COLUMBIA, Mo. – Missouri is counting on a nimble Blaine Gabbert leading the climb back into Big 12 prominence.
Last year was a letdown for the Tigers, who stumbled in their bid to win a third straight Big 12 North title after Gabbert sprained his left ankle early in the conference season during a loss to Nebraska. They ended up 8-5, failing to follow up the first consecutive 10-win seasons in school history.
"Our team definitely had its highs and lows," Gabbert said at the Big 12 media day. "What we worked on this offseason was just keeping an even keel throughout the whole season, not getting too up or too down.
"That's really going to help us in the long run, just the maturation process we're going through."
The Tigers, who graduated only five seniors, are projected for a second straight runner-up finish in the North behind Nebraska in the league's media poll. But with a healthy Gabbert taking snaps from preseason All-Big 12 center Tim Barnes and stretching defenses with a style more athletic than predecessor Chase Daniel, there's hopes for a return to the top.
"I want the team on my shoulders," Gabbert said. "I want to win games. I'm not here to hand the ball off 40 times and try not to lose a game. I'm here to throw the ball and put up points and try to win games.
Missouri was No. 24, one win away from a fourth straight 5-0 start, before fading out of contention last season with the Nebraska loss.
Coach Gary Pinkel expects Gabbert to step up, even without a certain replacement for prolific receiver Danario Alexander.
"I think your focus is not on the pressure, your focus is on playing the best," Pinkel said. "I think that I expect him to have a really good year. He has a chance to be a great player and we're excited about him getting going."
Gabbert didn't seem too concerned about replacing Alexander, the go-to wide receiver who starred with 113 catches for 1,781 yards and 13 touchdowns.
"We're just plugging in new guys," he said. "It was a huge spring for a bunch of receivers, they showed me they can play at a high level consistently."
Missouri is looking for more from slimmed-down running back Derrick Washington, too.
"He's much quicker," Pinkel said. "It's all about quickness and movement."
The defense lost linebacker Sean Weatherspoon to the Atlanta Falcons, who drafted him in the first round. There's a headliner remaining in sophomore end Aldon Smith, last year's Big 12 newcomer of the year after recording a school-record 11.5 sacks.
Pinkel has produced five straight bowl bids and six in seven years, matching Dan Devine for most in school history. Last year's bowl game was something to forget, though.
Missouri had appeared in line for a more prestigious slot than the Texas Bowl. The game was another disappointment, a 35-13 blowout loss to Navy in which the defense had no answers for an option attack and the offense couldn't keep pace.
"It leaves a sour taste in your mouth," Gabbert said. "Definitely a big, big chip on your shoulder, just to come out this season and prove something."
The schedule is conducive to another fast start. After the Sept. 4 opener against Illinois in St. Louis, the next four games are at Columbia ending with the Big 12 opener against Colorado.
Gabbert's primed for a fast start, too.
"It's experience," Gabbert said. "I know how to go through the weeks and weeks and weeks, and how to game plan and prepare week in and week out. From that point, it's a lot better."