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Countdown: Missouri Football (1920-2010): #7

Hey, remember this series?  Between MIZZOUEXPANSIONAPALOOZA™, the 2010 Mizzou Football Preview, and my Football Outsiders writing (including, get this, a historical countdown!), this set of posts took an obvious backseat over the last few weeks (last post: 6/24).  But with just a few weeks remaining before the 2010 season begins (!!!), if I'm going to finish this thing before January, I need to do it now.  Use the links below to catch you up if you've forgotten who came where (or if you've just discovered RMN in the last few weeks), and let's get rolling!

Teams #90-#10
Team #9: 1939
Team #8: 1961

#7: Mizzou 1968 (8-3)

Notice the placement of Marching Mizzou.  Interesting.

Best Win: Mizzou 35, Alabama 10 -or- Mizzou 16, Nebraska 14
Worst Loss: Kentucky 12, Mizzou 6

The more I read and write about college football's history, the more I come to one specific conclusion: for decades, the Big 8 (and MVIAA, and Big 6, and Big 7) just wasn't a very good conference.  It was basically the Mountain West to the Big Ten's Pac-10.  Nebraska was always good, and Oklahoma occasionally made some noise, but for most of the first half of the 20th century, Missouri's conference (whatever it was named at the time) was not very well-respected.  That's why Mizzou's mid-1920s string of good play was so impressive -- they beat Chicago and Northwestern and twice tied Tulane in an era where that just didn't really happen.  It would be like Colorado State getting hot and upsetting Oregon and California over the course of a couple of years.  Sure it's possible, but it's still a bit startling.

In the 1950s, things got even worse.  Nebraska fell apart and joined Iowa State and Kansas State among the country's worst "major" conference programs, and Kansas was only marginally better.  Only Colorado and Mizzou were even remotely in position to compete with Oklahoma ... and they couldn't come close.  It's why none of those mid-1950s Oklahoma teams that contributed to the Sooners' 47-game winning streak made the Top 100 that I unveiled at Outsiders: their strength of schedule was horrendous.  (For what it's worth, the 1954 team came in at No. 161, and teams No. 50 to No. 200 were very, very close.)

In the 1960s, however, the Big 8 got its act together.  Missouri hired Dan Devine, then Nebraska hired Bob Devaney.  Jack Mitchell and Pepper Rodgers helped Kansas get its act together (though Mitchell did so through means that were not completely above-board); Sonny Grandelius (with help from a slush fund, ahem) and Jack Crowder did the same for Colorado.  Oklahoma State, Iowa State and Kansas State still struggled for the most part, but the conference went five-deep now, and though Oklahoma and Nebraska were in the process of reestablishing themselves as the conference's two true powers in the late-1960s, the conference as a whole was quite rugged and brutally competitive in 1968.

Missouri had come within a single touchdown of allowing the nation's fewest points in 1967, but in a conference becoming known for its flamboyant offenses, the Tigers looked as if they might get left behind.  They were picked fourth in the conference in the preseason media polls, and it was easy to see why.  Kansas returned Bobby Douglass, possibly their best quarterback of all-time. Nebraska had a great (and huge) passer in 6'7 Frank Patrick.  Colorado's Bob Anderson and Oklahoma's Bob Warmack were both solid run-pass threats.  Meanwhile, Mizzou would be starting a newbie.  The race came down to Garnett Phelps (younger brother of former Mizzou halfback Monroe Phelps) and incoming junior college transfer Terry McMillan, and early in the season, neither really did a lot to instill confidence.

McMillan started out on fire in Mizzou's opener at Kentucky, but the flame quickly fizzled.  He caught another JUCO transfer, Mel Gray (maybe you've heard of him?), for a 79-yard bomb and uncorked a gorgeous 51-yard option touchdown that was called back via penalty, but the Tigers couldn't stop fumbling the ball away.  Turnovers and a couple of bungled field goal attempts led to a disappointing 12-6 loss to an iffy Kentucky squad.  Matters only got worse when they led just 7-0 at halftime against a rather pathetic Illinois squad in Champaign.  Devine threw his clipboard down and lit into his squad during the intermission, however, and they charged to a 44-0 win.  Had they turned the corner?  Not yet.  They opened their home schedule (unveiling a new press box in the process) with a visit from a solid Army team ... and turned the ball over nine times.  Nine times.  They scored in the first quarter after the great Roger Wehrli returned a punt 53 yards for great field position, but that was all they could manage.  Of course, with the play of Wehrli and the defense, it didn't matter; they still won, 7-3.  But three games into the season, all offensive fears were realized.  For five of their six halves of football, the offense had continuously shot themselves in the foot.  No way would they be able to keep up in the Big 8 like that.

However, as they say, the switch got flipped.  Whether McMillan and company simply figured things out, or whether Devine was holding his cards close to the vest in non-conference play, as soon as Mizzou took on Big 8 competition, the offense took off.  They ran for 421 yards in an easy 27-14 win over Bob Anderson and Colorado.  (With Joe Moore, Jon Staggers, Greg Cook, Ron McBride and big Jim Harrison in the backfield, it's odd that they ever had a bad game running the ball.)  Anderson had a hilarious passing line -- 3-for-11 for 153 yards, 2 TDs and 4 INTs.

Harrison, a 240-pound short-yardage specialist who scored eight touchdowns that season, powered now-No. 20 Mizzou to a 16-14 win in Lincoln as Mizzou's pass rush (led by Elmer Benhardt and Bill Schmitt) unleashed hell on the Huskers' huge quarterback, Frank Patrick.  Then, the Tigers got even hotter.  They mauled Kansas State in Manhattan, 56-20, gaining 515 yards in the process.  Then they took out Oklahoma State and Iowa State by identical 42-7 margins at home.  They gained 545 yards against the Cowboys (350 on the ground), then 419 against the Cyclones.  Meanwhile, Wehrli was on an incredible run in the return game, consistently setting the Tigers up with great field position (not that they needed it) and breaking the conference's career punt return yardage record.  By mid-November, in what was expected to be a bit of a rebuilding year, Mizzou was ranked sixth in the country and was the only undefeated team in conference play.  A split with Oklahoma and Kansas would likely earn them either an Orange or Sugar Bowl bid, plus they were a couple of upsets away from cracking into national title consideration.

Unfortunately, the Tigers would falter.  Oklahoma's Steve Owens gained 177 yards (albeit on 46 carries), breaking the single-game series record set by Mizzou's Norris Stevenson eight years earlier, and the unranked Sooners (they had lost to Notre Dame, Texas and Colorado early in the season before catching fire) beat Mizzou in Norman, 28-14.  Then, in Wehrli's final home game as a Tiger, Mizzou failed against No. 7 Kansas.  One of the best Jayhawk teams of all-time had already accepted an Orange Bowl bid before the game (Mizzou had accepted the Gator Bowl), and in front of a record Faurot Field crowd of 62,200, they raced out to a 14-0 lead (a pick six followed by an easy 71-yard TD drive) before Mizzou could begin a comeback.  When the Tigers finally scored on a Jon Staggers run, Kansas' Bill Hunt blocked the PAT attempt, keeping the score at 14-6.  Mizzou scored again late in the first half, but McMillan's rollout on the two-point conversion attempt was stopped a yard short.  Mizzou trailed 21-12 late when Greg Cook scored, but mistakes and the missed conversions haunted the Tigers in a heart-breaking 21-19 loss.

Luckily, the Tigers still had the Gator Bowl.  Despite good to great records every season, Mizzou didn't always accept bowl bids.  Devine let the players decide whether they wanted to attend a bowl or not, and often they decided not to.  That said, when presented with the opportunity to play 12th-ranked Alabama in Jacksonville, Mizzou accepted.  Ending your regular season with back-to-back losses that cost you a Top 10 ranking and the conference title can be a sour experience.  But bouncing back and destroying Bear Bryant and the Crimson Tide?  That's a different story.

During bowl practices, Dan Devine got sneaky--he installed a completely new formation for Mizzou, the Power-I.  Alabama's defensive stalwarts never knew what hit them--Mizzou would rush for 404 yards.  Meanwhile, the Mizzou defense thrashed the Tide, giving up just 45 rushing yards and 68 passing yards.  Tide QB Scott Hunter went just 7-for-25 passing and, thanks to Mizzou ends Elmer Benhardt and Bill Schmitt, was sacked a ridiculous 12 times.

Regardless of the statistical domination, it was a game early.  A first-quarter TD run by Terry McMillan gave No. 16 Mizzou a 7-0 lead, but McMillan then completed a pass to the wrong team--Donnie Sutton picked McMillan off and returned it 38 yards for a 7-7 tie.  (McMillan was 0-for-6 passing for the day.)  Mizzou would put together another nice drive, however, and another McMillan touchdown gave Mizzou a 14-7 halftime lead.

There was no scoring in the third quarter, and when another McMillan INT gave Alabama the ball deep in Tiger territory, it looked like Alabama could not only keep this more competitive than the stats indicated, but maybe even straight up steal a win.

But the Mizzou defense would hold Alabama to a field goal, cutting the lead to 14-10 but maintaining a Mizzou lead, and then Roger Wehrli, playing in his final game as a Tiger, intercepted a pass that set up McMillan's third rushing touchdown.  Mizzou was up 21-10 and then poured it on.  Greg Cook capped a 179-yard rushing day with a 37-yard touchdown run, then Dennis Poppe stepped in front of a Hunter pass and took it 47 yards for a touchdown and a 35-10 lead.

The 25-point loss was Alabama's worst bowl loss ever, and Bryant's worse loss as Alabama coach.  It gave 'Bama their first three-loss season since Bryant's first year in Tuscaloosa (1958), and most importantly, it gave Mizzou a major shot in the arm for 1969.

The win sparked a Mizzou rise in the rankings -- they would finish ninth in the AP Poll to end 1968 and start 1969 ranked 10th.  Most of the offense that had dominated the Crimson Tide and, at times, run roughshod over the Big 8, would return for the 1969 season and make it one of Mizzou's best ever.