Commentary

A rivalry introduced to the nation

Updated: November 23, 2007, 3:02 PM ET
By Chris Fowler | Special to ESPN.com

Thanksgiving greetings from the road! Working college football means spending a lot of the big holidays in hotels, eating room service and studying notes. But I'm not whining. When the Thanksgiving game is USC-Arizona State, that means gorging on an all-world brunch buffet and then reading about John David Booty on a chaisse lounge in the sun, staring at Camelback Mountain. And nobody's grandma ever made better sweet potatoes with marshmallows than the chef at the Phoenician Resort.

By the way, in a controversial announcement this week, the folks at ASU prohibited turkey fryers in the tailgate section of Sun Devil Stadium. My sidekicks, Doug Flutie and Craig James, lectured me that this was a wise and prudent thing to do. Apparently, there is great danger associated with frying a turkey. If the pot of grease is filled a little too high, it can overflow when the bird is plopped in, causing spillage of the highly flammable stuff and potential disaster. I must be the only one in our little group never to eat a fried turkey. Grew up in the North, you see. But that will have to wait for another year.

Kansas City Here We Come
It's a perfect statement about the season that Kansas-Missouri is the biggest game on the second to last Saturday of the season. I am excited because of the freshness of it all. It might be the oldest rivalry west of the Mississippi, but it's brand new to the national landscape. Those of you who were all over KU-MU back before it was cool will have to tolerate our newfound enthusiasm.

[+] EnlargeBrandon McAnderson
AP Photo/Charlie RiedelBrandon McAnderson has gone from hardly noticed in high school to a 1,000-yard rusher on a national championship contender.
Talking to the Jayhawks' top tailback, Brandon McAnderson, certainly got me pumped up. He is a Lawrence native. He grew up around this stuff. It's in his blood. He gently scolded me when I asked if this border rivalry was bigger than Kansas' annual battle with K-State. Seems like that is a dumb question. "Nothing compares to the Missouri game," Brandon said. Especially this year, of course.

But Kansas is built around guys from out of state, unlike the Tigers, who feature a big number of Missouri natives. I asked if the guys from Texas (Todd Reesing and many of the other key players) had to be coached up on the significance of the rivalry when they arrive at the program. McAnderson said they did, but motivation is no problem because the Jayhawks get an annual "hate Mizzou" speech at practice from a wild card ex-coach from back in the day whose identity I will protect, in case this is information not widely out there. Like I said, I am new to this KU-Mizzou thing.

McAnderson is a study in patience and team attitude. He was not highly recruited. Coach Mark Mangino took notice of him because his son quarterbacked the same high school team.

Brandon has always played hard and with heart. He had been mostly a special-teams player during his career, but he has finally arrived as a starter and is now a 1,000-yard rusher on a team fighting for a national title. You can tell from talking to him how much he appreciates every day as a Jayhawks football player. He's an easy guy to root for.

Both teams beat Colorado this year, so I asked Dan Hawkins for some perspective. He is already on record with the opinion that Missouri is the best team Colorado faced this year (and they faced ASU and Oklahoma as well). Obviously, he gives the edge to the Tigers on Saturday night. Mizzou is the more imposing team, with physical lines and athletes at skill positions that can stretch and embarrass a defense.

Jeremy Maclin is one of the most exciting freshman to arrive in recent years, a guy who hurts opposing teams as a receiver, returner, and a runner on the shotgun sweeps the Tigers run. I was amazed at his speed when watching the Tigers' game at Oklahoma. He is a difference maker that just jumps off the field. Chase Coffman is a certain NFL tight end and Martin Rucker is excellent, too.

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Hawkins gives the ex-Texas high school QB edge to Chase Daniel over Reesing. Both have moxie and leadership, but Daniel's arm impresses Hawkins more.

"He is just in total command of everything out there," Hawk raved.

Reesing's ability to manufacture plays and create with his feet also drew praise. But many believe that if Kerry Meier were the starter, KU would still march up and down the field with great efficiency. Impossible to know for sure, but it's worth remembering that Meier was first string in spring before Reesing's determination and work ethic earned him the job in summer camp. I admire the team approach Meier has taken after his demotion and shift to receiver, where he has contributed a couple of catches per game.

But, you have to love Reesing's desire. One play this season, KU's starting quarterback was the gunner on the punt coverage team. It was a wrinkle designed to confuse the defense, but Reesing was hungry to fly down the field and make a hit! Easy, young man. A national title contender does not need to get the QB hurt covering punts.

By the way, the two Texans, Reesing and Daniel, have never met. When they shake hands Saturday night, it will be for the first time. Reesing once saw Daniel's team play a high school semifinal playoff game in Waco, but because Reesing was not considered a potential star, he was not even taken to Big XII media day, where players from all the teams usually cross paths and say their hellos.

What impresses me about KU is that there is no panic and disorganization is rare. Plays are calmly and efficiently signaled in as the offense waits at the line of scrimmage. It is a no-huddle but unhurried offense, which throws a blizzard of formations and personnel groupings at you. It operates with a minimum of mistakes and miscues and reflects excellent coaching. These days, it is something to marvel at. Mangino did not bring the high-energy, high-volume, scream-in-your-face sideline approach seen at his former school, Oklahoma, to Lawrence, that's for sure.

Jeremy Maclin
AP Photo/David ZalubowskiJeremy Maclin has done a little of everything for Missouri.

On defense, big tackle James McClinton is an unsung hero and a huge reason why most teams have found it tough to run on KU. He is a thick but quick force in the middle.

In their seven conference games, KU has committed a total of five turnovers. In their last four games, they have not made a single turnover. In conference play, KU has forced 22 turnovers and scored following 16 of them, a very good 73 percent.

Missouri has gone three and out only 17 times in 11 games! Five of those were in the opener against Illinois. Do the math: In 10 games since, that's 12 three-and-outs!

Once per game you get them off the field in three plays. Astounding. That's a big reason why the Tigers have not been held below 31 points all year, the only offense that can say that.

Here's something else that's amazing: Tigers kicker Jeff Wolfert has never missed a kick of any kind in a conference game. In his career, he is 21-for-21 on field goals and 60-for-60 at PATs. No typos, just the truth.

Having praised Kansas for a while here, I have to now say that I am surprised the Jayhawks are favored over Missouri. Sure, they are ranked a couple of places higher, but that means nothing to Vegas.

The teams' five common opponents (Kansas State, Colorado, Texas A&M, Nebraska, and Iowa State), have been hammered by Mizzou by an average of 25 points. None of the games were decided by less than 14. Kansas has been less dominant: the average winning margin is 18.8, but three of the five games were won by eight points or less (vs. the Wildcats, Aggies, and Buffs).

So, I am leaning with Hawkins on this one and against the experts from the desert, as we say.

In any case, I can't wait for kickoff in what I hope will be a wild display with just enough service breaks to make it dramatic. By the end of the night, I want to be able to hum both fight songs in my sleep!

Chris Fowler is the host of ESPN's "College GameDay." Kick off each Saturday with "College GameDay" at 10 a.m. ET to get the latest news on college football.

Chris Fowler

College Football
Since 1989, Chris Fowler has been ESPN's primary college football and men's college basketball studio host. He's anchored College GameDay, the network's award-winning Saturday morning college football preview show, since 1990.