COLUMBIA — Missouri is not supposed to be playing in the Southeastern Conference Championship. Not yet, at least.
This wasn’t supposed to happen in just Missouri’s second season in the league. It wasn’t supposed to happen after the 5-7 season in 2013. And it definitely wasn’t supposed to happen after starting quarterback James Franklin missed four games with a shoulder injury.
Who: Missouri vs. Auburn
When: 3 p.m. Saturday at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta
But here it is, 11 wins later, Missouri is SEC East Champions and heading to Atlanta to play against Auburn for a shot at its first conference championship since 1969. There are still four teams in the conference that have not made it to an SEC Championship Game, and Missouri only needed two seasons do it. Best of all, nobody outside of Missouri’s locker room expected 11 wins from the Tigers in 2013.
Missouri’s players have talked about what the 5-7 did to them. The team facility was more crowded than usual in January. Players came back early from winter break to start training for this season. Coach Gary Pinkel sat down with his seniors and had them outline their goals for the season.
The goals were lofty. Win the division, win the conference, and be a team people remember when talking about the best teams in Missouri history. Forget 2007, the 2013 Tigers were going to be the group people pointed to in future years as Pinkel’s best team.
“I’ve been taught that my whole life — that the sky’s the limit,” senior wide receiver L’Damian Washington said. “You always have to keep believing. You have to speak it to existence. That’s what this team did. We spoke it to existence.”
Washington continued speaking it to existence in July at SEC Media Days. As one of three representatives from Missouri, he was faced with questions about his expectations for his team. Decked out in a white suit with a black dress shirt and gold tie, Washington estimated an 11-win season for Missouri. Reporters laughed. Washington didn’t.
“When I said it at SEC Media Day, I didn’t crack a smile,” Washington recalls. “I said it with a serious face, even when people smirked and laughed at me. They said, ‘Are you serious?’ I said ‘Yes, I’m serious.’ Just because I saw the look in these guys’ eyes back in spring football, back in summer training. I knew those guys were ready to come out and have a good year.”
Missouri still wasn’t taken seriously. Picked to finish ahead of only Kentucky in the SEC East, an upset Missouri stepped on the field for the first practice of fall camp.
“To go from 5-7 and to not go to a bowl game for the first time in eight or nine years, and everybody’s basically laughing at you for going to the SEC, saying it’s going to be five or six years before Mizzou can compete in the SEC,” Washington said. “If you’re a competitor, that eats at you. That eats at you.
“This team’s full of competitors. Coach Pinkel talks about it. When people doubt you, people on the outside, it does something to you.”
All it did to Missouri was help it rip off a five-game winning streak to start the season. A trip to Athens, Ga., loomed. A road game against No. 7 Georgia would be the benchmark, critics said. It turned out to be a turning point. Most teams don't go into Athens and win.
A win over Florida validated the Tigers even more, pushing the winning streak to seven. A devastating, double-overtime loss to South Carolina on homecoming put Missouri at a crossroads though. The goals the seniors laid out back in January were still out in front of them, but the loss was one that many thought could cripple the season.
"We didn’t want to just get back in the bowl game talk," defensive end Shane Ray said. "We wanted to be a team that’s a national powerhouse. A team that you have to talk about every year."
Missouri couldn't lose again to win the SEC East outright. With a convincing win over Texas A&M to finish the season, fans stormed the field, looks of shock spread across their faces. The win was the last in a four-game winning streak to finish the season. For the first time since 2008, Missouri would play for a conference championship.
The players might have expected to compete for the SEC Championship in 2013, but they couldn't have known what to expect when it actually happened. Most of the team celebrated at midfield with the mass of students. Some stood on the outskirts, mouths agape as the scoreboard read: "SEC East Champions."
Kony Ealy couldn't figure out the words to describe it. Neither could Washington. All Pinkel could say was, "Wow." Before the season, Missouri put three blocks in the locker room. One represented a bowl game, one was for a division championship and the last was for the national championship. All are still very much alive for a team and a coach who were written off just four months earlier.
"We’ll always be the first Mizzou team to win an SEC East Championship no matter how you slice it," Washington said. "That’s sweet. In your life, you always want to go down in history, no matter what you want to be a part of history. When it happens, it’s sweet."
Missouri has a chance to make even more history on Saturday against Auburn. A win would give Missouri its first conference championship since 1969 and secure a berth in its first BCS Bowl Game. A win would also make Pinkel the all-time winningest coach in Missouri history.
The talk of the week has been about whether a one-loss SEC team will be able to jump an undefeated Ohio State to play in the National Championship. Missouri will be searching for respect one last time if it wants a chance to knock off the last block in its locker room.
"The main difference is all of those teams have won national championships and we haven’t," Pinkel said. "We are the new kid on the block. That doesn’t faze us."
Missouri has effectively blocked out the clutter all season long, but the possibility of a national championship would mean a lot for the university. Regardless of how the team finishes, seasons like this one don't happen at Missouri.
The school's only two national team championships came in indoor tack and field 1965 and baseball in 1954. Dan Devine Pavilion has banners hanging from the ceiling. Big 12 North Championships and Independence Bowls. You have to go back to the 1970s to find a bowl as prestigious as the one Missouri has a chance to play in this season.
"I just want to win our game," Pinkel said. "I’m focused on Auburn. We've got a tough task, and I don’t care about anything after that. Let’s just focus on Auburn.”
Auburn is another team that nobody expected to be here. The 2012 season was a train wreck for Auburn, who didn't win a single conference game. But while the SEC has won seven straight national championships, it has never had a team win consecutive league championships in the BCS era. The depth showed in 2013.
"It's what SEC ball is all about," senior linebacker Donovan Bonner said. "If you knew the two teams that had the toughest seasons last year would be in the SEC title game, people wouldn't believe that. So it's really just what is so beautiful about SEC football and this conference."
Supervising editor is Greg Bowers.