After one of the best seasons in school history, Missouri has its sights set even higher in 2008.
Illinois, meanwhile, was one of the big surprises in college football last season, and coach Ron Zook believes his team could be better this year.
Both programs will get an early test and find out right away just how good they are when the sixth-ranked Tigers meet the 20th-ranked Fighting Illini Saturday at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis.
Led by Heisman Trophy finalist Chase Daniels, Missouri finished with 12 wins and a No. 4 ranking in the final AP poll last season, both highs for a school that is usually overshadowed in the Big 12 by Oklahoma, Texas and Nebraska. The only two losses for the Tigers last season both came at the hands of the Sooners, and Missouri’s 38-17 loss in the Big 12 championship game knocked it out of contention for a BCS bowl and national title.
The Tigers bounced back to beat Arkansas 38-7 in the Cotton Bowl, which helped create high expectations heading into this season.
“I don’t think we worry too much about expectations,” Daniel said. “I think we worry about going out there and getting better every single day. We can’t take any backward steps.”
Missouri, which is picked to finish first in the North Division this season, opens the year with its highest preseason ranking ever and hopes of winning the Big 12 and maybe even more.
While it has aspirations of playing in the BCS title game, those dreams could easily vanish in the season opener.
“Let’s focus on Illinois and getting better every day, that’s pretty much all we talk about,” coach Gary Pinkel said.
The Tigers defeated the Illini 40-34 in last year’s season opener, and it wasn’t easy. Illinois fought back from 24 points down with six minutes to go in the third quarter, and Missouri needed an interception at the 1-yard-line with 51 seconds left in the fourth to salvage the win.
“It was the first start for a lot of guys last year, the atmosphere and the whole St. Louis thing,” linebacker Sean Weatherspoon said. “Guys were just a little nervous, and that’s how it happened.
“We’ll come out there this year and try to finish the game.”
Daniel was 37-of-54 for 359 yards and three touchdowns in the win over the Illini, setting the tone for his remarkable season.
He thrived in Missouri’s no-huddle, spread attack, throwing for a school-record 4,306 yards and 33 touchdowns. He finished with eight 300-yard passing games, as he led an offense that finished eighth in the FBS in scoring (39.9 points per game).
Like the Tigers, Illinois is also looking to build off last season’s achievements.
After winning a total of eight games from 2003-06, the Illini went 9-4 in 2007 in Zook’s third season. The campaign ended on a sour note, though, with a 49-17 loss to USC in the Rose Bowl.
Illinois has been picked to finish third in the Big Ten this season, and with an improved Juice Williams at quarterback and a better defensive front, the Illini could make a second straight appearance in a BCS bowl.
Over the offseason, Williams has evolved into more of a pocket passer with better accuracy and more confidence after an average 2007. Williams was the team’s second-leading rusher with 755 yards, but he threw for just 1,743 yards— 134 per game—to rank last among Big Ten starting quarterbacks. He had 13 touchdown passes to 12 interceptions.
“(Williams has) got so much better,” said receiver Arrelious Benn, who had team highs of 54 receptions for 676 yards last season as a freshman. “He’s been labeled as an option quarterback, but now he’s a passer.”
Williams was knocked out of last year’s game against Missouri, and was forced to watch from the sideline as the Illini’s comeback came up short. The quarterback said he’s been waiting anxiously since the Rose Bowl loss for this game.
“To spend all offseason, you’re just so thrilled to go out there and show the world what you can do,” he said.
The Illini allowed the fifth-most yards in the Big Ten (376.8 per game) and was fifth in the league in scoring (21.8) last year, but Zook believes the defense will be one of the strengths of the team this season.
“We’re going to know exactly where we are,” Zook said. “We’ll find out about our defensive line. We’ve talked about them having a chance to be the strength of our football team.”