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In the Huddle: How rankings affect a locker room

Terry Dennis takes us In the Huddle to discuss rankings and how they impact the mindset of a team like Missouri.

NCAA Football: Mississippi at Missouri Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

To a degree, every team wants to be ranked.

Rankings set the tone for key regular season matchups throughout the nation and give schools the opportunity to assert a position to lose or build from. They also give the committee fuel going into bowl season.

For Mizzou, this long-awaited Top 25 ranking is seemingly well-deserved. For a perennial underdog like Mizzou, the idea of being ranked is as special as wearing a unique uniform combination. On one hand, it looks good and draws a great amount of attention. On the other hand, it’s just a shirt and pants. What really matters are the men who don the black and gold each week. Underneath that fancy helmet sits the most valuable asset to any football team — the mind.

With Mizzou coming into this week ranked #22 in the nation, sitting atop the SEC East, one might wonder what goes through the mind of a player or team having been dubbed a number that represents the team’s standing among the college football landscape. Many may say it’s about time. Others may also argue that #22 is far too low. For the team themselves, it simply means that more people have taken notice.

Homecoming, October 23, 2010, nearly 9 years to the date this coming Saturday, Mizzou pulled off arguably the biggest upset in program history, taking down the #1 ranked Oklahoma Sooners; 36-27. The Tigers came in ranked #11 in the nation that night, with the spotlight of ESPN’s College Game Day coverage looming over campus the entire week. All three phases of the game clicked that night. From the opening kickoff for a touchdown to the final whistle, the game belonged to Mizzou. They never let up. With a catapult up the rankings, the Tigers faced a loaded Nebraska squad the very next week in Lincoln and were handed a deciding 31-17 loss. The unforgettable sound of the Cornhusker student section chanting, “OVER-RATED (clap-clap-clapclapclap),” tells the story of a Mizzou team who had tasted the respect and national recognition on the country’s greatest scale for a brief moment.

What goes misunderstood is the difficulty it takes to win, more so than the shadow of national recognition. One is fought for and earned, and the other is based on opinion. For this year’s Tigers, a coaching staff riddled with former Mizzou football alums, it’s understood that, yes, rankings do mean something in the grand scheme, but they can be a distraction. They’re certainly not a sign of the team’s ability to hold prestige as the best at that number. Football is unique in the sense that on any given Saturday, anyone is beatable when implementing the correct mindset and effort.

In truth, there’s only one way to celebrate a new Top 25 ranking, and that’s to keep it. Even better? Improve and climb the rankings. The goal is to win.

Mizzou travels to Vanderbilt this Saturday in a game that will maintain or completely diminish the Tigers’ newfound standing. Win, and it would take a number of superior team losses for voters to move Mizzou up the rankings. Lose, and Mizzou would certainly drop out of the Top 25. The game is simple: win and advance. As Arizona State Head Football Coach, Herm Edwards once stated, “You play to win the game.”

The Tigers are on the brink of receiving a final ruling on their appeal to the NCAA for the current postseason ban. This means that if the Tigers continue winning, the greater chances of climbing the rankings, thus a better chance at a great bowl game. For right now, the NCAA, the rankings — it’s all a distraction. It’s a distraction from the underlying goal of winning the next football game on the schedule.

As rankings come and go, the Tigers are guaranteed only one thing — an opportunity to maximize the remaining guaranteed games on the schedule. Mizzou Football could finish this season as a higher-ranked team with no postseason to show for it. Following bowl game season and playoff time, a new national champion will be crowned. Expert analysis, computers, and voters will then determine where each team ranks the following season based on how these teams finish and who they have returning next year.

For the Tigers, this new ranking gives a sense of pride, attributed to the work they’ve put in to bounce back from an embarrassing week one loss at Wyoming. At the end of the day, the focus is not rankings or what could be past the next opponent. Being here, right now in the midst of being 1-0 on the weekend, is the mindset beneath that Tiger helmet, and certainly should be the mindset of the entire locker room.

No matter the number assigned to reflect a team’s worth, there will always be the chance to prove they are who the nation says they are, for better or for worse.