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In the Huddle: How to topple Goliath

With Missouri set to face one of the nation’s best teams, Terry Dennis takes us In the Huddle to describe how teams can effectively prepare as underdogs.

Missouri v Georgia Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Each week when analyzing In the Huddle, my objective is never to present a best-case scenario mindset. The intent is to convey a mixture of personal experience, real-time situational problems, issues, triumphs, and questions surrounding this current Mizzou football team.

Today will be no different. Mizzou Football will travel to Athens, GA, to square off against the current No. 6 ranked football team in the land. In all aspects, this is as a perfect setup for the Bulldogs — one of the nation’s best teams squaring off against a tweener like Mizzou in their own backyard.

However, it’s important to realize that even if this Georgia team were undefeated (which they’re not) they are, in fact, beatable. South Carolina proved this to be true earlier in the season, the same South Carolina team that took one on the chin from the Tigers in week four. That’s college football — a series of ups and downs, questions, unexplained happenings, and a great deal of suspense.

For true underdogs, however, the opportunity to welcome a steep challenge is a chance to prove you are who you say you are or that you are more than what others say about you. For all intents and purposes, it’s a chance to prove that the giant isn’t too tall to topple.

For the team itself, coaches have to come to the collective understanding that rankings mean little to nothing. For FBS schools, they mean everything in the grand scheme of going to the playoffs. As an NAIA Tight Ends and Snappers Coach myself, having just faced the No. 2 ranked team in the nation at this level, it’s much of the same.

Two weeks ago, we — unranked Avila University — lost to the No. 2 ranked Kansas Wesleyan Coyotes by 1 point. On paper, they were the second-best NAIA team in the land. We saw their weaknesses on film and were able to eventually expose them. As coaches, we set the precedent from the beginning. Much like this week for Mizzou, we came off a bye week, having gained an extra week of preparation to break them down.

As coaches, having broken down film long before players had the chance to gain access themselves, we understood and communicated that this KWU team is beatable, giving out players both the, “why,” and the, “how.” We showed examples on film, created situations during practice, and changed the demeanor in which we conveyed those messages in efforts to show we were serious. If attitude truly does reflect leadership, the players then followed suit, and it starts with how the coaches prepare.

In my days playing for Mizzou from 2007-2011, Head Coach Gary Pinkel would say, “It doesn’t smell right,” particularly in weeks where it seemed we were going through the motions or somehow preparing like we had already won. That’s a very real possibility for this Georgia football team. On weeks such as these, the indescribable feeling in the air was different. Think about the 2010 Homecoming win against Oklahoma. There was more of a business approach, as opposed to the fun aspect of playing college football altogether — a collective focus that went unsaid, but played itself out at practice, meetings, and even off the field.

The odds are truly stacked against the Tigers heading into this weekend as they have to travel to Athens to get the job done in a historic environment with a tradition for winning football games. Nonetheless, respect is key in making sure each team understands that nothing is won by accident.

When speaking on the opponent you’re facing, the common code of conduct is to give credit where credit is due. This shows a level of respect and evens the playing field (at least for a short interview) as two gladiators preparing for the same battle. People want to weigh the obvious — things like size comparisons, speed, players at opposing positions, accolades, rankings etc.

For coaches and players, though, it becomes a strategic breakdown of personnel, asking, “How can our guy beat theirs at each position individually? Can we win more snaps than they do?”

The answer is yes. If teams don’t prepare to win the game, then why play to lose? If teams simply play not to lose, where is the joy in winning? As coaches, we’re tasked with taking the extra thinking off the players’ shoulders, and narrowing the focus of attack.

For Mizzou’s players, on the other hand, the ability to mentally prepare for the task at hand begins with a realization — it’s OK to be the underdog! Motivation comes in many forms. As a former walk-on, motivation came for me in the form of being told there was something I could not do. There was always a constant comparison in my head, that if I were just like that other guy, I would get a shot. That’s not the case for me or this current Tiger team. They don’t need to be South Carolina. They don’t need to be Bama, Florida, Clemson, Ohio State, or anyone else other than Mizzou.

Mizzou has historically been that tweener team with the ability to disrupt the hopes of many “Goliaths.” For this team, the stage is set to walk out of Athens, after a game that - on paper - they should not win, and shake up the nation in a good way. For this to happen though, it can’t be about Georgia. It has to be about Mizzou.

Losing to Kansas Wesleyan by one said more about Avila than it did Kansas Wesleyan. There are folks that exist who will say the “superior” team lost because they beat themselves — maybe there was a key injury or a key turnover. That may be partially true, but it’s heavily aided by an “inferior” team that did things right in trying to beat them. Mizzou has the pieces, but have they figured out how to work together over the past couple weeks?

Georgia is already ranked No. 6. That may matter to the Bulldogs, but it shouldn’t to the Tigers. For them, it should be about perfecting the little things. Every big thing started off small at some point. With winning clearly being hard to do from week to week, the little things add up to being something big enough to topple Goliath