Missouri adjusting to greater expectations

COLUMBIA, Mo. -- Of course, after Brad Smith left, Missouri had no choice but to go back to the norm of losing seasons. In Chase Daniel’s first year as starter, the Tigers won eight games and lost in the Sun Bowl.

But of course, after Chase Daniel left, so did Missouri’s chances of getting back to the Big 12 title game.

Daniel won 22 games in his final two seasons and went to the Big 12 title game twice.

Last year, in Blaine Gabbert's first as starter, the Tigers won eight games and lost in the Texas Bowl.

Blaine Gabbert’s junior season began this spring.

“I never changed our goals once since the day I got here,” said Missouri coach Gary Pinkel. “Obviously, we knew they were relative, and when we first got here, it was going to be more difficult. But our goals have never changed.”

Even if his personnel and leadership did, those goals, and the road that leads through them, didn’t.

“We want to win a Big 12 North championship that allows you to get into the Big 12 Championship game that allows you, if you’re good enough like we were a few years ago, to have a shot at the national championship game,” Pinkel said.

Pinkel recruited a team that relied on players well beyond the man taking snaps. Gabbert has plenty of tools around him to utilize on the way to achieving part one of the Tigers 2010 goals, but Missouri’s next-best player might be on the defense in sophomore defensive end Aldon Smith. The Big 12 Defensive Newcomer of the Year notched 11.5 sacks, good for fourth in the Big 12, in his freshman season and headlines a defense that returns nine starters. Of those nine, four are seniors in a secondary itching to make people forget about a 2009 full of the wrong kind of big plays.

That spells "contender" on paper.

“I’ve had a lot people ask me, because we won eight games last year and we won’t be playing a lot of new players, we should be good,” Pinkel said. “Well, we’ve got a chance to be good if everybody plays better than they did a year ago. That sounds good, but does that always happen? No, it doesn’t always happen. And that’s our challenge as a team.”

Growth has been everywhere in Missouri’s program since Pinkel’s arrival. The depth chart is deeper. The heights have been higher, with two consecutive 10-win seasons in 2007 and 2008 for the first time in the history of the program.

In both of those seasons, Missouri achieved step one of Pinkel’s goals. The Tigers haven’t yet been able to cross a line through the second.

Neither goal will change this year, or any year after that. Nor will the ultimate goal of a national championship, a game Missouri nearly reached in 2007 before losing to Oklahoma in the Big 12 Championship game.

“It’s just greater expectations now,” said receiver Wes Kemp. “A .500 season is no longer good enough. An 8-5 season is no longer good enough. It’s always 10-plus wins.”