MU faces stern test in finale

Saturday, November 23, 2002

COLUMBIA, Mo. -- Kansas State, Missouri's opponent in the regular-season finale today, perhaps has the blueprint for success the Tigers need.

Bill Snyder turned around a doormat program in the 1990s with a strategy of avoiding top-notch competition until conference games began, then emphasizing the resulting improved records and bowl appearances during recruiting. The Wildcats (9-2, 5-2 Big 12) are one of the best teams in the Big 12 on a yearly basis now.

They enter today's matchup second in the nation in scoring at 46.4 points per game and first in points allowed at 11.5 per game.

Missouri's second-year coach, Gary Pinkel, is in the process of dialing back future schedules in favor of banking more early-season victories. The Tigers (5-6, 2-5) won three of their four non-conference games this season, and can become bowl eligible for the first time in four seasons with an upset against the 10th-ranked Wildcats.

"Gary is an intelligent man who's got a system and design in place and he's going about doing it seemingly the right way," Snyder said. "I doubt very seriously it's patterned after us, because ours wasn't patterned after anybody."

If there is a common thread, it's that Pinkel, like Snyder before, is sticking to his system. He didn't make a huge overhaul after going 4-7 in his first season.

"Gary's too smart to be bouncing around from one thing to another, and not having a firm foundation of what he believes in," Snyder said. "He's got tremendous insight into what he deems to be important to make Missouri a successful program."

Missouri won four games last year, Pinkel's first season, and has won five this year. He's confident better times are ahead for the Tigers, who have fielded only two winning teams since 1983.

"I believe so much in our system even though it's been very, very frustrating even up to this moment," Pinkel said. "If we would have lost the game, I still would have had remarkable confidence in what we're doing and believe that we have made a lot of strides."

Pinkel doesn't want players getting too excited about what another victory can do for the school.

"All of our players know we can become bowl eligible, and it's important to them and the program. Any more wasted thought on that and not preparing for this football team we have to play would be ridiculous," Pinkel said.

The Tigers are coming off a breakthrough game, a 33-27 double-overtime victory at Texas A&M last week. They came close to such a game several times earlier in the year, with narrow losses to then No. 1-Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Colorado.

But they'll need another breakthrough to become eligible for the postseason because Kansas State has put together perhaps the most impressive finishing stretch in the nation. The last four games, the Wildcats have beaten Baylor, Kansas, Iowa State and Nebraska by a combined score of 215-30.

Missouri has lost 43 in a row to Top 10 opponents.

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