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Look Who's No. 1
STEWART MANDEL
December 03, 2007
Not even ranked until after its third game, Missouri and its Heisman hopeful need a win over Oklahoma to earn a berth, potentially with West Virginia, in the BCS championship game
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December 03, 2007

Look Who's No. 1

Not even ranked until after its third game, Missouri and its Heisman hopeful need a win over Oklahoma to earn a berth, potentially with West Virginia, in the BCS championship game

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AS THE final seconds ticked down on Missouri's 36--28 victory over rival Kansas last Saturday night, a chant that hadn't been shouted by Tigers fans in almost five decades resonated throughout Arrowhead Stadium: "We're Number 1! We're Number 1!" � "We've got a target on our back, but it feels great," said wideout Danario Alexander after hauling in a career-high eight passes for 117 yards and a touchdown to help the Tigers climb to the top of the AP poll for the first time since 1960. � So it has come to this in a college football season that has produced one shocking result after another: Missouri, a team that was unranked at the start of the year, combined its win over No. 2 Kansas with Arkansas's stunning triple-overtime upset of top-ranked LSU to rise from fourth to No. 1 in the BCS rankings. Quite simply, the Tigers are one victory from playing for the national championship.

In the Big 12 title game in San Antonio this Saturday night, Missouri (11--1) will get a chance to avenge its only loss of the season, against Oklahoma (10--2), which won the first meeting 41--31 on Oct. 13 in Norman. For the Tigers to beat the Sooners this time, they'll need junior quarterback Chase Daniel, who committed two costly fourth-quarter turnovers in the first meeting, to play as well as he did in four November victories: 121 completions in 169 attempts (71.6%) for 1,418 yards and 15 touchdowns with only one interception. His rise up the Heisman lists has been as fast as his team's climb in the rankings, and he now stands fourth in the nation with 3,951 passing yards to go with a 70.5% completion rate and 33 touchdowns. Daniel was at his best in the win over previously undefeated Kansas, completing 40 of 49 passes for 361 yards and three touchdowns while directing scoring drives of 11, 13, 7, 14, 10 and 12 plays. All told, Daniel, who has been running a shotgun spread attack since his days at Southlake ( Texas) Carroll High, completed passes to nine receivers, often scrambling and buying time until somebody got open.

"He'd be the first one to tell you it was the offensive line, the wide receivers or tight ends [who deserve the credit]," says seventh-year Missouri coach Gary Pinkel. "But I'm going to be the first one to tell you, this guy is special."

THANKS LARGELY to its own transcendent quarterback, junior Pat White, West Virginia needs only a home victory over 4--7 Pitt in this Saturday's Backyard Brawl to secure the other spot in the national title game. Like Missouri, the Mountaineers run a hurry-up spread offense, but coach Rich Rodriguez's version leans more heavily on the running game. In a 66--21 victory over 9--3 Connecticut last Saturday, West Virginia racked up 517 yards on the ground—its highest total in five years. White accounted for a game-high 186 yards on 16 carries while also completing 9 of 13 passes for 107 yards, despite playing with a stomach virus that caused him to throw up on several occasions. It marked the fourth straight game in which White, who leads his team with 1,144 rushing yards (to tailback Steve Slaton's 1,042), gained 145 or more yards on the ground. "I'm biased," says Rodriguez. "I think he's the best player in the country."

Pinkel feels the same way about Daniel, who has been the biggest factor in helping the once-embattled coach transform his middle-of-the-pack team into No. 1 material. Only 29--30 in his first five seasons at Missouri, Pinkel was criticized for failing to fully develop talented four-year starter Brad Smith, a dual-threat quarterback in much the same mold as White but whose passing skill never caught up to his running ability. Last year, however, Daniel went 8--5 in his first year as a starter, and though shorter ( Smith is 6'2", Daniel is generously listed at 6 feet) and less athletic, he has proved to be a better fit for the Tigers' spread because of his decision-making ability and mastery of the offense. The coaches have also surrounded Daniel with a slew of playmakers, including sure-handed tight ends Chase Coffman and Martin Rucker and speedy wideout Jeremy Maclin, who set the NCAA's freshman single-season record for all-purpose yards (2,509). "It's amazing how much better you coach when you've got great players," says Pinkel.

On the other hand Rodriguez's reputation for building a winner in Morgantown was well-established entering the season. Last December he declined a lucrative offer from Alabama to remain in his football-crazed home state. In the latter stages of the rout of UConn, the fans in Morgantown chanted, "B-C-S," and a win this Saturday would allow the Mountaineers to play for the national championship for the first time since they lost to Notre Dame in 1988.

"It's neat for us as kind of an underdog state to have [a team] that can compete nationally," says Rodriguez, whose defense (ranked sixth nationally) has become nearly as consistent as its more decorated offense. West Virginia's final challenge seems far less daunting than Missouri's, but the Mountaineers can't afford to take anything for granted—not in this season of the upset.

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