Missouri's football program got its legs with quarterback Brad Smith, the athletic Ohio native ushered to the Big 12 Conference by Gary Pinkel, the former Toledo coach who took over the Tigers eight years ago. Then Missouri took to the air behind Chase Daniel. Now it's time to see if Missouri plans to stick around with sophomore quarterback Blaine Gabbert.

Missouri's football program got its legs with quarterback Brad Smith, the athletic Ohio native ushered to the Big 12 Conference by Gary Pinkel, the former Toledo coach who took over the Tigers eight years ago.

As a sophomore in 2003, Smith guided Missouri to its first bowl game in five years before setting the NCAA rushing record for quarterbacks with 4,289 career yards.

Then Missouri took to the air behind Chase Daniel, who passed the Tigers to 22 victories over the past two seasons and a No. 1 ranking in 2007. Missouri reached the Big 12 conference championship game each of the past two seasons. Daniel, who threw for 12,515 yards and 101 touchdowns in his career, signed with the Redskins this year as an undrafted free agent.

Now it's time to see if Missouri plans to stick around with sophomore quarterback Blaine Gabbert, the 6-foot-5, 240-pounder from Parkway West High School in St. Louis' western suburbs.

"We're a whole new team this year,'' Gabbert told reporters this summer. "I can't dwell on being anyone but who I am. I'm not Chase Daniel. I'm not Brad Smith.''

Gabbert has the tools to be better than both of them. When Missouri meets Illinois at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis Saturday (2:30 p.m., ESPN), Gabbert and the Tigers want to show that wasn't just a nice run the last two years. Rather, Missouri plans on becoming a legitimate college football power.

"This isn't just about the NFL,'' said Missouri linebacker Sean Weatherspoon, a preseason All-America by ESPN and the Mouth of Mizzou. "It's bigger than me. I came back to win some games, not sit around and work on my draft status.''

After ranking sixth nationally in scoring last season at 42.2 points a game while Daniel completed 72 percent of his passes (third best in NCAA history), Missouri relies upon a defense that returned 10 starters. On offense, junior running back Derrick Washington rushed for 1,036 yards and 17 touchdowns last season. Yet Gabbert's emergence is the storyline in Columbia, Mo.

Smith was more of a runner who eventually moved to wide receiver in the NFL. An undersized quarterback, Daniel used his brains to overcome any issues with arm strength.

A five-star recruit by Rivals.com who first committed to Nebraska, Gabbert has prototypical size and good mobility, a tough combination for defensive coordinators. Gabbert's range is more than 75 yards.

"Blaine has a second-to-none arm,'' Weatherspoon said.

As a redshirt freshman making his first start, Smith ran for 138 yards and passed for 152 to lead Mizzou to a win over Illinois in 2002. Five years later, Daniel passed for 359 yards and three touchdowns in a 40-34 victory to jump-start his sophomore season after taking over for Smith as a freshman.

"It's a tradition for a new (Missouri) quarterback to have his way with Illinois,'' said Illini coach Ron Zook. "We've talked to the team about that.”

Gabbert's first start is just another hint at the transition at Missouri. The Tigers start seven seniors, compared to 12 last season. But one of them is Weatherspoon, a native of Jasper, Texas, who preserved Missouri's 52-42 victory over Illinois last season.

He grabbed two interceptions, returning one 35 yards for a touchdown, then started the trash talk in July when Weatherspoon said on Twitter that he "would squeeze the pulp out of Juice'' Williams, the Illini quarterback.

Missouri's 22 wins over the last two seasons trail only USC and Oklahoma, who won 23 games apiece. Those two teams start the season in the top 5. The two-time defending Big 12 North champ, Missouri was picked to finish third in the division.

"We've got a chance to start changing perception and continuing to expect big years out of Missouri,'' Pinkel said.

John Supinie can be reached at Johnsupinie@aol.com.?

A look at Missouri

2008 record: 10-4 overall, 5-3 in the Big 12 North.
Bowl game: Defeated Northwestern 30-23 in the Alamo Bowl.
Coach: Gary Pinkel, 59-41 in his ninth season at Missouri, 132-78-3 in 19th season overall.
Players to watch: QB Blaine Gabbert, RB Derrick Washington, WR Danario Alexander, LB Sean Weatherspoon.
Did you know? Missouri's 10-game non-conference winning streak is the longest in school history.
Quote: "There's no question. If you want to win the game, you have to play well. You have to play at a high level,” – Gary Pinkel.