KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Missouri's rise to No. 1 included one setback against Oklahoma. To play for a national title, the Tigers must repay that debt and play even better than they have so far.
Missouri (11-1) has been challenged in each of the last three victories, hanging on at the end of Saturday's 36-28 victory over second-ranked Kansas.
That tempered the elation a bit following the victory over their border rival in the biggest game ever for both schools, immediately turning attention to the next task: the Big 12 championship game against the ninth-ranked Sooners.
"Ever since we lost we said we're going to see them again," said defensive back Castine Bridges, who had one of Missouri's two interceptions off Kansas' Todd Reesing. "Now we get to see them again."
Oklahoma (10-2) has won 17 of the last 18 in the series including a 41-31 victory on Oct. 13 in Norman, Okla., getting three second-half touchdown runs by Chris Brown while taking advantage of crucial mistakes by Missouri.
"I just want to play our best game," coach Gary Pinkel said. "We've got another shot at them."
Missouri led Oklahoma 24-23 in the third quarter but was undone by a botched handoff between Chase Daniel and Jeremy Maclin that was returned for a touchdown and Daniel's second interception of the game later in the second half.
Informed that Maclin told reporters the Tigers "owed" Oklahoma, Daniel sighed, shook his head and chided his absent teammate with a single word: "Jeremy!" But after a pause, he admitted Maclin was probably on the money.
Several times in recent weeks, Daniel has asserted that Missouri outplayed Oklahoma but beat itself.
"We let one slip away," Daniel said. "We led 24-23, had too many turnovers, had too many mistakes. You can't have turnovers against great teams."
On the other hand, that game also served to reinforce players' belief that Missouri was ready to play with the big boys.
"We know we can win games like that," Daniel said. "We were in it. Obviously, that was the turning point of our season to say, 'Hey, we can play with anyone in the nation.'
"We went in there the first time expecting to win, just like every other game."
That was the case against Kansas, Missouri's traditional rival and 11-0 for the first time in school history before Saturday. After a slow start that began with consecutive three-and-out offensive series for the first time all season, the Tigers seized control.
Kansas, which trailed for a total of 27 minutes in its first 11 games, but fell behind 21-0 in the third quarter.
"They made plays when they needed to and we made plays, but not enough of them," Kansas coach Mark Mangino said. "Missouri's offense is really talented."
Daniel, who was 40-for-49 for 361 yards, made a Heisman Trophy statement and Missouri, the only team in the country to score 30 points in every game this season, showed off its deep, talented offensive lineup. Under-utilized wide receivers Danario Alexander and Tommy Saunders each had big games, complementing Tony Temple's 98 yards rushing in his hometown and Maclin's 170 all-purpose yards.
Kansas cornerback Aqib Talib said of Daniel, "I'm sure we just sent him to New York. He's got my vote."
"You saw it. America saw it," Pinkel said. "This guy is special. What a remarkable competitor. What a great player, also, when you need to make a play."
Missouri's underrated defense ended Reesing's Big 12-record streak of 213 passes without an interception, converting both interceptions into touchdowns. The Jayhawks were held to 42 yards rushing.
Then Missouri perhaps became satisfied with the huge cushion and content to trade scores for a while.
"We really shouldn't have and I think a lot of the team might have relaxed," defensive lineman Stryker Sulak said. "We can't do it again. We almost got caught for doing it."
Last week, Missouri led Kansas State only 21-18 at halftime before pulling away for a 49-32 victory. Two weeks ago, Texas A&M twice cut the deficit to five points in the second half before Missouri put away a 40-26 victory.
The lead over Kansas was down to six and the Tigers needed two big plays, Saunders fielding an onside kick and Lorenzo Williams sacking Reesing in the end zone for a safety with 12 seconds to go, to clinch it.
"Obviously, you just want to get this thing over with," Pinkel said. "You've seen all the things that can happen in college football."
Not this time. Not this season, for the nation's unlikely No. 1 team.