Dec. 18, 2008

(AP) - Quarterback Chase Daniel and receiver Jeremy Maclin helped put the Missouri program back on the map last season, raising expectations for what they thought could be a run at the national championship in 2008.

With no All-Americans to speak of, Northwestern wasn't nearly as optimistic in August.

Though the teams started the season in very different spots, they'll end it at the same one Dec. 29, when the 25th-ranked Tigers meet the 22nd-ranked Wildcats in the Alamo Bowl in San Antonio.

Chase Daniel and the Tigers' offense will no doubt get tested by a Northwestern defense.

Daniel was a second-team All-American and a Heisman Trophy finalist last season, when he led Missouri to its first Big 12 North title, a school-record 12 wins and a No. 4 finish in the AP poll - also a team best. The Tigers hadn't finished a season ranked since 1998.

Daniel got plenty of help from Maclin, who was also named an All-American after setting an NCAA freshman record with 2,776 all-purpose yards.

With that duo returning for 2008, the Tigers (9-4) entered the season ranked sixth and primed for a run at their first national championship. They climbed as high as No. 3, but faltered down the stretch, losing four of their last eight games, including a blowout loss to Oklahoma in the Big 12 championship game for the second consecutive year.

Daniel threw two interceptions and lost a fumble in the 62-21 loss to the Sooners, who are on their way to the BCS title game. After throwing only one interception during the Tigers' 5-0 start, the senior totaled 14 the rest of the way, finishing with a conference-high 15.

"It's going to sting for a while and why wouldn't it?" Daniel said after the end of the regular season. "But we can finish off in style. When was the last time a Missouri team won 10 games back-to-back in history? Never. We still have a chance to make history."

Pinkel refused to say this was a disappointing season for his team, but did admit that Missouri missed an opportunity to do something special.

"Well, I don't think that," he said when asked if 2008 was a letdown. "Do I wish the regular season would have ended up that we were 11-1 instead of 9-3? Yeah, we should have done that. But I think we had a good year. ... My players battle, and I'm not going to in any way say that we didn't have a good year. We had a great year."

So did the Wildcats, who didn't enter the season with nearly as much fanfare.

Northwestern (9-3) wasn't ranked until after its season finale Nov. 22, a 27-10 win over Illinois - the only common opponent for the Wildcats and Tigers. Missouri beat Illinois 52-42 in both teams' season opener Aug. 30.

Northwestern's win over Illinois gave the team nine wins for the fifth time in school history and the first time since 1996, coach Pat Fitzgerald's last season as a star linebacker for the Wildcats.

"To be at nine wins right now with an opportunity for number ten, the opportunity to achieve our main goal this year - to win a bowl game - is all right here in front of us," said Fitzgerald, the second-youngest head coach in the nation at 33 and a coach of the year finalist in his third season after taking over following the unexpected death of Randy Walker in June 2006.

"All we have to do is go 1-0 when we kick the ball off on the 29th."

The only 10-win team in school history was Fitzgerald's 1995 team that lost in the Rose Bowl. That was the first of five straight bowl losses for the Wildcats, who haven't won a bowl game since beating California in the Rose Bowl on Jan. 1, 1949. In its most recent postseason appearance, Northwestern fell 50-38 to UCLA in the 2005 Sun Bowl.

"I think, if anything, (the bowl drought) will provide a little extra motivation," senior quarterback C.J. Bacher said. "At the beginning of the year we set out to win a bowl game and we've put ourselves in a position to do that."

Missouri, which is making a bowl appearance for the fourth straight season and fifth time in six years, beat Arkansas 38-7 in last year's Cotton Bowl, and is 2-2 in bowl games under Pinkel.

The Tigers totaled 459 yards in that game, and though they may not have accomplished all their goals this season, they've once against boasted one of the Football Bowl Subdivision's most prolific offenses. They're sixth with 43.2 points and 497.5 scrimmage yards per game.

That's largely due to Daniel, who despite turnovers problems down the stretch, is fourth in the FBS with 4,135 passing yards and sixth with a career-high 37 touchdowns. With 99 career TDs, he's one away from becoming the eighth player in FBS history to reach 100.

Daniel and the Tigers' offense, however, will no doubt get tested by a Northwestern defense that engineered an incredible turnaround in 2008.

The Wildcats held opponents to 19.3 points and 343.0 scrimmage yards per game this season after ranking 10th in the 11-team Big Ten by giving up 31.0 points and 410.5 yards per contest during their 6-6 campaign in 2007.

Northwestern had a conference-low 16 sacks last season before leading the Big Ten with 33 in 2008. The team's pass rush is led by 6-foot-7, 280-pound defensive end Corey Wootton, who was fifth in the conference with nine sacks in becoming the Wildcats' only all-conference selection and their first since quarterback Brett Basanez in 2005.

"There's no greater turnaround maybe this year statistically and on the field from a results standpoint than our defense and the job that (defensive coordinator) Mike Hankwitz and our defensive staff has done," Fitzgerald said.

The Wildcats could get some help on the offensive end for this game, as senior running back Tyrell Sutton could return from a wrist injury that kept him out of the team's last four games of the regular season.

Sutton, who ran for 1,474 yards as a freshman in 2005 but had each of his last two seasons cut short by injury, has had the pins removed from his left wrist. Fitzgerald said Sutton is progressing "exactly according to the plan" and said the late bowl date "will help with that timetable."

This will be the first game between Northwestern and Missouri since the Tigers took a 28-3 home win in 1987 to even the all-time series at four wins apiece.