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September 5, 2012

Powered Up: A New Era


Is this the biggest regular season game in Missouri football's 122 year history?

I don't know. I've surely been asked that question a lot this week. I've even asked it myself. But I don't have an answer.

What I do know is it's the biggest buildup for a game in Missouri regular season history. There have been big games. There was Nebraska in 2007, Kansas later that year, Oklahoma in 2010. I'd say the anticipation for those games was this great.

But that anticipation built up for six days. This has been building for ten months.

Missouri announced it was moving to the SEC in the first week of November last year. The last four weeks of that season were kind of an afterthought. The Tigers won four straight games while their fans all talked about freedom from Bevo's shackles and next season.

Make no mistake, the Tigers have a chance to make a statement on Saturday. There are some who don't think Mizzou will stand up so well in the SEC. To be honest, I think there are far fewer of those people than most Tiger fans do. I've seen a lot of national types lately saying the Tigers will surprise people in the SEC, they'll be better than people think. If everyone thinks they're better than people think, aren't they really just as good as people think?

Every Sunday, starting with this one, there will be referendums written on Missouri in the SEC. If the Tigers win, there will be a whole lot of, "Whoa! Maybe they're better than we gave them credit for." If they lose, especially in a blowout, you'll all read about how all the national people were right.

Of course neither will be true. As Gary Pinkel said on Wednesday morning, win or lose, the Tigers will still wake up Sunday morning and have ten games left to play this season. A win does not give them the inside track to the SEC East title and a loss does not eliminate the possibility of winning it. It's one game. Missouri's SEC legacy won't be written on Saturday night. It won't be written in 2012. That's going to take a long time. Eventually, there will be generations of Missouri fans who have to ask what that whole Big XII thing was. Not yet, but it will happen.

To me, Saturday isn't so much about the game. Don't get me wrong, in the short term, that's the important part. Scoring more points than the Bulldogs is what Pinkel and his players will be focused on. It is what fans will remember.

But ultimately, Saturday is about everything else. Everything before the opening kickoff.

The only game I can truly compare this to is Oklahoma a couple of years ago. Most remember Gahn McGaffie's kickoff return or Zaviar Gooden's interception. And, yeah, they were big plays there were key to the Tigers beating the nation's top-ranked team. But those aren't what I remember.

What I remember is taking my son to College Game Day at 6 a.m. in the dark. After we'd been there for a couple of hours as the Quad filled up with thousands of black-and-gold clad fans, I walked across 9th Street to Starbucks for my fifth or sixth cup of coffee that morning. On the way back, I stood on the steps of the journalism school where I'd spent so many hours as a student a dozen or so years before. I looked out over the Quad and I took it all in. I remember thinking, "I never thought I'd see this. Not here." I remember the emails from fans who broke down in tears, the sheer joy as the students rushed the field, the laughable encouragement from the PA announcer to stay in their seats be damned.

I remember November 6th last year. I had just flown back from Waco, Texas after watching Heisman winner Robert Griffin III (speaking of things I never thought I'd see, a Heisman Trophy at Baylor? REALLY?) dismantle Mizzou. The Tigers had sent out a somewhat anti-climactic press release as I sat on the runway in Waco that they had joined the SEC. By that time, we all knew it was coming. It was just a matter of when.

That night, I filed into the student center on campus along with every other media member who was within driving distance of Columbia that morning and a few thousand rowdy, rollicking fans. Brady Deaton talked. Mike Alden talked. And then SEC commissioner Mike Slive took to the podium and told the fans "Welcome to your new home."

Confetti rained, chants broke out and a new age of Mizzou athletics began. And again, I thought, "I never thought I'd see this."

For the last ten months, there have been some moments where it became a bit more real. S-E-C chants broke out as the Tigers won the Big XII basketball tournament. The schedule came out. I went to SEC media days in Birmingham.

But really, it's not real yet. Not to me anyway. Not until Saturday. At 6:45, Trey Barrow will kick a ball or T.J. Moe will settle under a kickoff and Missouri will be a member of the Southeastern Conference.

Saturday is going to be unlike any game I have ever covered. Yes, the Tigers technically joined a new league when they played the Big XII opener at Texas in 1996. But that wasn't the same. That was just adding four teams to the league they were already in. I've never covered the first game in a new conference. And there's pretty much no chance I ever will again.

71,004 fans will be inside the stadium. If Missouri wins, ten years from now, twice that many will say they were there. No matter what the final score is, Saturday will go down as the day that Missouri football changed forever.

To steal a marketing phrase gone wrong from that team to the West that the Tigers may or may not ever play again, "History Awaits."

Saturday's gonna be a whole lot of fun.

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