DALLAS — After the Missouri football team earned a close victory over Illinois on Sept. 1 in St. Louis, the Tigers still had the look of the team that lost in the 2006 Sun Bowl, a team that looked a couple steps away from being where it should be.
Exactly four months later, on Jan. 1, those same Tigers put the finishing touches on what was arguably the best season in school history with a 38-7 victory against Arkansas in the program’s first New Year’s Day bowl in 38 years, the Cotton Bowl in Dallas.
In that four-month period, the Tigers made a habit of shedding past problems. They won the nonconference and conference games they were supposed to or needed to win and they went 4-0 in the month of November, a necessity for any team that wants to be taken seriously.
A Big 12 North division championship, a Heisman trophy finalist and a one-week stint as the No. 1 team in the country were some of the results. The seniors who stuck with the program through mediocrity were rewarded with a win in their last game with the team.
“As an underclassmen, I’ve seen a lot of guys come in and out of Missouri,” junior safety William Moore said Tuesday after the Tigers’ win. “When (the seniors) said something, you know they meant it. These guys, on and off the field, were supportive.”
The senior class was a big part of the final victory of the 2007 season. After Missouri failed to gain a spot in a BCS bowl game, the seniors kept team focused on finishing the season well.
“I mean, you know, we were upset for about a couple days after we heard,” senior Martin Rucker said Tuesday after MU’s victory. “You know it was nothing against the Cotton Bowl. We just felt that we deserved, that we had earned to be in a BCS game.”
The Tigers quickly forgot the snub and unloaded on the Razorbacks, holding talented running backs Darren McFadden and Felix Jones in check.
Another team that thought it had a claim to a BCS bid, Arizona State, did nothing for its cause with an 18-point loss to Texas in the Holiday Bowl.
Rather than unraveling on a nationally televised bowl game, the Tigers flourished and won on the legs of senior Tony Temple’s record 281 yards and four touchdowns.
The Tigers of Jan. 1 provided a stark contrast to the Tigers of Sept. 1, a lucky bunch that looked like it had an uncertain future.
The Tigers rang in the New Year winners of the Cotton Bowl and on the cusp of greater possibilities. But until those horizons are reached, coach Gary Pinkel and his team can look back on a breakthrough season.
“Hopefully this is a great motivating factor for our players as we continue to build our program,” Pinkel said. “I’m just real, real proud of my Missouri football team.”