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In the Huddle: Preparing for weaker opponents

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It’s easy to chalk up Saturday’s matchup against SEMO as a win, but Terry Dennis explains why the Missouri mentality shouldn’t allow them to do so.

NCAA FOOTBALL: SEP 05 Southeast Missouri State at Missouri Photo by Scott Kane/Icon Sportswire/Corbis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The keyword for any opponent is, and always has been, respect. Respecting your opponent, particularly one you should dominate, comes at just as great of a cost as respecting opponents who seemingly “outrank” a team’s current standing.

Every team wants to succeed, but they fall short due to an imbalance of respect— either for themselves or for their opponent. This is why we see seemingly “weaker” teams often pull off upsets against storied programs. It’s about the imbalance of respect.

It’s well-known that lower tier teams are often paid large sums of money to play against their more respected opponents with the understanding that they might lose. While money certainly can’t bring a team back from the loss column, it can also be quite the incentive to pull off a win against a team they should get dominated by.

With Missouri squaring off against Southeast Missouri State this coming Saturday, it seemingly looks like an easy win against a non-Power 5 school. However, the SEC and teams around the country have quickly discovered that this might not be the case at face value.

As football teams mature — particularly up through different age groups and divisions — the emphasis put on making the next opponent the biggest priority is phrased in different ways. It simply becomes a game of which method resonates the most within the team itself.

“Men, we can’t overlook these guys” comes off a bit differently than, “Do not look ahead to two weeks from now. We can’t afford to think that just by showing up, it gets the job done. They’re looking to come in here and make history. It’s our job to make sure that doesn’t happen. This is the most important game on our schedule.”

On the same token, it isn’t that the teams themselves are weaker, but who better prepares for the game. Something that has made Mizzou Football unique over the past 12 seasons is their ability to treat each opponent the same. Phrases such as, “There should be no difference in the way you approach practice from the way you approach an actual game” ring true for many reasons, particularly in teams that decide to take weaker opponents for granted. Already this season, SEC foe Tennessee suffered an 8-point loss against Georgia State in week one. In week 2, we saw perennial Power-5 punching bag kU take a 5-point loss to tiny Coastal Carolina. Mizzou is no stranger to such losses, having dropped a game to Middle Tennessee just a few seasons ago in a shootout at The Zou.

To have the mindset of dominating a schedule that includes a mixture of teams of different skill levels, one cannot base their readiness level off the last opponent. Wins and losses can be deceiving. It’s easy for a team like Mizzou to fall victim, believing they are fully back on track after a huge win against West Virginia. It also means that they didn’t hang their hats on a loss against Wyoming. Each game should be approached with new intensity, attention to detail, and a sense of urgency— not on what happened the previous week.

Preparing for weaker opponents is a difficult challenge in and of itself. Former Head Coach Gary Pinkel would consistently state, “We are only as strong as our weakest link,” meaning the team needs to find it within themselves, not in the strength of their opponent. If this team is bought in to make the commitment to get better each day, then the opponent — however weak or strong — is irrelevant. They’re an opponent in the way of a win. This week against SEMO should be no exception to that rule, lest Mizzou become a one of the many teams who feel mentally that they’ve already won.