Kansas receiver Kerry Meier pulls in a 26-yard touchdown reception over Missouri safety Justin Garrett during the fourth quarter Saturday in Kansas City, Mo. Kansas won 40-37.
But coming off uninspired play in a loss to Kansas that dropped the Tigers to co-champions of the North with a tiebreaker over Nebraska, maybe Missouri's stature isn't such a sure thing. No. 2 Oklahoma is a 16 1/2-point favorite to throttle Missouri on Saturday night for the second straight year in the title game.
Missouri, a contender for the national title earlier in the season, but No. 19 in the latest poll and 20th in the BCS rankings, refuses to apologize. The Tigers lost 38-17 in last year's championship game and have lost 18 of 19 to the Sooners, who are coming off four straight 60-point outings, but appear eager for their shot.
"This is where we wanted to be, and it's finally here," Tigers quarterback Chase Daniel said Monday. "There's 10 other teams that would die to be in our spot. We deserve to be here. We won the North, and we're excited about the chance to play."
If all goes to form, the Tigers (9-3, 5-3 Big 12) appear headed for the Alamo Bowl -- a big dropoff considering the early expectations. It's no surprise to players that they're considered longshots given they're coming off a 40-37 loss plagued by defensive breakdowns, including the game-deciding touchdown, and an inconsistent offense that had to overcome a spotty start.
"We hear what people are saying, we realize it, and it's fair," linebacker Brock Christopher said. "We believe. That's the bottom line. You can't look at the names on the other jerseys."
An upset would do wonders for the national profile, along with a coveted berth in the Fiesta Bowl.
"It would mean a lot to the program, a lot to the team and a lot to me," tight end Chase Coffman said. "A Big 12 championship is what every team in conference looks forward to, and at the end of the year there are only two teams playing for it."
If the followup to a 12-win season is considered a letdown to this point, Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said it's only because of the strides the school has made. The senior class has combined for 36 victories the last four seasons, most in school history.
"You're 9-3 and you're disappointed. You've made a lot of progress when that happens," Pinkel said. "I've talked to other coaches that are in this position a lot more often than I have been, and if you're going to put your whole season on winning a national championship, then other than about four teams everybody else is tremendously disappointed.
"I don't think that's wise, and I didn't do that."
In all three losses, Missouri dealt with distractions. Players watched Texas beat Oklahoma and anticipated a matchup that might have been for No. 1, but lost by five points at home to Oklahoma State. Crushed dreams ran headlong into the Longhorns' near-perfect start in a blowout in Austin, Texas, and the Tigers had already clinched the North before falling by three points in a miserable, wintry mix to the Jayhawks in the annual border showdown at Arrowhead Stadium.
"There's a fine line between being 11-1 and 9-3," Pinkel said. "You can take four or five plays, and when you're 11-1 you make those plays, and when you're 9-3 you don't."
A coaching staff that has preached focus has its own issues. Pinkel signed a new contract worth $2.3 million a season last Tuesday, offensive coordinator Dave Christensen will be the next coach at Wyoming, and defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus interviewed at Toledo on Sunday.
"You want your coordinators to get jobs," Pinkel said. "What has happened is people see the success we've had and they want to duplicate it, and that's a compliment to my players and my whole staff.
"Is that a distraction? No. That would be an excuse."
Christensen expects to finalize his deal today, while Eberflus had no comment on his job prospects.