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September 12, 2012

Powered Up: Now comes the Hard Part


Missouri fans, your challenge begins Saturday.

I have long said that the toughest part of Mizzou's transition to the SEC, the part I'm watching with the most interest, is not on the field. It's not on the recruiting trail or in the administration. The jobs and livelihoods of all of those people depend on an all-out commitment. The biggest challenge is in the stands. Is Missouri's fanbase ready for the challenge not just to treat Tiger football as a tradition or a diversion, but as a religion?

Last Saturday, you made a strong statement. Gary Pinkel said he received calls from friends across the country complimenting the atmosphere at Faurot Field on Saturday night. Mike Slive talked as if he was impressed. It was hard not to be. Columbia was rocking on Saturday.

But that was the easy part. I mean, the SEC isn't stupid. It didn't become America's foremost conference by accident. Slive knew what he was doing when he sent Georgia to Columbia and Florida to College Station in the second week of the regular season. Virtually any fanbase in the country would have packed the stadium for its team's debut in the SEC against one of the traditional power programs in the league.

Before I go on, don't take that as an insult. You were asked to do something and you did it. The atmosphere was fantastic, right up until James Franklin's fumble put the final nail in Missouri's coffin with a little under six minutes to play.

But what happens next? Will the Arizona State game be sold out? Vanderbilt? Kentucky? Syracuse?

There are still plenty of doubters out there, plenty who wonder if Missouri and its newfound football acumen are ready for this league. On the field, the Tigers didn't win last weekend, but listening to most of the analysis nationwide, they convinced plenty of people that they were capable of playing in the big, bad SEC.

Those same analysts wildly complimented the atmosphere at Mizzou's conference opener. But they'll turn on you. And they'll do it in a heartbeat.

So, starting this Saturday, Missouri's fanbase is in the spotlight.

The Tigers have already set a record, selling a little bit more than 46,000 season tickets. Throw in the allotment to the opposition, student, band and corporate tickets and there aren't many seats available for any of Missouri's games this season. But tickets sold and butts in seats can be different numbers (ask Florida, which announced a crowd about six thousand short of a sellout for the opener against Bowling Green, but may have had twice that many empties from the look on TV and talking to people who were there).

The next step is a packed house against Arizona State and Vandy and Syracuse and the teams that don't exactly scream no-brainer, mark-the-calendar games for Missouri fans.

When I grew up, you could walk up to the stadium and get a ticket for about any Missouri game you wanted to (except Nebraska--the Big Red Horde took care of that). Even the last few years, as Missouri began to emerge as a program that was capable of more than serving as someone's stepping stone to a conference title, you could get in pretty easily if you wanted to. There just weren't that many sellouts in Columbia.

It looks like that's changing. But it's about more than showing up. You might have to park farther away. You might have to pay more to do it. You might be a bit more crowded in the bleachers. You might have fans in front of you who feel it is their duty to stand and scream at the top of their lungs for all 60 minutes. You may have to get to the game earlier and get home later.

And to all that, I hope the response is, "Amen."

Because this is what you asked for. When you sent that email to the Board of Curators begging to leave the Big 12, when you posted on your preferred fan forum about breaking free from Texas and running into Slive's open arms, when you called your favorite sports talk show to say that the Big 12 just wouldn't cut it anymore, this is what you wanted.

I'm sure this sounds preachy. It's not meant to be. But if Missouri football truly is turning a corner--if, as Pinkel said, they're joining this league not just to be a part of it, but to push to win it--a week-in, week-out commitment is required.

Last weekend was one of the shining moments in Mizzou football history, all the way up until the final 15 minutes of action on the field. It's up to Tiger fans to make sure it was the new rule and not the exception.

That starts on Saturday night at 6 p.m. The nation will be watching.

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