COLUMBIA • Thankfully the infuriating debate that has gripped the rest of college football this week about who's truly No. 1 did not get much momentum here inside Mizzou's sprawling football complex on Monday afternoon.
There was no need to weigh in on whether anyone here believes in the human polls (which seem to cast some sort of pox on whomever they prop up on top of their weekly rankings) or the computer polls (which seem to believe that the easiest way to determine the best team in the land is to divide X over Y, multiply that by the square root of 1.37, carry the 1, then check to see which BCS conference you play in).
Even as the ESPN Gameday crew, college football's ultimate hype machine, rolls toward Francis Quadrangle, there was only one thing on the minds of the Tigers as their Saturday prime-time, nationally televised showdown with Oklahoma nears.
"If you want to talk in the same sentence with Oklahoma, you have to go beat them," said Mizzou coach Gary Pinkel. "That's all. That's something I haven't done, something I want to do."
Beating the Sooners is the golden ticket for Mizzou football, which can open up a brave new world for Pinkel's program. Beat the Sooners — ranked No. 1 by the Bowl Championship Series computer and third in both human polls — and the Tigers step up to a new plateau where then and only then can they have reason to engage in that "Who's No. 1" debate.
Beat the Sooners on Saturday night with the entire nation watching, and people will stop looking at Missouri football as this nice little Top 25 program in the Midwest that keeps hitting the glass ceiling every time it ventures into the rarefied air of college football's elite. Beat OU and everyone will start recognizing that Pinkel has crashed through that glass ceiling.
"I have it on a watch. I have it (for) so many years. And my goal is to continue to build it so we can win at a higher level, more consistently."
Pinkel said those words last August at Big 12 media day when someone asked him about the state of his program. In his 10 years at Missouri, Pinkel has transformed the MU program from woebegone to nationally recognized, getting as high as 6th in the final BCS poll three years ago. He has gotten the Tigers to the Big 12 North title, made them a regular fixture as a North contender. But so far he has not cracked the major threshold of proving to be the equal or superior to the likes of Oklahoma and Texas, the class of the Big 12 South.
But it is Oklahoma that symbolizes that frustration the most. OU has been the hammer that has whacked them on the head each and every time the Tigers have attempted to reach national championship consideration. Remember the 2007 and 2008 seasons when Sam Bradford and the Sooners put three consecutive thumpings on Mizzou, including back-to-back defeats in the Big 12 title game by a combined score of 90-38?
Remember the six consecutive losses to Oklahoma in the Pinkel era, the last five by an average margin of defeat of nearly 22 points?
Now here is another perfect opportunity for Missouri to move into that championship conversation again. This unbeaten Missouri team — maybe the deepest and all-around talented squad that Pinkel has coached — has perhaps its best chance ever. And of course, there is Oklahoma acting like an ugly bouncer who not only won't let them pass, but won't be happy unless he flings the Tigers back over the velvet rope smack on their head.
I don't know too many truly competitive individual athletes or teams seeking greatness that don't ache for the opportunity to complete their championship journey by going through the one opponent that has denied them for so long.
"It hasn't been talked about, but I think most players do think that," said senior cornerback Kevin Rutland. "I know definitely I've thought about it, that we need this to solidify ourselves."
A victory over unbeaten OU would conceivably shoot the unbeaten Tigers right up the human and computer polls. A victory before a sold-out homecoming crowd of over 68,000 gold-clad Mizzou loyalists would put them back in the Top 10 for the first time in two years, and legitimately put them in the heart of the national championship debate and at the very least in the thick of the big-payday BCS bowl game consideration.
But a loss, particularly one of the typical bone-crushing variety that OU customarily hands out, would toss the Tigers right back over the velvet ropes into that land where you are designated to the ho-hum world of Alamo/Insight/Independence bowls and have everyone thinking like Cubs fans.
Wait until next year.
Great football programs don't happen overnight (at least not ones that don't buy their way to championships). They take time. They are fraught with frustrating setbacks. They rise up, then fall back, then rise again, and sometimes they fall back again. But sooner or later, they have to break through and stay on top, and this could very well be that positive point of no return for Pinkel's program.
"I don't know if you can look at it that way," Pinkel said. "You have to prove yourself. That's all. You prove yourself by winning, bottom line. I don't know how to define that. ... You have to go do it."