Missouri poised for big year in college football

John Supinie

There's no denying it, even if Missouri coach Gary Pinkel gave it his best shot.

By returning 13 starters from a team that finished 8-5 overall after a one-point loss in the Sun Bowl, Missouri is poised for a breakthrough season in Pinkel's seventh year as Tigers coach.

"The term 'breakthrough,' '' Pinkel said, "I've never heard it before. We'll play Illinois in the first game. I know (Illini coach Ron Zook) will have a good football team this year. That's our focus now. We have our own goals internally. One thing we all know in this business is focus one at a time.

"The team is excited about playing. Everybody wants to prove they're a better football team than a year ago. There's a process that you go through. We're trying to focus on the process.''

OK, so Pinkel played conservatively on the phone this week, but his aggressive, spread offense -- behind quarterback Chase Daniel, running back Tony Temple and perhaps the best tight end combination in the country -- is the big reason why Missouri earned the role as favorite in the Big 12 Conference's north division.

The Tigers were picked ahead of runner-up Nebraska and Kansas State in the weaker of the league's two divisions.

"We've been underdogs,'' Temple said. "We don't care about the predictions and expectations. We know we have to go out there and prove it. We've been on the other end and picked to finish last.''

Missouri hasn't won a conference championship since 1969. Last season's 6-0 start was the Tigers' best since 1973.

A year ago, the Tigers' big concern was replacing Brad Smith, the athletic quarterback who had moved to the NFL. But the Tigers ranked No. 8 nationally in total offense last season (425.6 yards per game) behind Daniel, who set single-season school records with 3,527 yards passing, 28 touchdown passes and 3,906 total yards.

"Chase is very poised,'' Pinkel said. "He's confident but not cocky in any way. He's a winner. There's a lot of guys we're concerned about. He's not one of them.''

Zook can't say the same thing, considering the comparisons.

"He reminds me a lot of Drew Tate,'' said Illinois linebacker Brit Miller, referring to the former Iowa quarterback. "He can be elusive if he needs to be.''

An NFL scout said Daniel "reminds them of (former Purdue quarterback) Drew Brees,'' Zook said. "That's not necessarily good for us. He's an experienced guy who can throw the football. They have two big tight ends who make catches. They (position) their bodies against smaller defensive backs or even linebackers to catch the football.''

A Parade All-America from Southlake (Texas) Carroll High School, Daniel picked Missouri over Texas A&M, Oklahoma State, Maryland and Stanford. The Tigers, who were the first to offer Daniel a scholarship, ran the same offense that Daniel used in high school. Daniel won the No. 2 spot as a true freshman in 2005 behind Smith, then surpassed the school's passing mark by 1,064 yards last season.

"I think I'm more capable of running this offense this year,'' Daniel said. "I'm a lot more confident.''

Daniel has plenty of help. Senior running back Tony Temple ranked second in the Big 12 last season by averaging 81.8 yards per game. Tight ends Martin Rucker and Chase Coffman combined for 11 catches for 1,149 yards and 14 touchdowns.

But Missouri ranked 11th in the Big 12 in rushing defense in conference play by allowing 184.1 yards per game. If there's a breakthrough this year, the defense must help.

NOTES: Illinois opened the first five rows of seats on the east and west main stands for the game against Michigan on Oct. 20. The seats, normally left unsold because of obstructed views from teams on each sideline, cost $32. Once these 1,500 seats are sold, the game is a sellout. . . Illinois placekicker Jason Reda was named to the Lou Groza Award watch list. Illini running back Rashard Mendenhall was named to the Doak Walker Award watch list. . .

John Supinie can be reached at Johnsupinie@aol.com.

A look at Missouri

Record: 8-5 overall last season, 4-4 (T-2nd) in Big 12 north.

Series: Missouri leads 13-7. The Tigers have won eight of the last 11 games against Illinois.

Coach: Gary Pinkel, 37-35 in seventh year at Missouri, 110-72-3 in 17th year overall.

Players to watch: QB Chase Daniel (7 TDs, no INTs in last three games), WR Williams Franklin (nicknamed The Helicopter, had 48 catches for 829 yards and six TDs last year), LB Brock Christopher (top returning tackler with 87 last season).

Did you know?: Placekicker Jeff Wolfert, a Groza Award semifinalist, began his college career as a diver. He kicked in one football game in his high school career.

Quote: "We're picked to win the Big 12 north and get to the (conference) title game. We're not worried about that now.'' -- Missouri quarterback Chase Daniel.