STRANGE BUT TRUE: To fire up his players during a string of uneven performances last season, defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus showed them video of the 1973 Belmont Stakes in which Secretariat and Sham ran the first half of the race side by side, and then Secretariat ran off to a 31-length victory. � "My guys were young," Eberflus says, "so I'd show them that video and tell them, 'The race is like the season. In the beginning it's neck and neck, but then we're going to get better. By the end we're going to be pretty doggone good.'"
In the end, following a 38--7 Cotton Bowl blowout of Arkansas, the Tigers were 12--2 and No. 4 in the country—the highest they had ever finished in the AP poll. "We're going to pick up right where we left off in the Cotton Bowl," vows junior linebacker Sean Weatherspoon, a 2007 All-- Big 12 selection. "And when people hear 'Mizzou,' we want 'em to think about defense, too."
Point taken. With quarterback Chase Daniel, a Heisman finalist as a junior, and all-purpose sophomore Jeremy Maclin headlining an attack that piled up 490 yards and 39.9 points per game last season, the Tigers' offense will once again dominate conversation. What makes this team especially scary, though, is that Missouri will field its best defense in coach Gary Pinkel's eight years on the job.
Ten defensive starters from that Cotton Bowl rout return, and Eberflus's units have improved steadily since '03. That's when he junked a 4--4 scheme in favor of a 4--3 Tampa Two that takes pressure off the cornerbacks—they play more zone, less man-to-man—and is ideally suited for his array of zone blitzes. Those blitzes are made more effective by hybrid weapons such as senior free safety William Moore.
A 6'1" 230-pounder who is equal measures headhunter and ball hawk, Moore hopscotches from his safety position to nickelback to strongside linebacker. He finished last season with eight interceptions, tied for the Division I-A lead. The truth is, Moore may be as exciting and versatile on defense as Maclin is on the other side of the ball. Pinkel's ability to attract athletes of their caliber has fueled the program's breakthrough.
"When I got here, we were just trying to put together a winning season," says Weatherspoon. "Now, you're hearing national championship talk."
If the Tigers get past Illinois in their opener, they will cruise through September undefeated. Heading into conference play, Mizzou should be, as Eberflus might say, off to the races.