COLUMBIA, Mo. (AP) -Missouri football has never been a hotter ticket.
The Tigers are coming off a 12-win season and No. 4 ranking, both highs for a school that has annually been a Big 12 also-ran. And they're starting this season a program-best No. 6 in the AP Top 25.
The opening game against Illinois in St. Louis on Aug. 30 sold out just minutes after the box office opened. And they're one of four cover subjects for Sports Illustrated's annual college football issue.
With 16 starters returning from last season's North division champs, Missouri expects to play for the league title again and maybe even more.
Coach Gary Pinkel's toughest task might be keeping players' minds from wandering during a schedule conducive, especially early, to a big follow-up.
Pinkel stopped talking about last year's achievements during spring practice. He wants players thinking about Illinois and nothing else.
``The reason we had success is because of the process,'' Pinkel said. ``We didn't run around saying, 'I want to beat this team and I want to beat that team.' Shoot, anybody can do that.
``It's about doing all the things every day, that's how you get good.''
Quarterback Chase Daniel, a Heisman Trophy finalist last season and the Big 12 preseason player of the year, has been known to scour the Internet for commentary about his sport. He says he won't get carried away by favorable early reviews for a school that could easily be 4-0 entering the Big 12 opener Oct. 4 at Nebraska.
``I don't think we worry too much about expectations,'' he said. ``I think we worry about going out there and getting better every single day. We can't take any backward steps.''
Two costly stumbles, both against Oklahoma, cost Missouri a shot at a national championship last year. The Tigers were 5-0 before losing to Oklahoma in October, then were outscored 24-3 in the second half of a 38-17 loss in the Big 12 title game.
Daniel thrived in Missouri's no-huddle, spread attack, throwing for a school-record 4,306 yards and 33 touchdowns. He ranked seventh in the country in total offense with eight 300-yard passing games. Yet he had just one touchdown pass and three interceptions against the Sooners.
``We've got to play better ball - all 14 games,'' Daniel said. ``We've got to stay focused.''
Missouri erased the bitter taste with an impressive 38-7 thrashing of Arkansas in the Cotton Bowl, the school's first Jan. 1 bowl game since 1970, assuring a healthy buzz heading into this season.
All-American all-purpose threat Jeremy Maclin also is back on an offense ranked among the best in the nation last year, with the only question mark replacing three line starters. Everyone except for nose tackle Lorenzo Williams is back on an underrated defense that believes it deserves equal footing.
``Of course, with such an explosive offense it's hard sometimes just to keep up with them,'' said Williams' replacement, junior Jaron Baston. ``Anyone who watched our games last year, our defense did a lot of great things and made a lot of great plays like the offense.''
Safety William Moore, who had 117 tackles and tied for the NCAA lead with eight interceptions in 2007, was among a group of five juniors who submitted their names to the NFL draft advisory board before electing to return.
``We're looking great,'' Moore said. ``We know what we have to do, and we know how we have to play.''
The success of last season - and losing the Big 12 title game - only left the Tigers wanting more.
``Our goal is definitely the Big 12 championship,'' Daniel said. ``If things take care of themselves, then something else is out there.''

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