Tigers must overcome Sooners, history
Somewhere between the chess game played on a 100-yard board and the psychology of the finely tuned athletes who play college football lies the alchemy of the winning streak. Every team has its nemesis, the bully who steals its lunch money the minute it steps off the bus at the stadium.
Here in the heart of conference season, when the leaves are turning and a chill wind begins to blow the minute the sun sinks behind the west stands, those streaks arrive every week. This past Saturday, it didn't matter that Nebraska was unbeaten and No. 5 and that Texas had a two-game losing streak and had fallen out of the polls. The Longhorns beat the Huskers for the ninth time in 10 games.
This week brings a prime specimen of football voodoo. No. 1 Oklahoma will play at No. 11 Missouri, a rivalry in only the loosest definition of the word.
Sooners coach Bob Stoops is 7-0 against the Tigers, with an average margin of victory of 24.7 points. Missouri has not beaten Oklahoma since 1998, the year before Stoops arrived.
Zoom out to 1947, the beginning of the Bud Wilkinson era. In the past 63 seasons, only one Oklahoma coach has lost more than once to Missouri. Barry Switzer, who has the highest winning percentage (.837) of any FBS coach in the past 50 years, went 14-2 against the Tigers.
The hard-core football man will tell you that winning streaks are the results of better players taught by better coaches. Switzer, reached on Monday at his home near the Norman campus, dismissed any idea that the Sooners' dominance has anything to do with getting inside the Tigers' helmets.
"These guys are 18, 19, 20 years old," Switzer growled into the phone. "They don't pay attention to that crap. It's what they do right now and how they measure up. The team that makes the fewest mistakes wins. That's what playing good is, not making mistakes and not making turnovers."
Missouri coach Gary Pinkel, in his 10th season in Columbia, is 0-6 against Oklahoma, 0-5 against Texas and 38-25 against the rest of the Big 12. He lines up with Switzer. In 2007, No. 1 Missouri lost the Big 12 championship game 38-17 to No. 9 Oklahoma. In the '08 title game, the No. 2 Sooners defeated the No. 20 Tigers 62-21. Pinkel deals with the his teams' ineptitude against Oklahoma by ignoring it.
"We don't really go there," he said Monday on the Big 12 coaches' conference call. "I don't think that's something we'll talk about that much. It's a new year, new players, different times."
Inside the six-month cocoon in which football coaches reside, winning streaks do not exist as their own entity. They are a creation of the outside world. The struggle for coaches is to keep their young, impressionable players within the walls of that cocoon.
"You have fans and sportswriters who are there for years and look at the current players like they have something to do with what happened before they got there," said Bob Rotella, a pioneer in sports psychology. "There are guys in the NBA who have no idea who Bill Russell is. They don't know what happened 10 years ago. The [past] gets thrown in their face. It's an issue. That's why coaches say: Don't read the papers. Take care of yourself. Let your mothers and girlfriends take care of that and you can read it in later years."
Coaches who instruct their players to focus on themselves have the right idea. But that takes a mental discipline that must be developed. The players may or may not be aware of the history of the rivalry. But they know which teams are dominant. And they know which teams did not recruit them.
"Let's say everybody on Missouri's team wanted to play for Oklahoma, and Oklahoma laughs and says, 'You're not good enough,'" Rotella said. "They go to Missouri and now they've got to play Oklahoma. Once in a while, they get determined and go back there and beat them.
"I see it in basketball in the ACC. Guys want to play for Duke or for North Carolina. They weren't talented enough for them. Next year, they've got to go play them and beat them. The effect is, they're trying too hard, they're caring too much and they're trying to impress the coaches."
College Football Hall of Fame quarterback Don McPherson of Syracuse recalled that feeling. Penn State had won 16 consecutive games against Syracuse when the Nittany Lions came into the Carrier Dome in 1987, McPherson's senior season.
"I think the thing that happened is we stopped looking at 'Penn State,'" said McPherson, now an entrepreneur and a college football analyst for MSG. "You always went into the season and the game always loomed on the schedule. We stayed so focused on every game [in 1987], we never thought about them until we got to them."
McPherson said that for him, there came a moment before the game that tested his focus. The Nittany Lions ran onto the Carrier Dome turf.
"They were in those white uniforms like storm troopers from Star Wars," he said. "They really had a presence in those white uniforms. That's the moment you went, 'OK, this is Penn State.'"
If that moment lingered, it went away after the first snap, when McPherson threw an 80-yard touchdown pass to Rob Moore. The Carrier Dome erupted, and Syracuse was on its way to a 48-21 rout.
"The psychology went right out the window," McPherson said. "We were a leg up over what we had ever been."
So Pinkel has Missouri on the right track. Coaches love to talk about process. Focus on the task at hand. The streak, the voodoo, the history --– none of it has any bearing on the ability to block or tackle or catch.
Not exactly. Not every coach adheres to that orthodoxy.
Utah State coach Gary Andersen stressed the importance of taking on BYU and Utah to his Aggies since his arrival after the 2008 season. When the 2010 season began, the Aggies had lost 10 consecutive games to the Cougars, dating to 1993.
"Taking the X's and O's out of it," Andersen said Tuesday, "17 years is a long time. The thing I told our kids is that to have a rivalry, it has to be two-sided. Utah-Utah State and Utah State-BYU are not rivalries when you haven't beaten them for so long."
Rather than ignore it, Andersen said, he explained it. Competing in the rivalry did have an effect on the welfare of Utah State football.
"You have to have an understanding and a belief of how important the game is in recruiting," Andersen said. "We want to get to the point where we can bang heads with them [BYU] in recruiting. Kids from California, Texas or wherever may not understand that, but it matters to the program. I hit the kids with that. They understood that BYU was the big brother and we were the little brother…. More than anything, I as the head coach am going to make sure it's important to know how it's so damn important to the people outside, to the fans who support the program."
This year, the Aggies did to the Cougars what Syracuse did to Penn State. Utah State dominated from the opening kickoff, took a 31-3 lead and brought it home, 31-16.
It's likely that Pinkel and Missouri will not, as he said, go there. If the Tigers take any lesson from the Aggies, it will come from opening week, when Utah State pushed Oklahoma for four quarters before falling 31-24.
More than 68,000 fans will stuff into Faurot Field on Saturday night. Embrace it or ignore it, Oklahoma's winning streak will be there, too.
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com and hosts the ESPNU College Football podcast. Send your questions and comments to him at Ivan.Maisel@ESPN.com.
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