AS THE finalseconds ticked down on Missouri's 36--28 victory over rival Kansas lastSaturday night, a chant that hadn't been shouted by Tigers fans in almost fivedecades resonated throughout Arrowhead Stadium: "We're Number 1! We'reNumber 1!" ¬∂ "We've got a target on our back, but it feels great,"said wideout Danario Alexander after hauling in a career-high eight passes for117 yards and a touchdown to help the Tigers climb to the top of the AP pollfor the first time since 1960. ¬∂ So it has come to this in a college footballseason that has produced one shocking result after another: Missouri, a teamthat was unranked at the start of the year, combined its win over No. 2 Kansaswith Arkansas's stunning triple-overtime upset of top-ranked LSU to rise fromfourth to No. 1 in the BCS rankings. Quite simply, the Tigers are one victoryfrom playing for the national championship.
In the Big 12title game in San Antonio this Saturday night, Missouri (11--1) will get achance to avenge its only loss of the season, against Oklahoma (10--2), whichwon the first meeting 41--31 on Oct. 13 in Norman. For the Tigers to beat theSooners this time, they'll need junior quarterback Chase Daniel, who committedtwo costly fourth-quarter turnovers in the first meeting, to play as well as hedid in four November victories: 121 completions in 169 attempts (71.6%) for1,418 yards and 15 touchdowns with only one interception. His rise up theHeisman lists has been as fast as his team's climb in the rankings, and he nowstands fourth in the nation with 3,951 passing yards to go with a 70.5%completion rate and 33 touchdowns. Daniel was at his best in the win overpreviously undefeated Kansas, completing 40 of 49 passes for 361 yards andthree touchdowns while directing scoring drives of 11, 13, 7, 14, 10 and 12plays. All told, Daniel, who has been running a shotgun spread attack since hisdays at Southlake (Texas) Carroll High, completed passes to nine receivers,often scrambling and buying time until somebody got open.
"He'd be thefirst one to tell you it was the offensive line, the wide receivers or tightends [who deserve the credit]," says seventh-year Missouri coach GaryPinkel. "But I'm going to be the first one to tell you, this guy isspecial."
THANKS LARGELY toits own transcendent quarterback, junior Pat White, West Virginia needs only ahome victory over 4--7 Pitt in this Saturday's Backyard Brawl to secure theother spot in the national title game. Like Missouri, the Mountaineers run ahurry-up spread offense, but coach Rich Rodriguez's version leans more heavilyon the running game. In a 66--21 victory over 9--3 Connecticut last Saturday,West Virginia racked up 517 yards on the ground—its highest total in fiveyears. White accounted for a game-high 186 yards on 16 carries while alsocompleting 9 of 13 passes for 107 yards, despite playing with a stomach virusthat caused him to throw up on several occasions. It marked the fourth straightgame in which White, who leads his team with 1,144 rushing yards (to tailbackSteve Slaton's 1,042), gained 145 or more yards on the ground. "I'mbiased," says Rodriguez. "I think he's the best player in thecountry."
Pinkel feels thesame way about Daniel, who has been the biggest factor in helping theonce-embattled coach transform his middle-of-the-pack team into No. 1 material.Only 29--30 in his first five seasons at Missouri, Pinkel was criticized forfailing to fully develop talented four-year starter Brad Smith, a dual-threatquarterback in much the same mold as White but whose passing skill never caughtup to his running ability. Last year, however, Daniel went 8--5 in his firstyear as a starter, and though shorter (Smith is 6'2", Daniel is generouslylisted at 6 feet) and less athletic, he has proved to be a better fit for theTigers' spread because of his decision-making ability and mastery of theoffense. The coaches have also surrounded Daniel with a slew of playmakers,including sure-handed tight ends Chase Coffman and Martin Rucker and speedywideout Jeremy Maclin, who set the NCAA's freshman single-season record forall-purpose yards (2,509). "It's amazing how much better you coach whenyou've got great players," says Pinkel.
On the other handRodriguez's reputation for building a winner in Morgantown was well-establishedentering the season. Last December he declined a lucrative offer from Alabamato remain in his football-crazed home state. In the latter stages of the routof UConn, the fans in Morgantown chanted, "B-C-S," and a win thisSaturday would allow the Mountaineers to play for the national championship forthe first time since they lost to Notre Dame in 1988.
"It's neatfor us as kind of an underdog state to have [a team] that can competenationally," says Rodriguez, whose defense (ranked sixth nationally) hasbecome nearly as consistent as its more decorated offense. West Virginia'sfinal challenge seems far less daunting than Missouri's, but the Mountaineerscan't afford to take anything for granted—not in this season of the upset.
White leads West Virginia with 1,144 rushing yards."I'm biased," says Rodriguez. "I think he's the BEST PLAYER in thecountry."
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Photograph by Damian Strohmeyer
IN THE CHASE Maclin (9) set a freshman record for all-purpose yards while Daniel gained momentum in his late Heisman run.
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PLAYMAKER With 12 touchdown passes and 14 rushing TDs, White knows how to get the Mountaineers into the end zone.