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The Games: Missouri vs. Illinois

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The most interesting matchups of the season, chronologically.
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The Stakes (We Think): Neither is a favorite to win its conference’s automatic bid, but Illinois was in the BCS last year and everyone seems to think Missouri should have been, so at-large positioning will be at a premium. No, winning here ultimately didn’t help the Tigers’ case last year, but the odds of the second-place team in the North running the table again outside of Mizzou (especially with the markedly increased difficulty of Kansas’ schedule) are somewhere between zero and none. The winner becomes an immediate favorite for one of the four open slots in January, and may generate some buzz for much greater goals.

Along the same lines, Missouri will open the season in the top ten and has a fairly clear path to 6-0 and probably some substantial mythical championship buzz, depending on the nature of the win; Illinois is likely in the top 20 to start, with an eye on the top ten after a mild upset and the confidence to go forward as a heavy hitter in the conference, with any lingering notions of one-hit wonderism thoroughly smashed. But because both teams are nouveau riche, those suspicions have a lot of relevancy for the loser –– this goes double for Illinois, still carrying the mark of its Rose Bowl beating, and of the Big Ten’s general image problem, and with longer odds than Mizzou to recover quickly with a long winning streak: the Illini only have two games between the Tigers and back-to-back games at Penn State and Michigan. They could disappear from the national discussion very quickly.

Eddie McGee's recurring nightmare.
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Stars, Themes, Petty Grievances and Other Reasons to Watch. If only we’d known anything about these teams’ fates then, their game last September could have been a classic –– a H*i*m*n finalist; the Big Ten player of the year wild momentum swings via touchdowns on a blocked punt, a 100-yard fumble return and a punt return; over 70 points and almost 900 yards offense; and a near-comeback from 24 points down led by a backup quarterback that didn’t fall short until the dying seconds. All between teams that would still be playing into the New Year. This is a perfect interstate clash to open the season, anyway, shrewdly set in St. Louis, spanning both sides of the river, that can be worked into a fine little tradition along the lines of Oklahoma-Texas in the Cotton Bowl, the Cocktail Party in Jacksonville, etc. Throwdowns between programs that largely dominate big, adjacent states, at a convenient neutral site, have a lot of caché, all the moreso when the stakes are ostensibly higher and the level of firepower is what it is on these rosters.

Last year’s game belonged to the quarterbacks –– Chase Daniel threw for 359, three touchdowns and no picks; Eddie McGee and Juice Williams combined for 316 and one touchdown –– but Illinois suffered dramatically from losing Juice Williams in the second quarter. His first series, McGee’s fumble at the Tigers’ two yard-line (his second in four plays) led to a 13-point swing when Pig Brown took the loose ball the length of the field, and the comeback he largely facilitated was sunk when McGee threw interceptions on each of the Illini’s last two drives. A full-time, healthy and more well-rounded Juice offers a much better chance to keep up with Missouri’s fireworks instead of sprinting from behind with no margin for error.

The Early Edge. There’s a fair degree of disagreement about Illinois, which seems strong enough with Williams and Arrelious Benn in tow and a lot of up-and-coming talent from Zook’s strong recruiting classes, but which also lost its best players (Rashard Mendenhall, J Leman) on both sides. There are no such questions about Missouri’s lineup: with Daniel and Jeremy Maclin and the overwhelming majority of last year’s defense back, any regression to the mediocre Mizzou of the past decade would be a colossal disappointment. If these teams were virtually equal last year, the difference in August is that the Tigers have their engine (Daniel), and the Illini, minus Mendenhall, do not. As many points as Missouri can put up, and is fully expected to, this is no occasion to be working out kinks.