Daniel, Tigers focused on winning Big 12 championship

COLUMBIA, Mo. -- Any signs that complacency might have affected Chase Daniel were quickly erased early in Missouri's spring practice.

During a routine practice in which the Tigers' defense had made one too many stops to suit him, Missouri's senior quarterback was in coach Gary Pinkel's ear for most of the last few periods of their work that day.

"He was telling me, 'Coach, we've got to put the ball on the 30-yard line, offense versus defense. We've got to do it. We've got to do it,'" Pinkel said.

The veteran coach's instincts told him not to risk injuries at the end of a long practice, but Daniel's persuasive powers eventually won out.

"That's Chase Daniel," Pinkel said. "He could have easily just sat back and finished practice off after that. It would have been no big deal. But it was so important to him. And then to top it off, he went down there and finished the practice by winning [the drill] on that drive."

Daniel returned to the field this spring with renewed intensity after the Tigers' landmark 12-2 season in 2007. It's led to soaring expectations heading into Saturday's Black and Gold Game (ESPNU, 2 p.m. ET).

The Tigers claimed their first Big 12 North Division title, topped by a Cotton Bowl victory over Arkansas that was their first New Year's Day bowl triumph since 1966. And their No. 4 ranking in the final Associated Press poll was the highest finish in school history.

By nearly every measure, it was a banner season. Except for a Big 12 championship game loss to Oklahoma that knocked them out of a one-week stay as the nation's No. 1 team, the Tigers and Daniel accomplished almost every goal set before the season.

For his part, Daniel still burns about the championship game loss, one of Missouri's two defeats to the Sooners last season.

"That game was a long time ago and I'm not going to get into it," said Daniel, who ranked fifth nationally with 4,306 passing yards and tossed 33 touchdown passes. "It doesn't really matter now."

Instead, he's focusing on leading the Tigers to their first Big 12 championship. And with 16 starters back from last season, the Tigers could accomplish that feat.

"The air of confidence has definitely changed," said Daniel, who became Missouri's first Heisman finalist since Paul Christman in 1939-40. "Everyone knows we can win and how to win. Now we just have to go out and do it, putting in the time to try to get better."

Pinkel embraces the renewed hopes around the program.

"I've always said I'd like to be picked to win the championship every year because that shows that people respect the program," Pinkel said. "Last year, we were picked by the media to win the division. We did OK and passed that test. Now, it's whether you come back and do it again and meet and reach your potential. And you know what, we'll find out."

The Tigers are a fashionable choice to crack the top 10 again and are the overwhelming early choice to win the Big 12 North Division. Many experts are predicting they can end Oklahoma's two-year stranglehold on the Big 12 title.

The Missouri offense is expected to be just as potent with the return of Heisman candidates Daniel and Jeremy Maclin, who was voted a consensus All-American during his freshman season.

But there will be some challenges. Tailback Tony Temple, the only back in Missouri history with back-to-back 1,000-yard rushing seasons, dropped an appeal for a medical redshirt to the NCAA and declared for the NFL draft. Tight end Martin Rucker, who led all Division I-A tight ends with 84 receptions and had more receptions than any player in school history, also has departed.

The Tigers also lose two stalwarts on their offensive line with the departure of left tackle Tyler Luellen and center Adam Spieker, and lose key reserves Monte Wyrick and Chris Tipton.

At running back, four returnees are challenging to replace Temple. Senior Jimmy Jackson leads all returning backs with 331 rushing yards last season. Sophomore Derrick Washington averaged 5.1 yards per carry in limited 2007 playing time. Redshirt freshman De'Vion Moore and senior Earl Goldsmith also have received a look this spring.

Tight end Chase Coffman appears recovered after offseason surgery to clean up bone spurs in his ankle that hampered him last season. Coffman needs only 46 receptions to break Rucker's career reception record.

"You know it's going to happen and you prepare for when it does," Pinkel said about the departures. "You recruit and develop players, and it gives other opportunities for other players."

Despite the loss of Rucker, Maclin said that the Tigers' receiving corps could be better in 2008. Danario Alexander, the team's projected starter before a knee injury in the opener last season, has recovered and is ready to go.

"We can always get better," said Maclin, who broke the NCAA's freshman all-purpose yardage record with 2,776 yards. "Everybody says we have such a great passing attack. But that overshadows all the drops we had. And if we can get better, we can make our offense even more explosive."

Ten starters return from a defense that ranked among the Big 12's top four in scoring defense, rushing defense and pass efficiency defense.

"There's no question we were an entirely different defense at the end of the year as the guys got experienced," Pinkel said. "Our expectation level is raised as we have experienced players and expect to be good."

The Tigers, though, are battling injuries this spring on defense. Their linebacking corps has been injury-ravaged with only three healthy players. Starting linebacker Sean Weatherspoon has practiced this spring with a torn labrum and will undergo surgery Monday. Safety William Moore, whose eight interceptions in 2007 was a team-high, has missed spring practice after shoulder surgery.

Marquis Booker was dismissed from the team in March, and Connell Davis quit the team early in practice. Starting strongside linebacker Van Alexander tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee, sidelining him for at least four months.

"I don't think it affects us much," Pinkel said. "Against our offense, we're in a nickel 95 percent of the time. Now, if we ran the ball from the I formation, it would be a bigger factor. But we want to get players ready for the season."

National attention is squarely focused on the Tigers. Daniel had an ESPN camera crew follow him to school for a day earlier this spring. He and Pinkel have already thrown out opening pitches at St. Louis Cardinals games this season. And Missouri fans are hungry for more success.

"We accomplished a lot last year -- more than any Missouri team in history except for maybe the 1960 team," Daniel said. "And for us, we just want to go out and play well again. Our team knows what it takes to get there. And I'm the guy who's trying to lead it."

Tim Griffin covers Big 12 sports for ESPN.com. You may contact him at espntimgriff@yahoo.com.