When the Missouri Tigers travel to Boulder, Colo., this weekend, they'll embark on what is figuratively the beginning of the second half of the season.
Snarky mathematician types will tell you that the latter part of Missouri's 12-game schedule officially began with a demoralizing 41-7 loss to Texas on Oct. 24, but considering the circumstances this team now finds itself in, the final five games of 2009 have somewhat become a completely separate season.
Once basking in the glow of an unexpected 4-0 start, Missouri (4-3, 0-3) has lost three in a row to fall into the cellar of the Big 12 North with a noticeable thud. During their current three-game skid, Missouri's first such losing streak since 2006, the Tigers have been outscored 101-36 and have managed just three second-half points.
Now the Tigers are facing the prospect of having to win out just to have the chance to contend for a division many thought they would win for a third consecutive season.
"It’s a pivotal point in the season, obviously," head coach Gary Pinkel said moments after the loss to Texas . "It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure that out. The sense of urgency has got to be here. But if we don’t start playing better, you’re never going to win a game."
Considering what has happened over the past three weeks, Pinkel and Missouri will take a win any way they can get it. And though this week's opponent, the Colorado Buffaloes (2-5, 1-2), presumably will pose a lesser challenge than any of MU's three previous foes (No. 3 Texas, No. 13 Oklahoma State, and Nebraska), the Tigers can ill afford to take any game for granted.
Missouri has won the last three meetings and has outscored Colorado by the astronomical margin of 113-10 during the past two. However, due to the sometimes comedic nature of the Big 12 North, the Buffaloes are a win away from potentially climbing to within one spot of division-leading Kansas State with a .500 record.
A loss at Boulder would all but bury Missouri, but a win over the Buffaloes would be a promising start to a five-game stretch that doesn't seem that daunting when placed next to the Tigers' recent three-game gauntlet.
Missouri's five remaining opponents, two of which have losing records, have posted a combined mark of 20-17. By comparison, the Longhorns, Cowboys, and Cornhuskers have teamed to register a record of 17-4.
The Tigers may be winless in conference play, but Pinkel and his players know a favorable remaining schedule means they have a fighting chance at resurrecting a season gone awry and conquering a division no one seems to want to win.
"We’ve got to win these next Big 12 games that we have because other than that, we really have no choice because we want to get the Big 12 North championship," junior running back Derrick Washington said. "We’ve got to win the North and continue to win...It’s crazy, but it’s still possible. Everyone has to get that mindset that we can still do it. Once everyone gets on the same page, I think we’ll be fine."
And when will that be? Forget five games in a row. If the Tigers have hopes of mounting a charge, they'll have to improve several weaknesses that have all been exposed during the losing streak.
The running game, currently ranked 10th (115 yards per game) in the Big 12, will have to sustain the success it showed at times against Texas' top-ranked rush defense. To avoid costly penalties, Pinkel needs to reiterate the importance of mental focus. And then there's the defense, which, with a rash of recent breakdowns, has conjured up nightmares of 2008 after a solid start to the season.
But perhaps the most vital piece to MU's aspirations for the rest of the season is wounded quarterback Blaine Gabbert, who, in conjunction with the medical staff, insists he's fit to play against Colorado.
Gabbert was assured he can do no further damage to his sprained right ankle, but he'll need to be the player that threw 11 touchdowns versus zero interceptions through the team's first four games; not the one that has tossed five picks in three games since.
Whether the Tigers will recover from their current skid remains to be seen. But, if the Tigers are to run through the rest of the schedule unblemished en route to a third straight appearance in the Big 12 championship, they'll also have to cheat history in order to do so.
Since the inception of the Big 12 in 1996, no team has lost its first three conference games and finished with a winning record, let alone a division title. And even though there's a real possibility the winner of the North will post a 4-4 record, the Tigers cannot afford to fall any further behind.
Missouri's season thus far has been equal parts good and bad, but the struggles have left the Tigers with absolutely no margin for error. The players know it. The coaches know it. The time for a resurgence is now, during a remaining schedule that has suddenly taken on a life of its own.
And it begins on Saturday against Colorado. But, then again, the Tigers don't really have an alternative.
"I don’t think there’s much choice," Pinkel said. "If a guy has to decide how he’s going to react to this, he shouldn’t be in that locker room. There’s no, there’s no…the time’s out. We’ve run out of time. There’s no time left. I can’t be more blunt than that."