ST. LOUIS (AP) -- Coming off a 12-win season and ranked higher than ever before to start the season, No. 6 Missouri is counting on an immediate test from Illinois.
The 20th-ranked Fighting Illini feel likewise.
"I think the positive is we're going to know exactly where we are," Zook said. "When you play a team the caliber of Missouri, it's going to give you an opportunity to know exactly where your program is and the things you have to work on."
Missouri's 40-34 win last year in a border rivalry fast gaining steam ended up being just as much of a springboard for the losing team.
Though the Tigers won their first Big 12 North title, made it to No. 1 for a week and thrashed Arkansas in its first New Years' Day bowl game since 1970, that was more of a logical progression in coach Gary Pinkel's seventh season.
Illinois, on the other hand, was a surprise Rose Bowl participant with a second-place finish in the Big Ten and an upset of Ohio State after going 2-19 the first two seasons under coach Ron Zook.
This game used to be the poor stepchild of the schools' highly popular holiday-season basketball border rivalry, but now it's a hot ticket, too, and one of the top opening week matchups. It's a sellout, too, for the first time in four games this decade in the Edward Jones Dome.
Against that backdrop, and with the queasy memory of a 24-point third-quarter cushion that all but evaporated last year, Missouri knows there will be no easing into this season.
"I remember a year ago, we were fortunate to win," Pinkel said. "Oh by the way, they did go to the Rose Bowl. I think they have a lot of impact players."
Illinois, which finished 9-4 last year has six starters back on each side of the ball, including quarterback Juice Williams.
"Our practices probably have been a little more spirited," Zook said. "You prepare for the season, but they've had that game in the back of their minds. It's a great challenge and a great opportunity."
Illinois has led the Big Ten in rushing the last two years, although the Illini no longer have Rashard Mendenhall, a first-round pick of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Williams broke the school rushing record by a quarterback for the second straight year, and Daniel Dufrene rushed for 100 yards in an upset of No. 1 Ohio State.
Missouri had to replace only one starter on defense, which should lessen the burden on its 40-points-per-game offense, although linebacker Van Alexander is likely to miss the opener while rehabbing from knee surgery.
Linebacker Sean Weatherspoon said some Missouri defenders were a bit wide-eyed entering last year's opener, but this will be the Tigers' fourth straight game against a Top 25 opponent.
"I don't think it'll get to us this time around," Weatherspoon said. "We've got a lot of guys who have already played in a lot of big games."
If not, the Tigers' offense shouldn't miss a beat. Last season, they only missed the 30-point mark once, in the Big 12 championship game. Missouri will be without All-American tight end Martin Rucker and running back Tony Temple, who rushed for a Cotton Bowl-record 281 yards and four touchdowns.
Jeremy Maclin set an NCAA freshman record for all-purpose yards and his total of 2,776 yards was fifth-most in history. Chase Daniel had 33 touchdown passes last year, finishing fourth in the Heisman balloting, and had eight 300-yard games.
"He doesn't give up on a play, no matter what," Illinois defensive lineman Will Davis said. "If it's a broken play, he's going to find a way to get the ball out of bounds, or make something out of nothing."
An indication of the depth at Missouri's skill positions: At running back, sophomore Derrick Washington beat out senior Jimmy Jackson, who scored seven touchdowns last year. Chase Coffman caught 52 passes for seven TDs as the other tight end.
The biggest question mark on offense is at left tackle, where redshirt freshman Elvis Fisher will be taking his first college snaps and is not worried that Illinois will target him.
"I don't really know what they're going to do," Fisher said. "All I can say is I'll be prepared for it."
(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)