so late in the game is rare.

The situation made the Tigers feel fortunate, even lucky, to get the game. 

“I would say we were,” Alnutt said. “We would have had a game regardless, but it might not have worked out as well. … All the chips had to fall into place.”

With the Tigers' 22-game nonconference winning streak at stake, whether Missouri’s fans will consider themselves lucky after the duel in the desert is another question entirely.

Under coach Gary Pinkel, the majority of the Tigers’ nonconference schedule has been filled with teams from lesser conferences such as the Mid-American and Sun Belt, along with teams from the Football Championship Subdivision, which have fewer scholarships and rarely beat teams from the Football Bowl Subdivision. The FCS is 388-1,740-17 against the FBS since the NCAA split the divisions in 1978.

The exception to that has been the traditional season opener against Illinois, which, while it plays in the Big Ten, is hardly considered to be a football powerhouse. The Illini are 47-73 from 2001 to 2010.

The only other major nonconference teams the Tigers have played in the Pinkel era are Michigan State in 2001 — a game scheduled before Pinkel’s arrival — and games in 2006 and 2007 against Mississippi, which went 7-16 in those two seasons.

The only times the Tigers played on the road against a major conference opponent were at Michigan State and Ole Miss, and neither of those teams was nationally ranked or even receiving votes in either the coaches or AP polls.

The only time the Tigers have faced a ranked opponent in nonconference play was in 2008, when they defeated a 20th-ranked Illinois team that eventually ended its season with four wins.

The best nonconference team the Tigers faced under Pinkel was the year before, when Illinois started the season unranked but made it all the way to the Rose Bowl and finished with a 9-4 record.

Whether it’s luck or planning, the numbers show the major conference teams Missouri has played under Pinkel haven’t been very good.

“Sometimes a team might heat up or go down,” Alnutt said. “You can never really tell.”

Looking at the Sun Devils' No. 23 rank in the coaches poll and the preseason hype making them the sleeper pick to win the Pac-12 South makes them possibly the Tigers' toughest nonconference test under Pinkel.

Certainly, some of Missouri's players think that’s the case.

“Yeah, of course,” senior linebacker Luke Lambert said, when asked if this is the toughest nonconference game he’s been a part of.

Senior defensive tackle Dominique Hamilton agreed.

“Definitely the toughest,” he said.

That doesn’t mean the Tigers aren’t looking forward to an early road challenge.

“It’s my favorite to play on the road. I like being booed,” Hamilton said. “I take it as, ‘You’re the villain,’ and I have fun with it.”

Senior safety Kenji Jackson said that when he knows the crowd isn’t on his side, he steps up his game.

“It’s more of an adrenaline rush when you can go into someone else’s house and control the feel and control what happens,” Jackson said. “People don’t like it when you’re running around making plays. You know it’s what you want, but at the same time, you know it’s not what the fans want, and it’s cool to be in that atmosphere.”

Alnutt said Friday’s game isn’t any sort of departure from the norm in terms of scheduling. Missouri’s overall philosophy has been consistent since Pinkel took over. Despite the team’s improvement over the second half of Pinkel’s tenure, it has not changed.

“With our conference, it’s a tough conference,” Alnutt said. “We have to be really smart.”

Pinkel tells Alnutt how he and Athletics Director Mike Alden want the schedule to go,  and Alnutt does his best to meet their wishes. Alden approves the decisions.

“I call it intelligent scheduling. We try and be smart about what we do and how we do it,” Pinkel said. “But it also comes down to availability. You search for a game that fits you.”

Alnutt’s job, as he puts it, is to “do the legwork.” When Missouri realized it would have a game to schedule for 2011, he sent out feelers to the major conference commissioners. Arizona State answered.

On Feb. 12, 2010, Missouri and Arizona State officially announced a home-and-home series that would send Missouri to Tempe in 2011 and bring the Sun Devils to Columbia in 2012.

“For us, it wasn’t a neutral site, but it was a game that was attractive from a TV standpoint, and we started hearing from TV partners,” Alnutt said. “We look for teams that are going to attract TV and that are going to, when they come to Columbia, attract fans to buy tickets.”

The decision to play Missouri fit Arizona State's philosophy as well.

“It’s absolutely someone we want to schedule,” said Mark Brand, associate athletics director at Arizona State, who has done the Sun Devils' scheduling for more than 14 years.

“Our philosophy has been, and you can go back the last 20 or 25 years of our scheduling, and through the next seven or eight years … we’re always looking to schedule top-25, top-30 teams from the major conferences. … That’s our MO,,” Brand said.

In fact, the approval for Friday’s game seems to be universal.

Pinkel said he was “very glad to be playing (Arizona State) this weekend,” and Sun Devils coach Dennis Erickson gave his thumbs-up to the matchup, at least for the immediate future.

“When we get an opportunity to play Missouri, we (take it) because of the reputation of the program and how they’re thought of around the country,” Erickson said. “Do we want to play them every year for the next 20 years? I’m not sure about that. But we have them for the next two years.”

At least this year, Erickson and the Sun Devils will have the advantage of a raucous home crowd, the heat and Franklin’s inexperience.

When it’s all said and done, the Tigers might not be so lucky to be headed to Tempe after all.

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