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Missouri's urban centers, Kansas City and St. Louis, are located at opposite edges of the state. Between them is Fulton, quiet and peaceful, where a group of oldtimers chaws tobacco on the courthouse steps and on Saturdays farmers drive to town to discuss grain prices. Occasionally they recall that big day when Winston Churchill stood at a lectern in Fulton and warned of an Iron Curtain. Up north is Hannibal, the famous village of Sam Clemens. The majority of Missouri's communities, however, are less notable—tiny agricultural hamlets such as Fayette. "I once appeared in a play there," says Joe Moore, tailback of the University of Missouri Tigers. "The sidewalks were made of dirt and the town looked bare and cold—the kind of place you see on TV with the wind blowing through and eerie music playing in the background. Hard to believe a place like that still exists."

Like their towns and cities, Missourians are diversified in their politics; there are hardhats in St. Louis, Birchers in the Ozarks, White Citizens Council zealots in the southeast and liberal representation in the U.S. Senate. But, surely, they band together in the fall in unified support of the state's only major college football team.

"Not exactly," a federal judge says. "We are congenital infighters by nature. You get a bunch of Missourians together at a game and, even in the flush of victory, they will warily size each other up for the mutual throat-cutting that will resume on Monday morning."

Unlike the state it represents, Missouri's football team is close-knit. Its unified nature, as much as anything, made the Tigers co-champions of the Big Eight last season.

"When I first came here the relationship between blacks and whites wasn't so good," Moore explained. "The whites didn't speak to us, so we didn't speak to them. The atmosphere carried over into our games and hurt us on the field. But last year we started talking to one another. Everyone made an effort, and suddenly everything was great. You see the guys walking around campus together now, and we room together on the road. I think we have a situation that is unique in college football."

Moore, after spending his sophomore season as a substitute, developed into a star for the Tigers last fall. Playing tailback, he rushed for more than 100 yards in nine games and concluded the season with 1,312, making him the nation's third-best-traveled ballcarrier.

Mel Gray, the flanker and Big Eight sprint champion, will provide Missouri with explosive scoring potential if the Tigers can come up with a quarterback to get the ball to him. Gray didn't begin playing the game until his sophomore year at Montgomery High in Santa Rosa, Calif. "I just went out because everyone else did. Football was a gas, nothing more. I remember running into the end zone and collapsing on the ground laughing. Here at Missouri things are, well, pretty serious."

Dan Devine's brilliant record (nine of his last 11 teams ranked in top 20 polls, and he has a 75.6 winning percentage over 15 years as head coach) is the product of a grim quest for super-excellence. His offenses are generally unspectacular, his defenses solid. His players call him "The Man," a term that indicates their respect for Devine and the fact that he is, on a personal level, complex and mysterious. "I wish I could really get to know him," Moore says. "I think I could dig that guy."

Rocky Wallace, a tackle who is the most talented member of the Tigers' traditionally tough defense, is in his fourth season as a Devine watcher. "None of us really know him," Wallace says. "We're not scared of him, but when you go into his office you do have a funny feeling."

His players also had to wonder about Devine at practice one day last year. Rain started pouring down on the field, and Devine, his face lined with exasperation, looked up at the gray sky and blew his whistle to call practice to an end. As soon as the whistle sounded, the rain stopped and the sky cleared. You have to respect a coach like that.