ATLANTA — It’s just another game, right?
Forget the chance to win the Southeastern Conference, advance to the first BCS Bowl game in school history and the national spotlight. Missouri is trying to treat its game on Saturday against Auburn as the next game on the schedule and nothing more. That’s how Missouri navigated the grind of its SEC schedule in 2013.
“I think it was all our mentality this year,” senior wide receiver L’Damian Washington said on Monday when trying to explain the team’s turnaround.
That mentality was tested in the week leading up to the SEC Championship Game. This isn’t like any other game. It’s played at a neutral field with everybody in college football watching. The Tigers aren't used to this type of game.
This one wasn’t on the schedule. Missouri had to earn it. An 11-win season and going 4-0 in November led the Tigers to this week. And it has been anything but just another week for Missouri. That makes it impossible to treat it like just another week.
The uncharacteristically large crowd at Missouri’s media day on Monday was a hint of things to come. Coach Gary Pinkel and players had league-mandated teleconferences early in the week. Every major sports network was discussing Missouri’s game and the implications of it.
The only sanctuary the team could find from the noise was on the field. Pinkel said it felt like every other week of practice. At least that was normal.
But the spotlight on Missouri only got brighter when the team left Columbia. A crowd of fans gathered at the training facility to send the team off on Friday. Instead of a quiet team flight and the inconspicuous arrival at the visiting stadium Missouri has become accustomed to all season, dozens of cameras awaited the team for it’s scheduled 4 p.m. arrival at the Georgia Dome.
While the team was in the air, those cameras were already pointed directly at Pinkel, who was delivering his scheduled Friday press conference. Pinkel sat at a table in the center of the stage. Two televisions on either side of him displayed his image, magnifying his message and capturing his every word for a national audience.
Cameras clicked non-stop. Lights shined down on Pinkel, who was wearing a black suit to go with a black and gold tie. Missouri’s helmet was resting on the table in front of him along with a helmet displaying the SEC Championship logo.
Pinkel kept his message the same. Twenty-six minutes of questions and a few beads of sweat later, Pinkel’s obligation was complete. Then it was picture time.
Photographers tripped over one another to get the shot of Pinkel and Auburn coach Gus Malzahn posing with the SEC Championship trophy, which sat on the table between an Auburn helmet and a Missouri helmet. The pose lasted a few minutes, and Pinkel’s smile grew more strained with each second that passed.
Just another Friday, right?
“Our whole staff, one thing I want to make sure with our staff, is that we're not acting different around our players,” Pinkel said. "We've done a good job with our staff staying consistent with that kind of behavior. Again, that's what kids look at. They feel all those things."
Pinkel wouldn’t have wanted his team to see him pacing on the turf at the Georgia Dome shortly after 3 p.m. He nervously looked down at his phone and made phone calls. The Tigers' arrival to Atlanta had been delayed by the weather.
At the beginning of the season, the seniors decided not to do Friday walkthroughs at the visiting stadiums. Just another distraction, they thought. The league required Missouri to show up for at least 15 minutes at the Georgia Dome. Another change from Missouri’s usual routine.
The late arrival turned out to be a blessing in disguise. It wouldn’t have to do its first walkthrough of the season. Instead, Auburn took the field. Players walked around the field and let their eyes wander all around the Georgia Dome. The video boards displayed the Missouri and Auburn logos with the Atlanta skyline in the background.
An NFL stadium had been transformed into a site for one of the biggest college football games of the year. The SEC Network’s new marketing slogan, which was revealed earlier in the morning, never seemed more fitting.
“Take it all in.”
It’s just another stadium, right?
“Doesn't matter who we play, where we play, it's about how we play,” Pinkel said. “We've been talking about that every single week since August.”
The field should provide the peace Missouri has been seeking after the noise of a frenzied week. It's not just another game, but that doesn't mean Missouri won't do it's best to keep the mindset its had all year.
On Friday afternoon, Pinkel reflected on what his late mentor Don James would say to him about this game. He would stress the little things on the football field of course, Pinkel thought. That's what wins football games, James always said. He would also tell Pinkel to do what he's been doing.
"Don't treat this game different than the first game," would be James' message, Pinkel said. "Just do what you do. That's what the kids will believe."
Supervising editor is Nina Pantic.