When Missouri left Folsom Field in Boulder, Colo., on Nov. 5, the team’s body language spoke volumes. Heads were bowed. The Tigers’ confidence was reeling. And there was a sense of urgency to dig deep, and dig fast, in order to salvage at least a bowl game invite.
The Tigers had fallen flat against the Buffaloes, enduring a 41-12 rout against a surging Colorado team. The same Missouri team that seemed to be controlling its destiny in the Big 12 North after beating Nebraska two weeks earlier had followed that emotional win with losses to Kansas and Colorado.
After the game, the Tigers’ record stood at a modest 5-4 as the scrutiny surrounding Gary Pinkel’s job increased. For Colorado, however, the win was its fifth in six Big 12 games, which solidified its top-25 ranking.
It seemed to be the perfect example of two teams heading in opposite directions.
Colorado was en route to its fourth conference title in five years and was as close to a dominant team the North had seen in recent years. Controversy over the program’s recruiting and player conduct appeared to be having no effect on the productivity of the team. And even controversial coach Gary Barnett seemed to be secure in his job.
Missouri, on the other hand, seemed unable to perform to expectations. The presence of even the slightest hype proved to be fatal.
The fortunes of these teams after that November game is what makes their contest on Saturday in both teams’ Big 12 opener so intriguing.
The Buffaloes haven’t won another game since defeating the Tigers. Eight games. Eight losses. Five total touchdowns. Colorado posted five touchdowns in the game against Missouri alone.
The Buffaloes went on to lose to Nebraska by 27 points, to Texas by 67 and then opened this season with a demoralizing loss to Division II Montana State. The Barnett era came to an abrupt end. The Dan Hawkins era has started on unsteady footing.
As for the Tigers, they have gone 6-1 since that loss. Excitement is brewing in Tigers’ country, tempting fans to think that maybe, just maybe, this 2006 Missouri team has the tools to avoid a midseason meltdown.
But there remains skepticism that won’t begin to fade until Missouri can prove that its perfect start to the season is not a product of a second-rate schedule.
Pinkel’s task over the past week has been to ensure that his team doesn’t read too much into its new No. 25 ranking in the AP poll. And he has made sure his team doesn’t look past the Buffaloes’ disappointing record. Pinkel said Colorado’s record is the product of facing such difficult nonconference opponents.
“Colorado has had a very, very difficult schedule that they’ve played,” Pinkel said. “(It’s) probably one of the toughest in the nation. We’re very aware of their game against Georgia, which I consider one of the top 10 teams in the country. And (Colorado) came very close to winning that game.”
The upset almost came last Saturday in Athens, Ga., where Colorado saw its 13-point lead evaporate in the last 9 minutes, 11 seconds. But there’s a confidence that comes with taking one of the nation’s elite programs to the brink, and Hawkins said he is hopeful his team will focus more on the improvements it has been making, rather than the win-loss column.
“They are starting to get a feel for what we want, how we do it and all the nuances that go into that,” said Hawkins, who came to Colorado after spending five seasons as coach at Boise State. “We really had a clean game at the beginning (against Georgia). I think they’re seeing that they are capable of playing good football, believing in themselves and trusting the coaches.”
If the Tigers are going to go 5-0 to open the season, they are going to have to find a way to break through against a Colorado team that has given them headaches in recent years. Since 1999, Missouri has managed only one win over the Buffaloes, which came in 2004.
While Pinkel said he wants his players to avoid dwelling on the past, that past can’t be erased. Missouri is well aware of its struggles against the Buffaloes, and knows that a stumble against them this year would severely dampen the enthusiasm surrounding its team. To do this, they say they are keeping things in perspective and refusing to underestimate the Buffaloes.
“I think they are the best 0-4 team ever in the history of college football,” Missouri quarterback Chase Daniel said. “They are going to be ready for it. To them, 0-4 means nothing. Colorado has (had) our number the past couple of times, so we have to go out there and be the best football team we’ve been in four weeks of playing.”