COLUMBIA — Missouri thrashed Nebraska on Saturday night, living up to expectations as the preseason favorite to win the North Division in the Big 12 Conference.
But don’t book a flight to San Antonio for December’s Big 12 championship game yet. This season has been too surprising so far.
The Tigers (5-0, 1-0) played their best game of the season in their 41-6 victory. The offense rolled up yards even without tailback Tony Temple, who sprained his right ankle in the second quarter. Quarterback Chase Daniel threw for more than 400 yards and scored two rushing touchdowns.
After getting gashed at the start of the season, the defense shut down the Cornhuskers (4-2, 1-1). Wearing black jerseys and yellow pants, defenders looked like bumblebees swarming quarterback Sam Keller.
The performance was impressive, but recent results show that Nebraska might not be MU’s chief rival in the North.
Before the season started, the Tigers and Cornhuskers were considered the chief contenders for the title. The matchup was circled on everyone’s calendar, hyped like the Daytona 500 as the biggest event of the year, the blockbuster opening the season.
But Saturday’s game didn’t crown the winner of the North, just like NASCAR’s premier event doesn’t determine the Nextel Cup champion. Kansas, Kansas State and Colorado are in the race as well.
In every conference, it’s too early to draw any conclusions with the weekly rash of upsets infecting the Top 25 scoreboard. Teams behave differently every week. Sportswriters are scratching their heads across the country, from California to Florida. Is the best team in the Golden State the California Bears after Stanford upset USC in Pasadena on Saturday? Which is the best team in the Sunshine State — the Florida Gators or the upstarts at South Florida?
Where do the Tigers stand after their victory against Nebraska? They looked strong in the blowout, hearkening back to the era of former coach Dan Devine. The Tigers have now defeated the Cornhuskers three consecutive times at home. That last happened in 1957, 1959 and 1961.
Their opening victory against Illinois also looks more and more noteworthy as the season progresses. The Illini haven’t lost since the Tigers staved off their comeback in St. Louis. After beating then-No. 21 Penn State last week and upsetting No. 5 Wisconsin on Saturday, Illinois should be ranked today when the polls are released.
But tough road games loom for MU, starting with Saturday’s trip to Oklahoma. Subsequent trips to Kansas State and Colorado are more interesting after those teams’ upsets last week.
And don’t forget the Jayhawks. Yes, Kansas is undefeated.
Which of those teams will be the toughest challenge for the Tigers for the North title? The division is as muddy as the Missouri River. Kansas State looked dangerous after beating Texas last week. But then they lost to the Jayhawks at home Saturday. Colorado’s 2-0 in the North after upsetting Oklahoma and beating Baylor. But who knows where the Buffaloes will stand after taking on Kansas State and Kansas in the next two weeks.
The only sure thing is that surprises still remain. Teams will crash and burn deep into November.
The race has just begun.