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No More Misery Tigers

It's unfamiliar territory for Missouri, off to a 6-0 start for first time since 1973

October 14, 2006|Peter Yoon | Times Staff Writer

His team is undefeated, having started 6-0 for the first time since 1973, but Missouri Coach Gary Pinkel would like to keep the strutting and boasting to a minimum.

"I think that we are wise to be cautious, especially in a program that is not used to something like this," the fifth-year coach of the Tigers told reporters this week. "The season is only half over ..."

True. But it has been quite a half.

Missouri, ranked 19th, could move to 7-0 for the first time in 46 years with a victory today at Texas A&M.

Either that, or the first game of a difficult second-half schedule could snap Missouri right out of its dream season.

It has happened before. The 1973 team started 6-0, reaching No. 7 in the national poll, then lost four of its last six to finish 8-4.

Before that, the 1960 Missouri team started 9-0 and was No. 1 in the nation when it lost to Kansas in the regular-season finale. The Tigers were later awarded a victory in that game because Kansas used an ineligible player, but pollsters didn't care and Missouri, even though it won the Orange Bowl to finish 11-0, was No. 5 in the season-ending poll.

Otherwise, there isn't much history to speak of when it comes to Missouri football, other than perhaps the most famous botched officials' call in the history of college football, when Colorado defeated the Tigers, 33-31, in the famous five-down blunder of 1990.

That's right, the most famous moment in Missouri football is a loss.

"Having to deal with players that have not won consistently, it would be wise for me to be cautious and I am," Pinkel said. "Our players, regardless if you tell them to read the papers or not, or the Internet, they're going to do that and it's up to us to keep people grounded and focused on what's important. That's the challenge that we have."

Pinkel has already overcome some long odds, though, keeping his team on track a year after possibly the best player in school history completed his eligibility. Last season's quarterback, Brad Smith, left Missouri with a total of 69 school, Big 12 and NCAA records.

Smith's 4,289 rushing yards were the most ever by a Division I quarterback, and he is the only player in NCAA history with 8,000 passing yards and 4,000 rushing yards.

But despite a school-record 13,088 total yards, Smith never won more than eight games in a season at Missouri and the Tigers posted two losing records during his four seasons.

Now a rookie with the New York Jets, Smith said in a telephone interview this week that he was not necessarily surprised that Missouri was prospering without him.

"You never really know what to expect from year to year," he said. "It's a different team and a different year, but I know those guys are working hard. They're doing a heck of a job."

Keeping up the pace over the next six games will be difficult. Texas A&M is 5-1, and even if the Tigers get past that one, they have consecutive games against No. 21 Oklahoma and No. 23 Nebraska Oct. 28 and Nov. 4.

None of Missouri's first five opponents -- Murray State, Mississippi, New Mexico, Ohio and Colorado -- has a winning record.

The Tigers answered some questions about schedule strength last week with a 38-21 victory over high-powered Texas Tech, but even with the Red Raiders (4-2), Tigers opponents are a combined 10-23.

Its next six opponents are a combined 23-12, and if the Tigers make it through the Big 12 North, they would probably face No. 6 Texas, the defending national champion, in the conference title game.

Because of its fast start, Missouri also will play that half-season as a marked team.

"Any undefeated team will always have a bull's-eye," Tigers linebacker Marcus Bacon said. "We weren't always the undefeated team, but we played against undefeated teams, so we were always trying to hit that bull's-eye. I think any other team would get excited [against us]."

The Missouri defense is ranked No. 11 in the nation, giving up 255 yards a game, and the offense is No. 15 with a 423 yards-a-game average. Clemson, which is No. 5 in defense and No. 10 in offense, is the only other team ranked in the top 15 of both.

The Tigers have not yet trailed in a game, having outscored opponents in the first quarter, 72-3. They also are No. 11 in the nation in scoring defense, giving up an average of 11.8 points a game.

But they have shown signs of vulnerability the last two weeks, needing five turnovers last week to control Texas Tech, which gained 456 yards. The week before, Colorado gained 373 yards.

Before those games, Missouri statistically had the top defense in the nation.

Still, Texas A&M, which has the No. 13 scoring offense, is looking for a stiff challenge from the Tigers.

"They have a lot of chemistry and a lot of spirit," Aggies Coach Dennis Franchione told reporters during a Big 12 conference call. "They're moving the ball well on offense, playing very well on defense. There are not many, if any, flaws in this football team."

Franchione also said Missouri is his pick to win the Big 12 North.

"I said at the beginning of the year that Missouri would have a pretty tough team," he added. "I didn't necessarily know that they'd be undefeated, but I knew they would have a good record."

Didn't know they'd be undefeated?

Neither did anyone else.

peter.yoon@latimes.com

*

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Tougher tests

Unbeaten Missouri's first six opponents had a combined record

of 10-23, but its next six are 23-12. The Tigers' remaining schedule:

*--* Date Opponent Record* Oct. 14 at Texas A&M 5-1 Oct. 21 Kansas State 4-2 Oct. 28 Oklahoma 3-2 Nov. 4 at Nebraska 5-1 Nov. 18 at Iowa State 3-3 Nov. 25 Kansas 3-3

*--*

Source: ESPN.com

*through Oct. 13

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