Mizzou can make declaration at Independence

Friday, December 30, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 5:57 p.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008

The last time Missouri beat a Southeastern Conference team in football, a young coach named Gary Pinkel had just been promoted to offensive coordinator at Washington, the Cold War was reaching its climax and Brad Smith was still in diapers.

Of course, the Tigers have only played one SEC team since then – Arkansas, which beat Missouri 27-14 in the 2003 Independence Bowl.

This year’s Independence Bowl, at 2:30 p.m. today against South Carolina, is the Tigers’ latest opportunity to break through against an SEC team. It will also be the first meeting between teams from the Big 12 and SEC, though Texas Tech and Alabama will provide a rematch in the Cotton Bowl on Jan. 2.

All of that makes Missouri’s season finale even more than a bowl game and a chance to send its seniors out with a win.

“I think there should be a little bit of pride for the league you represent,” Pinkel said. “We haven’t done real well against the SEC.”

Since 1998, the Independence Bowl has normally pitted the No. 5 or No. 6 Big 12 team against a team from the SEC’s Western Division, as was the case in 2003. This year, however, there weren’t enough bowl-eligible teams in the West to fill the spot, so the Gamecocks will make the trek to Shreveport, La., from the East, home of traditional powers Florida, Georgia and Tennessee.

“I think it’s the first one from that division, the first team in the Independence Bowl from the East,” Pinkel said. “So they’ll be a good football team.”

The SEC has won all six of its matchups against the Big 12 in the Independence Bowl, though in last year’s game, Miami (Ohio) played in the game instead of an SEC team. That means that for the second-straight time, it’s up to Missouri to break the Big 12’s Independence Bowl drought.

MU senior guard Tony Palmer said conference affiliation is a big part of the game.

“Definitely,” he said. “We were in this situation two years ago and we came out with a loss. Getting anything but a win won’t be satisfying.”

The Gamecocks, on the other hand, don’t seem nearly as enthused about proving themselves against another league.

Coach Steve Spurrier has been quick to mention Missouri’s Big 12 affiliation since the matchup was announced, seemingly building the Tigers up. But some players, like sophomore safety Ko Simpson, a third-team All-American, aren’t even sure which conference it is that Missouri represents.

“It’d be great to get the SEC this victory and everything, because we feel like the SEC is one of the best conferences in college ball,” Simpson said. “It’d be great to go against those guys in the Big Ten – Big 12, whatever.”

A few seconds later, Simpson opened his not-so-vast bank of Big 12 knowledge.

“I just know that the players are much bigger in the SEC and the SEC is a lot faster, that’s about all I know,” Simpson said.

So that means it should be no contest, right? After all, South Carolina has competed against teams like No. 8 Georgia (17-15 loss), No. 16 Florida (30-22 win), preseason No. 3 Tennessee (16-15 win) and No. 13 Alabama (37-14 loss) and is in the same conference as No. 7 Auburn and No. 10 Louisiana State.

Missouri’s Big 12, meanwhile, has just two ranked teams, No. 2 Texas and No. 18 Texas Tech.

But that doesn’t mean the Tigers will roll over. After all, 21 years after Missouri’s last SEC victory – a 47-30 shootout win against Mississippi State – Pinkel is a veteran head coach and Smith is hardly a baby.

Missouri, a limping team from a limping conference, will go into Shreveport against a tested team from the powerful SEC.

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