Preview: Missouri vs. Colorado

(AP) — Back in the rankings for the first time in a year, Missouri will try to open conference play by saying goodbye to Colorado in style.

The No. 24 Tigers will attempt to earn their fifth straight victory over the Buffaloes, who play their final Big 12 opener Saturday night in Columbia.

Missouri (4-0) will face Colorado not long after the 20th anniversary of the “Fifth Down” game at Faurot Field. That 33-31 victory Oct. 6, 1990, propelled the Buffaloes to a share of a national title and was part of a 12-game winning streak in the series.

It’s the Tigers who have dominated lately in winning the past four meetings by a combined 177-40. They’ll also try to win their fourth in a row at home over Colorado (3-1) before it heads off to the Pac-10 next season.

“They’ve done a great job,” Buffaloes coach Dan Hawkins said. “Scheming, the technical portion of it, they’ve outexecuted us.”

Missouri should be well-rested for this matchup, as it hasn’t played since a 51-13 win over Miami of Ohio on Sept. 25. Ranked for the first time since last Oct. 4, the Tigers could also benefit from their fifth consecutive in-state game to open this season and fourth in a row at home.

Missouri, though, hasn’t been convincing in two of its victories. It needed to rally from a 13-3 halftime deficit to top Illinois 23-13 in its season opener in St. Louis and used Blaine Gabbert’s 68-yard touchdown pass to T.J. Moe with 51 seconds left to beat San Diego State 27-24 on Sept. 18.

“We ended the non-conference season 4-0 like we wanted but now the games are tough every week,” Gabbert said. “Everybody is a competitive team in the Big 12, and we’re excited to play Colorado.”

While they’ve handled the Buffaloes in recent years, the Tigers could face an improved squad that appears motivated to save Hawkins’ job.

Colorado has already matched last season’s win total and its best start in five seasons under Hawkins, who is 19-34 in his four-plus years and 10-22 in conference play. The Buffaloes also started 3-1 in 2008 but dropped six of eight Big 12 games.

They’re coming off back-to-back home wins over Hawaii and Georgia, with linebacker B.J. Beatty forcing a late turnover to seal last Saturday’s 29-27 victory over the Bulldogs.

Rodney Stewart finished with a season-high 149 yards on 19 carries while subbing for starter Brian Lockridge (ankle), whose status is unknown for this week.

While they’ve thrived at home, the Buffaloes lost 52-7 in their only road game this season against California on Sept. 11.

Colorado has dropped 12 in a row away from home, falling 58-0 at Missouri in 2008, and is 2-19 on the road under Hawkins.

The Buffaloes could face another tough test against an improved Missouri defense. The Tigers are 10th in the FBS in giving up 14.0 points per game after finishing 59th last season.

Missouri, however, won’t have top pass rusher Aldon Smith for the second straight week. The sophomore, who had a school-record 11 1/2 sacks in 2009, fractured his fibula against San Diego State.

Smith had three of the Tigers’ eight sacks of Tyler Hansen, who finished with 190 yards and an interception in Missouri’s 36-17 win at Colorado last Oct. 31.

“Certainly, Aldon is a great young player and he certainly adds a lot to our defense,” coach Gary Pinkel said. “As the season goes on, who knows who we’ll be missing in a game, for whatever reason, and somebody’s got to step it up.”

After rushing for a season-high 236 yards in its previous game, Missouri could go back to the air more this week. Colorado ranks 18th against the run with 100.8 yards allowed per game but 83rd versus the pass with an average of 236.0 yards allowed.

Gabbert had 192 yards with two TDs and two interceptions in last season’s matchup with the Buffaloes.

Missouri leads the series 41-31-3, going 25-11-2 at home.