MU gets respect but looks to gain more wins in '04

Wednesday, July 21, 2004

The Tigers have eyes set on Big 12 North championship.

By Doug Tucker ~ The Associated Press

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- All this new-found respect people keep tossing Missouri's way is nice, but it's not the same as winning a championship, says Gary Pinkel.

"I think we're getting more respect," the Missouri coach said Tuesday in the first of the Big 12's three-day media day. "That's what everybody wants. That's the way I was brought up. Other than that, it doesn't mean a whole lot."

Winning Missouri's first Big 12 North championship -- a goal many feel is within reach -- would mark the biggest step forward for a program that has seemed to underachieve season after season.

The Tigers, in Pinkel's fourth year, will try to use last year's 41-24 victory over Nebraska as a building block. A full generation of players had come and gone since Missouri last bested the Cornhuskers.

"You don't beat somebody for 25 years, that makes it a big win," said Pinkel. "Did we gain a little confidence? I hope so. But you've got to win games like that a lot more than once a year if you want to be good."

The Tigers have a marquee player in junior quarterback Brad Smith, a run-pass threat who could vault into Heisman Trophy contention if he and the Tigers get off to a fast start.

"We're excited to show everybody else what we have," said Smith, who passed for 1,977 yards last year and ran for 1,406.

"I'm definitely honored by all the (Heisman talk), but I'd rather not have it and just be able to go out and play the game and be out there with my teammates. I'll sacrifice everything to get my teammates the win because they deserve it and they've worked hard for it."

Bob Stoops, meanwhile, said he isn't bothered when people say Kansas State provided the blueprint on how to beat his Oklahoma Sooners.

"They did beat us. So if you can do what they did, go ahead and do it," said the Oklahoma coach. "I'm sure we'll have an idea of what we need to do, too."

Nevertheless, Kansas State's 35-7 domination in the Big 12 title game over a No. 1 Oklahoma team that many were calling the best in collegiate history did shock the nation. Then, when they lost 21-14 to LSU in the Sugar Bowl, it sent the supposedly invulnerable Sooners into this season on an improbable two-game losing streak.

"Each year's a new start," said Stoops. "It wasn't easy to do what we did, carry the No. 1 ranking 13 or 14 straight weeks. We failed in our last two games. We analyzed why. We'll do our best to see that it doesn't happen again."

With a blue chip freshman running back in Adrian Peterson and the reigning Heisman Trophy winner in quarterback Jason White, the Sooners seem certain to be highly ranked coming into Stoops' sixth year.

"We want a strong program and we want to be recognized as one of the better programs in the country," Stoops said. "I think we've established that in the last four years that we're a team that has a chance to fight for it every year."

At Texas Tech, all eyes will be on Sonny Cumbie, the 6-foot-4 fifth-year senior who must replace B.J. Symons. All Symons did last year was throw for a remarkable 5,833 yards in coach Mike Leach's pass-oriented attack.

But Cumbie could also be challenged by several younger prospects.

"Sonny's been around the program the longest," said Tech assistant coach Ruffin McNeill. "Five years, and he knows the package better than anyone else."

Offensive lineman Daniel Loper expects Cumbie to be the newest trigger man in the most productive passing offense in the Big 12.

"Sonny's big on studying film," Loper said. "He really knows defenses and how to pick them apart."

Another team with what it hopes was a breakthrough win was Baylor. In coach Guy Morriss' first year, the Bears upset Colorado 42-30 en route to a 3-9 overall record and 1-7 Big 12 mark.

But the Bears are having trouble even thinking of themselves as a viable Big 12 program, Morriss said.

"The past is the past," he said. "We're ready to get on with the future and go to a bowl game this year. That's what we're looking at. We're not settling for just being an improved team. We want to be a winning team."

First, Morriss said, he had to change the attitude of his players. Adjusting the expectations of the rest of the campus and the alumni may take longer.

One priority is improving the facilities, bringing them at least to a comparable level with the state-of-the-art weight rooms and training tables of such Big 12 titans as Texas and Texas A&M.

"Handling the football team has been probably the easiest part," Morriss said. "The hardest part for me is the fact there's a lot of people at Baylor who don't have the same sense of urgency that we as a football staff have. We've made some changes and things like that. Change is always hard for some people."

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