Archive for Tuesday, November 4, 2003

Missouri has inside track to North title

November 4, 2003


— The Oklahoma Sooners have taken all the fun out of the Big 12 South race. Good thing the folks in the North have made their division so interesting.

Three teams remain in contention for the title, and none is Colorado, which won it the last two seasons.

Nebraska and Kansas State lead the North at 3-2, but neither has the inside track. That belongs to Missouri (2-2), which is guaranteed a spot in the Big 12 championship game -- which, conveniently enough, is in Missouri -- if it can win out.

The Tigers, who are coming off a bye, play Saturday at Colorado. Then they play Texas A&M; at home, go to Kansas State, followed by the finale at home against Iowa State Nov. 29 in what's also the league's final game of the regular season.

Missouri already has beaten Nebraska, so the Tigers would win a tiebreaker if they finish with the same record. A victory over K-State would knock the Wildcats out of the way.

If Missouri stumbles once or twice, things could really get interesting. Either Nebraska or Kansas State is bound to have three losses because they face each other next weekend. Imagine if a three-loss team winds up winning the division. Thus, as unlikely as it seems, Kansas University (2-3) isn't totally out of the race just yet.

"It's a great race," said Iowa State coach Dan McCarney, whose Cyclones are winless in conference play but could be spoilers as they still play Kansas State and Missouri. "I think it's going to be a great finish."

Another possibility is that if Missouri loses once and Nebraska wins its last three -- at Kansas and Colorado, home against K-State -- then the Cornhuskers would win the division.

"We'll definitely throw that out in front of them, that it's still anybody's ballgame in a lot of ways," Cornhuskers coach Frank Solich said.

Not so in the South. Oklahoma is undefeated, with victories over Texas and Oklahoma State. So the Sooners would have to lose two of their last three to give up first place.

Missouri coach Gary Pinkel has been building his program toward this point since taking over three seasons ago. The Tigers went 4-7 in 2001, then were 5-6 going into the finale last year. A victory over Kansas State would've made them bowl eligible.

The pressure, and a strong Wildcats team, were too much to overcome. Mizzou lost 38-0, failing to cross midfield until the fourth quarter.

"I've been in this position many times in my career, but it's a first for the players," Pinkel said. "We're in uncharted waters. It'll be interesting to see how our players respond to it."

Quarterback Brad Smith remains an exciting, capable run-throw threat. The defense hasn't been as strong, though. Pinkel said every unit will have to play at its best, with mistakes minimized, for the Tigers to break through.

Players understand what's at stake. So Pinkel is downplaying the big picture and sticking to the old one-game-at-a-time routine.

"If you're a competitor, it doesn't get any better than this," he said. "This is fun."

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