I think I hate this Missouri football team. I'm not certain because I've never had strong feelings for the Tigers before this season, but I've found myself actually thinking a lot about the Missouri-Nebraska bell this summer.
It's not like some rivalries (OU-Texas, Alabama-Auburn, et al.) where the football is just the physical manifestation of some deep-seated regional tension. I feel no ill will towards the Show-Me State as a whole. In fact, my family tree has some pretty deep roots there.
I do hate the 2008 Missouri Tigers...and the Cardinals...and Budweiser now that it's Belgian (as if they didn't have enough beer)—but beyond those three things I'm perfectly fine with Missouri.
Now, this is uncharted territory for me, this sudden hatred, and I think that's because this is uncharted territory for the University of Missouri football program as well. They're supposed to be good this year, really good, and that raises two very interesting questions: 1) Who likes a favorite? and 2) How will Missouri respond to their new status as reyes del norte?
Like every Nebraska fan who grew up with two conference daddies in the Big 8, and then the Big 12, I followed pretty conventional hating guidelines. Oklahoma was the first rival, and then there was...not Oklahoma.
When my Big 12 daddy made Christmas a triennial affair and replaced it with Easter—"It's still happening at the same time each year," he would scream—I tried to play along, but truth be told I liked a lot of things Colorado had to offer as well (Coors Original, Rockmount shirts, the idea of snow-shoeing).
And if Colorado was like replacing Christmas with Easter, then Missouri was like the 4th of July, a stand-alone holiday where all you hoped for was to see something entertaining and not have to work too hard to do it.
Now, of course, that's all completely different. Nebraska can't go down to Columbia these days without giving up 41 points. The Tigers are the defending Big 12 North champions and a unanimous preseason pick to repeat as such.
They're the consensus No. 6 team in the nation to start the season. They might have a Heisman trophy winner in their backfield. Jeremy Maclin is as volatile and lethal as nitroglycerin.
Suffice to say, these are heady times for the Missouri Tigers.
And that's why I hate them. Because while Gary Pinkel was taking the Tigers to unparalleled heights in 2007, Bill Callahan was pushing Nebraska to can't-be-believed lows—and that disparity has me coveting that damn bell like never before.
But I think this is good, this hatred. The metaphorical backed into a corner, swing from the heels attitude will be useful come October 4—and it's not all Nebraska has going for it.
As the most heralded Missouri team in the school's history, the '08 Tigers will have to deal with something that's mostly foreign to the Missouri football program: national expectations.
In 2007, Missouri finished No. 4 in the AP poll, the highest end of the season ranking in their history—but they started the season unranked. In 1960 the Tigers started the season unranked before ascending to the top spot in the polls, a ranking that wouldn't be reached again until last year, and finishing at No. 5.
Note specifically the "unranked" connection in those previous two sentences.
The only good comparison for what this 2008 team is attempting to do—replicate or best the winningest season in school history while, and here's the key here, being expected to replicate or best the winningest season in school history—are the '68 and '69 squads.
The 1968 Missouri team finished ninth in the AP poll at 8-3, then climbed to sixth at the end of 1969 by going 9-2.
But I have a feeling that Tigers fans are looking for a little more than a two-loss season and top 10 ranking this season. They could be favored in every game they play—at Texas on October 18 seems like the only possible exception—and they have a lofty ranking that will only be bolstered by a deceptively "tough" season opener against Illinois.
Regardless of what Nebraska does against Virginia Tech, the first real test for the Tigers looks like their trip to Lincoln, where they haven't won since 1978 (a span that encompasses my entire life). Think that will be a big game?
Honestly, I like our chances. I'm not sure what bearing the Missouri teams from '78, '88, or '98 have on this current iteration, but I do know that none of them were expected to win in Lincoln. This team is—and I like that.
Are historical advantages real or just psychological? If it is just psychological, isn't that almost as good as being real?
Either way, I like where we're at 73 days away from homecoming.
So why do I hate this Missouri team with an unusual breadth and depth this season? Because Missouri is better than they've ever been and, right now, they're better than Nebraska.
For that reason, going forward I am completely focused on loathing Missouri.
And the Cardinals.
And Belgian Budweiser.
But that's it.
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