Sometime Saturday evening, the Missouri football team’s best friend suddenly became its worst enemy.
As soon as the Tigers (7-3, 3-3 Big 12 Conference) were done cheering the Kansas State Wildcats to victory against Nebraska, they had to get ready to play those Wildcats in the biggest game Missouri football has seen in a long time.
When the Tigers travel to Manhattan, Kan., to play Kansas State at 6 p.m. Saturday, the Big 12 North Division championship will be on the line.
“This is what it’s all about,” Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said. “This is fun to do. We understand it’s going to be a very difficult football game, but this is why you play football. You want to be in November where you’ve got opportunities. We will have an opportunity, and we’ll see what we can do with it.”
Senior defensive back Shirdonya Mitchell said he can’t remember the last time Missouri played a meaningful game in November, let alone one that could land them in the conference title game.
“When I first came here, November was just getting the season over with,” Mitchell said. “This time, we’ve got a lot to look forward to. We’re trying to win a championship.”
The Tigers are back where they were before a 21-16 loss at Colorado; if they win their two remaining games, they win the North Division. Missouri has stumbled here and there, losing at Kansas, Oklahoma and Colorado, but it has gotten the help it needed to stay in the North Division race. Also, the Tigers have taken care of their end of the deal, bouncing back from each loss with an impressive win.
“In my program, if you lose a football game, what you want to do is make sure you don’t lose two in a row,” Pinkel said. “I think that’s the mark of a good football team and a good football program.”
The Tigers beat up on Texas A&M on Saturday, providing the most recent evidence that Missouri is one of those good teams. Missouri’s 45-22 win at Memorial Stadium displayed two teams headed in opposite directions. The long-maligned Tigers are clearly on the upswing, and first-year coach Dennis Franchione is trying to stop the storied Aggies’ downward spiral.
The win was especially sweet for Missouri center A.J. Ricker, a senior from Klein, Texas. Ricker said he didn’t think his career would see a day when Missouri was 23 points better than the Aggies.
“I can go home now and feel a little comfortable with my Texas A&M friends,” Ricker said.
All the Tigers have to do is beat Kansas State and Iowa State and they are headed to the Big 12 title game.
Not so fast.
Missouri hasn’t won in Manhattan since 1989, coach Bill Snyder’s first season at Kansas State, and, as Pinkel said, the Wildcats “destroyed” Missouri a year ago with Missouri’s bowl-eligibility hopes on the line.
That kind of history hasn’t stopped this season’s Tigers, though. They wiped out a 25-year losing streak against Nebraska, are headed to their first bowl game since 1998 and have a chance to wind up with nine wins for the first time since they shared the Big Eight Conference title in 1969.
Shhhh…maybe they haven’t noticed. Pinkel said the Tigers don’t handle success well.
The good news for Missouri fans is that how the football team handles success is something they have to worry about in November.