Still in Big 12, Missouri plays with chip on its shoulder

08/28/2010 12:03 AM

08/28/2010 12:03 AM

COLUMBIA, Mo. —Unless prompted, the players on the Missouri football team don't talk about it much. Unless pushed, MU coach Gary Pinkel doesn't talk about it at all.

But there is an obvious chip on the shoulder of each and every Missouri Tiger, the result of being cast as the school to blame for the Big 12 Conference nearly blowing apart in the Great Expansion Scare of the past offseason.

On the day Nebraska chancellor Harvey Perlman announced the Cornhuskers had applied for admission to the Big Ten, he did exactly that, indicating Missouri was first on the conference realignment train.

"Early on, after the Big Ten announced that it intended to consider expansion, we saw reports of officials at Missouri, who had made clear that they would want to go to the Big Ten," Perlman said.

Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon made some disparaging academic comparisons between Texas Tech and Oklahoma State and two Big Ten schools. But in countering Perlman's claims as absurd and ridiculous, MU athletic director Mike Alden and systems president Gary Forsee each noted that Missouri had officially never gone beyond saying it would be open — as would any school — to consider its best options.

In the face of that, Missouri begins a pivotal season — the last in which Nebraska is a member of the Big 12 and second-to-last for Pac-10-bound Colorado — wanting nothing more than to live up to the state's Show-Me reputation.

"We're going to prove a lot of people wrong," said tailback Derrick Washington, a senior captain. "We're going to make a lot of people look silly. Some people are doubting us. We believe.

"We hear it and we read about it. We're just going to use that as fuel."

Missouri appears to have the offensive firepower to make its detractors at least take notice.

Blaine Gabbert, who hobbled through the middle of the season as a sophomore and still starts this season as the top passing-yardage quarterback in the Big 12, is healthy again. He has a group of largely unproven receivers — T.J. Moe, L'Damian Washington, Rolandis Woodland and Wes Kemp — and three heralded freshmen in Marcus Lucas, Jimmie Hunt and Bud Sasser.

The top returning receiver — Jerrell Jackson — will try to return for the Sept. 4 season opener against Illinois in St. Louis after a screw was inserted in the base of his left thumb to strengthen a scaphoid fracture.

Missouri was last in the league in pass defense a year ago. Coaches have finally said they plan to give less cushion and more pressure with the cornerbacks. Aldon Smith and Jacquies Smith lead a corps of defensive ends that need to apply more consistent pressure.

Aldon Smith anticipates the defense having more teeth, but doesn't see any point in making predictions.

"I don't think anything is accomplished with talking," he said, "because anybody can talk. It is all about how you play."

Smith, who last year set a Missouri single-season record with 11.5 sacks, has had an earful ear-full of administrative sniping and the words of detractors.

"They can talk about us being a problem," Smith said. "I don't really care."

After all, as Derrick Washington said: "What could they say then?"

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