Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin
KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Missouri entered the year with more preseason buzz than any season in recent history.
The return of 2007 Heisman Trophy finalist Chase Daniel and many of his offensive weapons made most think the Tigers offense would be a juggernaut this season. But the real excitement was about 10 returning defensive starters, making people think this Missouri team could evolve into a legitimate national title threat.
Mid-season losses to Oklahoma State and Texas snuffed out those dreams. And a loss to Kansas last week dropped the Tigers to 9-3.
They claimed a North Division title. But fans wanted more -- much more -- that never materialized.
Those disappointments could be changed if Missouri wins tonight. An upset tonight over Oklahoma in the Big 12 title game would catapult the Tigers into their first BCS bowl berth in history.
And that realization keeps Missouri coach Gary Pinkel from proclaiming this season was a failure despite the dashed national title hopes.
"I'm really proud of our team," Pinkel said. "You all want to win 10 or 11 games a year, and there's no question I want to do that.
"We didn't get it done. We lost to Texas, we had four straight games and lost a close one at the end after we had secured our championship. But I'm really proud of our team. You have to do the right things to win and we didn't do the right things."
Missouri wide receiver Jeremy Maclin was more succinct than that.
"You know, this is a crazy league," Maclin said. "We lost to Texas and Oklahoma State and then we beat Colorado 58-0. But I know we're where we want to be tonight. And if we can win the game tonight, we'll definitely be where we want to be."
Coming into the game, here are some notable items I'll be watching as the game unfolds.
How will the cold weather affect Oklahoma quarterback Sam Bradford's injured left thumb? Bradford tore a ligament in his non-throwing hand last week against Oklahoma State. The injury has been stabilized with a splint and Bradford should be ready to go. A sign to watch will be if Oklahoma coaches trust him to take direct snaps from center Jon Cooper. The Sooners used shotgun formations almost exclusively in the second half last week, affecting their running game. If Bradford can take direct snaps, the Sooner running game should be more effective.
Daniel's chance to make history. It should be an emotional night for the Missouri quarterback, who will leave with nearly every major passing record in school history. But he still doesn't have a Big 12 title to his credit, which he could produce tonight with a major effort.
How long will the Sooners remain with untested starter Mike Balogun at middle linebacker? Balogun, who skipped playing high school football to make money for his family as a construction worker, will be making his first career start for the Sooners tonight. Coaches like his determination and moxie, but he's not schooled in the intricacies of pass coverage. That could be a huge liability covering Missouri tight end Chase Coffman. If Balogun should struggle early, look for Travis Lewis to switch from weakside linebacker to the middle with 230-pound safety Nic Harris taking his place.
Can Missouri withstand an early Oklahoma assault? It will be important for Missouri to stay in the ballgame against an Oklahoma team that has steamrolled most opponents early in the game with their no-huddle attack. An early stop or two would give the Tigers some confidence and quickly bring what should be a pro-Missouri crowd into the game.
How will Missouri's secondary hold up? Losing top cover cornerback Castine Bridges isn't a good sign. The Tigers will have to insert undersized senior Tru Vaughns into the lineup against Oklahoma's tall group of receivers. They'll have to combat that disadvantage, which is especially worrisome against Bradford, who averages 15.22 yards per completion and has nine completions this season for 50 yards or more.