ATLANTA — With two hours until kickoff for the Southeastern Conference Championship between Missouri and Auburn, the doors to the Georgia Dome opened, and a chant slowly broke out.
It seemed nonpartisan at first as it bounced off the walls.
"Let's go Tigers," fans cheered.
But as kickoff approached, there was nothing neutral about the chant, which could have applied to both Missouri and Auburn. Thirty minutes after the gates opened, the lawn between the Georgia Dome and the Georgia World Congress Center was a sea of blue and orange. Not a Missouri fan in sight.
"Are we playing anybody, or is this an intrasquad scrimmage?" one Auburn fan asked in jest. He repeated himself for emphasis, adding a chuckle.
This type of trip has become somewhat common for Auburn. The school has appeared in five SEC Championship games, most recently in 2010. Just outside of the stadium, a line of flags commemorated the winners of the game. The flags were all in chronological order. Except for the last three. Auburn fans put the flag from 2010 in the front of the line, as if to remind passers-by which Tigers would be the next champions of the SEC.
Missouri fans were outnumbered, but they were not nonexistent. Tucked inside the lowest floor of the Georgia World Congress Center, a Missouri fan tailgate was underway. Thousands of Missouri fans, who braved inclement weather to make it to Atlanta, were already at work preparing for the game. Most were running on very little sleep. Some hadn't gotten any at all.
Comparing the two fan bases is hardly fair. One had to travel just over an hour to get to Atlanta. With the weather, some Missouri fans needed 24 hours to make the trip.
In the minutes leading up to kickoff, there wasn't much of a comparison, either. Missouri fans occupied the southeast corner of the stadium prior to kickoff, but Auburn fans took care of the rest. Highlights of past SEC Championship games rolled on both scoreboards.
Even for all the talk of how both Auburn and Missouri took similar paths to Atlanta, it felt different. Auburn has been talked about for its miracle plays in wins over Georgia and Alabama. It has been a season of destiny for Auburn, some say.
But for Missouri, it's been about flying under the radar, beating teams convincingly, but without much flash. Today was different, though. Like it or not, Missouri would be a subject of the drama this time. The SEC made sure of it. Every commerical featured Missouri. Every inch of the conference's logo had been painted and repainted throughout the morning. The game would be broadcast nationally on CBS. Everything had to be just right, and it was.
The Georgia Dome was packed, kickoff just minutes away. The stadium grew louder and louder. Missouri was now a part of the SEC tradition it was admiring just two years ago. Ready or not, Missouri was on the biggest stage in college football.