Sam Mellinger: Once-overlooked Missouri Tigers can be the best of the nation's best

a year removed from a bowl-less season and a few months removed from being picked ahead of only Kentucky in the SEC East, Missouri is No. 5 and rising in the BCS standings and now preparing for the championship game of the country's toughest college football conference.
Dec 3, 2013

 

 

COLUMBIA, Mo. _ Years from now, when we all have flying cars and the NFL finally puts flags on quarterbacks, you or someone you love will forget about this fall and think there are certainties in the sports we love.
When that happens, you would do well to Google "2013 Missouri Tigers," assuming Google is still a thing.
Because somehow, some way, a year removed from a bowl-less season and a few months removed from being picked ahead of only Kentucky in the SEC East, Missouri is No. 5 and rising in the BCS standings and now preparing for the championship game of the country's toughest college football conference.
Mizzou beat No. 19 Texas A&M and its Heisman Trophy winning quarterback 28-21 here in front of a national television audience on Saturday. This week, MU plays for the SEC championship in a game that may be watched by more people than any in the program's history.
"We got a lot of respect back," Mizzou coach Gary Pinkel says. "You know, respect is real, real important to me."
No question about that. The best part for Mizzou fans is that the turnaround does not have the symptoms of a fade. All season, Mizzou has played its home games under two massive cranes working the early stages of a major stadium expansion, and the symbolism is impossible to miss.
Just like MU's previous 10 wins this season, nobody walked out of the stadium thinking this was a fluke. The 11-1 Tigers outplayed A&M, the same way they did Murray State, Toledo, Indiana, Arkansas State, Vanderbilt, Georgia, Florida, Tennessee, Kentucky and Ole Miss before.
Pinkel, who may have a statue at this stadium someday, tied Don Faurot for the most wins of any coach in Mizzou history.
One more win, and it's the most successful season in at least two generations _ a year after a ridiculous string of injuries contributed to a seven-loss season, and three years after conventional wisdom had MU in over its head in the SEC.
Look at these guys now. They lost one game, when a short field goal in the second overtime against South Carolina banged off an upright. Other than that, perfect.
Henry Josey, who Pinkel called "sacred" to MU fans, scored the go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter, setting off a wild celebration that finished with many in a sellout crowd rushing the field in celebration.
Act like they've been there before? Well, they haven't.
Not in the SEC, anyway. Not after many thought the upgrade in conference would be like dropping someone who can't swim into the deep end without a floatation device.
They deserve this celebration, the continuation of a program fulfilling what Pinkel describes as "a quiet mission" it set back in January.
An offensive line beat up both literally and metaphorically a year ago is now overmatching opponents. A defense that gave up more than 40 points in half its conference games last year is now among the SEC's best.
Mizzou, picked sixth in its own division in the preseason, will now play Auburn for the championship of the best conference in college football.
They have done it through James Franklin's injury, Andrew Baggett's miss and the passing of Don James, Pinkel's greatest coaching influence.
This is the team that history probably will see as establishing Mizzou's best self-image in a new conference: smart quarterback play, mutant receivers who create mismatches in the red zone and a strong defense that wins the line of scrimmage. Through it all is the kind of togetherness that every coach wants, and a toughness that all good teams have.
These Tigers have already exceeded many of their fans' highest hopes for the season, and now they have a good chance for even more.
No. 4 Auburn beat top-ranked Alabama in an insane finish, meaning Missouri is a slight betting favorite against a fellow one-loss team for the SEC championship. Missouri never won a Big 12 championship but can win the SEC in just its second season in the conference.
Back before the season, Tigers receiver L'Damian Washington caused a minor stir by saying he expected 11 wins this year. Nobody outside the program or his immediate family paid it much attention beyond minor amusement, but as the season rolled along Washington reminded reporters about it.
Here we are, the regular season done, and Mizzou has those 11 wins with the chance for more.
This week, the leadup will undoubtedly include debate over whether a one-loss SEC team should play for the BCS championship over an undefeated Ohio State (should it beat Michigan State for the Big Ten title) or undefeated Florida State (should it beat Duke for the ACC title).
This is one of those partisan issues the media will beat into the ground for a week, even as a one-loss team jumping an undefeated team from a major conference flies in the face of precedence and logic.
In more relevant terms for Mizzou, it will also distract from the fact that the Tigers will be playing for its first conference championship since the 1960s and what many would consider the best season in program history.
And nobody saw this coming.

 

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