For the past five years around this time, Missouri football players have become used to having time on their hands.
Some did Christmas shopping and decorating, some played video games and others sat around watching football on television.
It was a strange experience for the Tigers on Thursday, when they had their first practice since preparing for their 45-7 win against Iowa State on Nov. 29 to end the regular season. It was different for Missouri because there was snow and ice on the ground and the calendar read December.
The NCAA didn’t install new rules to allow teams to practice before the spring; instead, the Tigers were following standard guidelines. MU wasn’t preparing for a spring scrimmage; it was getting ready for a game, a bowl game.
The Tigers play Arkansas at 6:30 p.m. on Dec. 31 in the Independence Bowl in Shreveport, La.
No player on this year’s team has played in a bowl game and, naturally, none had practiced for one, either. Until Thursday.
Missouri practiced Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Coach Gary Pinkel will give his team the majority of this week off to prepare for and take final exams. MU resumes practice Thursday and then will practice every day until Dec. 22. Pinkel will then let the players go home for Christmas before returning to depart for Shreveport on Dec. 27.
The Tigers will have up to 14 practices, more than double the amount they get for a normal week. The extra time gives MU a chance to work on the fundamentals and prepare a game plan for the Razorbacks.
Pinkel said Saturday that his team didn’t have much rust after a little time away from football.
“There is a lot of enthusiasm,” Pinkel said. “I think that is typical of a bowl practice just because the confidence level is pretty high and I think they are excited about it.”
To say the Tigers were excited at Saturday’s practice might be an understatement. Missouri, it seemed, played every play with the joy of children and the intensity of a team that desperately wants to win.
In the offensive line vs. defensive line drills, the players battled as though it were a game situation.
It didn’t hurt that some of the area’s best recruits were inside the Dan Devine Pavilion watching MU’s every move.
Free safety Nino Williams II said it’s OK for his team to have fun, but it also must be prepared.
“You gotta have momentum going in,” Williams said. “It’s a fun time, but at the same time, it is serious. I think our team is doing a good job of having a good time, but staying focused.”
The chance to play in the postseason is even more important to the seniors, who are preparing to finish their careers.
Receiver Darius Outlaw said this is the way he always envisioned ending his college career.
“The energy level is a lot higher,” Outlaw said. “It is cranked up every day. We haven’t missed a beat anywhere and I think this is a huge thing for our seniors to go out like this.”
Pinkel said it is significant for him to see the group of seniors that stuck with the program through the lean years and buy into a new program get the opportunity to succeed.
“The seniors have been waiting for this their whole life,” Pinkel said. “I guarantee this is huge for them. They have put a lot into this. I’m very proud of what they have done and it is nice to see it pay off for them.”