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July 23, 2008KANSAS CITY, Mo. - If one thing has been proven in the world of college football, it's that it certainly isn't easy being at the top.
Entering the 2008 season, Oklahoma and Missouri find themselves on the tip of this double-edged sword as the consensus picks to win the Big 12 South and North, respectively.
While it's certainly an honor to be selected as the conference's preseason frontrunner, the pressure of living up to the hype often becomes far more of a burden than a blessing.
For Oklahoma, the preseason pick to win the conference, playing the role of the hunted rather than the hunter is nothing new. The Sooners have won five of the past eight Big 12 championships, as well as a national title in 2000.
Winning isn't a problem for head coach Bob Stoops and Company. However, winning bowl games certainly has been recently.
Starting with their national championship loss to LSU in 2003, the Sooners have lost four of their past five bowl games, including all four BCS bowls. For Stoops, finding an answer for this problem has been an ongoing process.
"In the end, it's a situation that there isn't any one answer to it," Stoops said Wednesday at the Big 12 Media Days in Kansas City. "You can look at all the factors. I think overall, we've been in six Big 12 Championships and we won five of them. We are doing something right.
"We know how to win those games and we'll manage these others the best we can and I think as much as anything it's the players staying invested and us as coaches as well doing the job we need to do to be at our best in those situations."
For Oklahoma's players, being the team that can't win the big game has obviously not been a title they enjoy holding.
"This is a whole new year," senior receiver Manuel Johnson said. "Everybody's more grown up. We're looking forward to a brand new season. In the past we've always started fast and finished slow. We started fast the last couple of years and weren't able to finish. This year we need to make sure we finish."
On the opposite end of the spectrum is Missouri. After a breakout season last year, the Tigers find themselves in the unfamiliar position of being one of the conference's favorites.
With Heisman Trophy finalist quarterback Chase Daniel, All-American receiver Jeremy Maclin and all-conference tight end Chase Coffman all returning, the Tigers seem poised to repeat as the North champions.
The question, though, is how they will deal with no longer being the conference's underdog?
"I think that's always a concern," Missouri head coach Gary Pinkel said. "But right now I think we're doing the right things and hopefully the experience of last year of playing at a higher level, playing in a lot of pressure situations, hopefully we can play at a high level again."
With the simultaneous emergence of Kansas last year and teams like Nebraska and Colorado seemingly poised for improvement, winning the North might prove even more difficult than last year.
Though Missouri appears to have all the pieces in place for a repeat and possibly a conference title, they know full well they'll get everyone's best game each week.
For the first time, the Tigers will be the ones wearing the target on their backs.
"We certainly haven't arrived," Pinkel said. "We won the Big 12 North last year. The University of Missouri hasn't won a Big 12 championship yet. So we've made progress, but now we have to sustain it and keep improving."