COLUMBIA, Mo. • Before Mizzou in March locked down its final game of a schedule scrambled by the move to the Southeastern Conference from the Big 12, its last game at Faurot Field was to be homecoming Oct. 27 against Kentucky before capping the regular season with a three-game road show at Florida (Nov. 3), Tennessee (Nov. 10) and Texas A&M (Nov. 24).
MU was able to break up that rocky scenario by securing today’s home non-conference game against Syracuse, which appeared to offer the benefits of being both a member of a BCS-automatic qualifier conference (the Big East) and extremely beatable:
The Orange went 1-6 in Big East play in 2011.
Besides, MU’s scheduling options had dwindled, to the point where it was considering an unpalatable second FCS game that wouldn’t have counted toward bowl eligibility if MU had won that as well as the Southeastern Louisiana game.
So paying Syracuse $800,000 for this game, with no scheduled return to play at Syracuse, also was an investment it had little choice but to make.
But as Mizzou (5-5) tries to secure bowl-eligibility by winning back-to-back games for the first time this season, the Tigers have a slightly different task on their hands than they might have anticipated.
The Orange, too, are just 5-5, but they’ve won three of their last four, including 45-26 last week over previously unbeaten Louisville.
While MU coach Gary Pinkel perhaps was being diplomatic when he said MU knew Syracuse would be a pretty good team, he no doubt was being sincere when he added, “I didn’t know if they were going to be this good.”
Like Mizzou, Syracuse needs just one more win to become bowl-eligible.
Unlike MU, it remains in contention — albeit dependent on several improbable scenarios — for an automatic BCS bowl berth.
To have that happen, Rutgers (4-0 Big East) would have to lose all three of its remaining league games, and Syracuse would have to beat Temple next week to finish 5-2 in Big East play and tied only with Louisville — by virtue of which Syracuse would claim the tie-breaker as Big East champ.
Without that far-fetched premise playing out, Syracuse has plenty to play for today to secure any bowl at all.
But so, too, does Mizzou, which has been to bowls the last seven years and can ill-afford a lapse in that streak as it seeks to acclimate into the SEC.
Even though the bowl berth would be a minor one, the invitation would carry with it a month of practice MU wouldn’t get otherwise leading up to that game. It also would bring visibility for recruiting that is particularly vital as the school tries to climb to competitiveness in the SEC after a 2-5 start in its inaugural league season.
It’s not a topic, though, that Pinkel planned to emphasize this week as much as he would the importance of sending MU seniors out with a victory in their last home game.
“We know the significance of this game without even mentioning it,” Pinkel said. “If you start talking about (bowls), we’re getting off what’s most important, and that’s taking care of business.”
MU’s defense will be short its best player, who failed to do just that:
Defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson is suspended for the game after skipping multiple classes and failing to fulfill unspecified obligations to make up for it.
That’s one less major resource Mizzou has to contend with a Syracuse offense whose quarterback, Ryan Nassib, already has passed for a school-record 3,019 yards and is averaging 36.5 points in its last four games.
MU, meanwhile, gave up 48 points last week (in four overtimes) against Tennessee but had given up just 24 points total in its previous two games.
Was the Tennessee game a blip, or did it demonstrate MU still is vulnerable to sophisticated passing games?
The Vols threw for 432 yards, and Syracuse throws for more than 300 a game — 20th in the nation.
On the other side of the ball, an inverted version of the same question lurks: Did MU’s 51-point outburst signify the awakening of the offense, or was it just that Tennessee is so poor defensively?
Against the two foes that are winless in SEC play (the 0-7 Vols and 0-6 Kentucky), after all, MU has amassed 84 points. Against five opponents with winning conference records, MU has a total of 62 points.
But Mizzou has won two of its last three, with a narrow loss at Florida the only setback, and seems to have a foundation its lacked all season entering today’s game.
“Attitude-wise, it’s a refill,” Pinkel said. “You fill your tanks up a little bit.”
Win today, and MU will be brimming over entering its regular-season finale at A&M, where it won the last two years.
Lose today, though, and the Tigers will be down to their last chance for a refill to salvage a bowl berth and some traction toward their immediate SEC future.