NORMAN, Okla. As the victories mount, the stakes have been raised for No. 11 Missouri.
The Tigers, off to their second straight 5-0 start and with their highest ranking since 1981, face No. 6 Oklahoma today with more on the line than perhaps any other game in coach Gary Pinkel's seven seasons at Mizzou.
After beating Nebraska 41-6 in their Big 12 opener last week, the Tigers can establish themselves as a legitimate national title contender by defeating Oklahoma (5-1, 1-1 Big 12).
History is not on their side.
Missouri has lost 16 straight games in Norman dating back to 1966 and has lost 13 straight road games against ranked opponents, with the last win coming in 1997 at Oklahoma State. The last six of those losses came under Pinkel.
"It's the biggest game we've had here," said Mizzou quarterback Chase Daniel, who is third in the nation in total offense at 380 yards per game.
"It's a big game because it's the next game. As I said last week, we're not approaching it like a do-or-die, it's your life, you better win, if you don't win, you're going to be fired. It's a football game, just go out there, have fun, play hard, do what you can and move the football."
In a change from the past seasons, the Tigers present the highest-ranked opponent the Sooners will likely face during the regular season. After losing to Colorado to start Big 12 play, Oklahoma bounced back last week with a 28-21 win against then-No. 19 Texas to set up one of only two showdowns between ranked foes this weekend the other is top-ranked LSU against No. 17 Kentucky.
"After I saw them beat Nebraska, I said, 'Man, this is really going to be a big game.' They're coming in undefeated, they're ranked 11th and it's just going to be a big game," Sooners guard Brian Simmons said. "But like I tell everyone, every game's a big game for us. We're trying to get to the conference title, so it's always a big game."
Little has slowed Daniel and the Tigers' offense so far. Missouri ranks fifth in the nation with 556.6 yards per game and 11th in scoring at 41.8 points.
But when these former Big Eight rivals met last year in Columbia, the Sooners found a formula that worked. Daniel ran for 75 yards, while the rest of his teammates totaled only 1 yard on the ground in a 26-10 loss.
Oklahoma defensive coordinator Brent Venables promised the Sooners "won't be able to stop the pass" if Missouri's running game has success.
The Tigers will be forced to find a running game without their leading rusher. Tony Temple has a sprained ankle and didn't travel with the team to Norman.
The Sooners also got Daniel to throw three interceptions last year and squelched the possibility of a Mizzou rally by sending the Tigers away with nothing after a first-and-goal from the 2 in the third quarter. Missouri's next three possessions ended in a three-and-out and back-to-back picks by Daniel.
"You've got to mix it up. That's the biggest thing," Venables said. "Any of those teams with a quarterback of his caliber that sees the field and understands defense and what they do with the no-huddle concept, so they check with the sideline you give them a steady dose of one thing and it's difficult to have success on defense that way. You make it awfully easy on the opponent."
Daniel, who has thrown for at least 294 yards in each of his last eight games, said the main challenges the Sooners present are speed and variety on defense.
"They want to disguise a lot. They're not really, really great at one thing, they're really, really great at a whole bunch of things," Daniel said. "That's what they do, they run a whole bunch of defenses and we have our hands full this week."
Oklahoma has won nine of the 11 games in the series when both teams were in the Top 25, including the last seven. The Sooners held the higher ranking in eight of those 11 games.
"All those rankings and things don't mean anything, they're just numbers until the end of the season," said Missouri senior Martin Rucker, the top receiving tight end in the nation."You appreciate that people give you recognition like that, but when you cross the line and strap it up, it doesn't matter who's ranked what."
ILLINOIS is riding a four-game winning streak into today's Big Ten clash with IOWA, but the Hawkeyes could make the Illini's stay in the Top 25 a short one. Yes, Iowa is a team in disarray, but the Hawkeyes hung with Wisconsin at Camp Randall earlier this year before falling 17-13, and a little bird says they may stymie the Illini.
AP voters are bullish on the fifth-ranked SOUTH FLORIDA BULLS, who continue to inch their way up the Top 25. Today's tilt with Central Florida shouldn't be too revealing.
After opening the year 4-0, TEXAS has suffered back-to-back setbacks. Once considered a contender, the 'Horns look strangely like pretenders. At Iowa State today.
1. DESEAN JACKSON, WR, Cal Made statement with 11 catches for 161 yards and 2 scores at Oregon. Up next: vs. Oregon St.
2. MATT RYAN, QB, Boston College Passed for 325 yards and 4 TDs in a thumping of Bowling Green. Up next: at Notre Dame
3. DARREN MCFADDEN, RB, Arkansas Carried the ball 25 times for 139 yards and a TD vs. Chattanooga. But no catches? Up next: vs. Auburn today.
4. TIM TEBOW, QB, Florida Tossed pair of TD passes and ran for another in loss to LSU, but couldn't get Gators into the end zone late. Up next: at Kentucky
5. ANDRE WOODSON, QB,
Kentucky Threw for 227 yards and two TDs in loss to Gamecocks two weeks ago. Up next: vs. LSU