Missouri's meta season is here.
At 7-0, ranked fifth in the BCS and with a road to Atlanta clearly laid out for the Tigers like a hop-scotch course, the spotlight has found Missouri. So now the part of the season in which the purveyors of the spotlight ask questions about dealing with the spotlight has arrived.
The circle completes itself.
But Missouri coach Gary Pinkel is dealing with more than just the attention that comes with a top-five ranking. Pinkel lost a mentor on Sunday.
Legendary Washington coach Don James died on Sunday afternoon from pancreatic cancer at the age of 80. James coached Pinkel at Kent State, and Pinkel later went on to work under James at Washington, eventually becoming James' offensive coordinator before leaving for his first head coaching job at Toledo.
James' impact on Pinkel has been obvious throughout his entire career, and James' degrading health the last two months has been a topic that Pinkel talked about with unease. But even though the "Dawgfather" is gone, his system remains in Columbia.
"I learned the Don James System," Pinkel said, "that was at Kent State, then went to Seattle, Washington, that won, that went to Toledo, that won, it's come to Columbia Missouri that won. The Don James System. I am a Don James disciple. Through the toughest times ... what we did, we embraced it. We did not make a lot of changes ... We embraced that system. He taught me how to be a head football coach by example."
The clearest example of the Don James System has been mentioned by Pinkel a few times since last season. It's James' advice on how to handle the tough times as a football coach. Pinkel and his team saw those tough times a year ago. This year, there are still tough times, just at the other end of the spectrum.
Losing begets problems. Winning begets problems.
So Pinkel turns to the advice James gave him before he went to Toledo for his introductory press conference in the spring of 1991. The way Pinkel tells the story, it sounds like a father dropping his son off at college before his freshman year. The father starts to leave and, finally, the son asks for advice.
It came after the hug, after the handshake, after the thanks. Pinkel started to walk away before looking back, asking for "words of advice."
"Yeah, I got something," Pinkel recalls James saying. "I got something to tell you.
"Gary, when things get tough -- and they're gonna get tough -- you focus on waking up that morning, you focus on doing your job hour by hour by hour. In this business, there are so many outside distractions that if you let those in, you'll never have a chance to be successful."
Pinkel remembers walking away thinking, "Wow, that was pretty good. It was decent, pretty nice."
Years later, it's something more.
"There was nothing better he could have told me," Pinkel said. "... From a management standpoint, a leadership standpoint, it was the greatest advice I ever was given, because if you can't focus on doing your job, you'll never be successful."
Like so many other "Don James-isms," it's not the first time Pinkel has told that story. It's not the first time he's told the story this season, in fact. But it came after Pinkel talked about one of his final times speaking to his mentor. He left a message for James, who was in the hospital. From his telling of the story, it doesn't seem like Pinkel expected a call back. On that call, Pinkel said he "broke down crying, telling (James) how much (he) loved him."
James did call Pinkel back.
"I'll always remember that he called me back," Pinkel said. "We talked, and he said, 'Gary, I got your message.' And his voice started quivering.
"Then, all of a sudden, Coach James comes back. Coach James, in charge, a leader, you know. He asked me about our next game and everything. I got to tell him I loved him and we hung up."
Pinkel begins talking again, and his voice quivers.
"He's had just a profound... influence on me, my whole life. I just feel very fortunate that he came into my life."
So now Missouri prepares for its next Biggest Game Of The Year, where the spotlight creates questions about the spotlight which increases the spotlight. Like he did last year, like he's doing this year, Pinkel focuses on the Don James-isms, the advice and blueprint laid forth by one of the greats in college football. It's a constant reminder that his mentor has passed. But it's a constant reminder that the process works.
Missouri is 7-0. Missouri is ranked fifth in the BCS. The road to Atlanta is clear. The distractions are there, the circle completes itself, and the hour-by-hour-by-hour process continues.
When Pinkel finishes his press conference, there are 122 hours before kick-off against South Carolina.
MORE SAD NEWS: On Monday, former Missouri linebacker Michael Keck died from complications from a staph infection in Auora, Colo. He was 25, and played for Missouri for two seasons. He redshirted in 2007 and played in two games in 2008. He transferred to Missouri State after that and played his final college game in 2010, leaving football because of concussion issues. Keck was a four-star recruit from Harrisonville, Mo., and was the state's second-ranked player in the 2007 recruiting class.
"It's unfortunate," Pinkel said. "Obviously, very young, 25. He was here for a few years, and just a great young man, really sad for his family, all they're going through. Anytime you hear that about young people, it's sad and difficult."
STOPPING CLOWNEY: A year ago, South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney had four tackles and 1.5 sacks in the Gamecocks' 31-10 win over the Tigers. He finished the season the with 13 sacks and 23.5 tackles for loss and was a preseason candidate for the Heisman award.
A lot has changed since then. Clowney has been in the media for reasons other than his play on the field. His numbers have dropped precipitously, and he has two sacks and 5.5 tackles for loss.
But on tape, anyway, Missouri's offensive linemen see the same player that terrorized offenses a year ago -- including their own.
"Some analysts might say something, but watching film and studying tape, I see the same guy that was on there last year," left tackle Justin Britt said. "The same guy who has the same intelligence on the field, so he's going to be a good player to play against and it's going to be a good game."
"He's still an outstanding player, there's no doubt," right tackle Mitch Morse said. "The way he plays, he demands respect on the field. He's the kind of guy, you talk about guys that talk -- he doesn't say a word on the field. He demands respect by how he plays. And I don't see any drop off in how he plays. I still have the utmost respect for him in how he plays. He's a great competitor."
Then there's the task of stopping Clowney, especially with a redshirt freshman quarterback getting his second career start for the Tigers. Before last season's game, offensive line coach Bruce Walker talked about the need to chip Clowney to delay his first move, but in the end, Missouri didn't use that strategy much in the loss in Columbia, S.C.
Gary Pinkel and his staff aren't hinting at what they plan to do on Saturday in Columbia, Mo. Pinkel said that if they try to slant protection toward Clowney, it frees up room for South Carolina's other talented linemen.
"Everyone kind of has their plan for him," Pinkel said. "We try to have ours. Problem is, with that team, they've got a lot of good players. Their front guys are really, really good, present a lot of problems, too."
One thing Missouri has working in its favor, however, is its own defensive line that's playing at its highest level in years.
"It's just another game," Maty Mauk said. "We go against Kony every day in practice. Kony, Michael Sam and those guys are producing just like him, and we just gotta come out and play Missouri football and we'll be alright."
GAMECOCKS' OFFENSE A THREAT, TOO: Even though starting quarterback Connor Shaw is doubtful for Saturday's game with a sprained knee, South Carolina's offense poses threats.
The biggest threat is running back Mike Davis. He leads the SEC in rushing yards and is 100 yards ahead of LSU's Jeremy Hill in the same amount of games. He's also a work-horse, tied for the league lead in carries-per-game with just under 19.
"I think Mike Davis is a great tailback," Missouri defensive coordinator Dave Steckel said. "He's explosive, got great speed, great change of directions ... We're trying to figure out right now how to stop him."
If Shaw isn't able to go on Saturday, South Carolina will turn to redshirt junior Dylan Thompson. Thompson played a good amount in 2012, completing 52 percent of his passes for 1,027 yards, ten touchdowns and two interceptions.
This season, Thompson has completed 29-of-51 passes for 421 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions. His most extensive playing time this season came against UCF, after Shaw was knocked out of the game in the first quarter. He finished by completing just 47 percent of his passes, but threw for 261 yards, no touchdowns and one interception in a close win.
"Dylan Thompson, I think he's pretty good," Steckel said. "I think he's a good thrower, though I don't think he runs as well as Connor Shaw.
"I think Dylan maybe throws it a little bit better but doesn't run it as well. The good news is they've played both quarterbacks , so we get to see Dylan Thompson on video."