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October 16, 2013
Powered Up: The toughest game
Such is the nature of coaches that just minutes after one of the biggest wins of his 23-year career, Gary Pinkel was telling the media cautionary tales.
Pinkel recalled his team beating then-No. 1 Oklahoma in 2010. He called his mentor, Don James, after that game, hoping to have his idol revel in the glory with him. No such luck. Pinkel said James "put a douse on the flame" for him, telling him that the next game would be the toughest one he would coach.
"I didn't listen to him very well," Pinkel said. "I got mad at him and hung up. I didn't want to hear that."
Pinkel doesn't need to be told this time. Yes, the message is cliched. It also turned out to be true. The Tigers traveled to Lincoln, Nebraska and watched Roy Helu, Jr. run over, around and through them in a 31-17 Cornhusker win. The next week, the Tigers got up 14-0 on Texas Tech, then did nothing while the Red Raiders scored the game's final 24 points. In just eight days, a 7-and-0 start and dreams of a national title were gone.
Fast forward three years. Missouri had just beaten No. 7 Georgia, 41-26 on the Bulldogs' home field, authoring a definitive statement (and parroting it to the Bulldog fans filing out of Sanford Stadium) that yes, indeed, they do belong in the Southeastern Conference. Next come the 22nd-ranked Florida Gators. If he didn't know it three years ago, Gary Pinkel knows it now: Saturday will be the toughest game he has coached so far this season.
It's easy to say there is a lot of season left. It's also impossible to ignore the possibilities that lie ahead for this Missouri team.
"They'll look at that," Pinkel said. "They'll be forced to because of all you guys. They'll have to."
All due respect, the players would probably know the scenarios without us writing stories about them. In the next two weeks, Mizzou plays Florida and South Carolina. If the Tigers win them both, it will take two losses in the season's final month to keep them out of the SEC Championship game. If you win 11 or 12 in the SEC, you're almost a lock for a BCS bowl. And all of those things remain possible for the Tigers.
"That's clutter. That doesn't help you play," Pinkel said. "What does that do? That does nothing. We've got great respect for Florida. It's about us focusing and preparing to play our best. That's how you play your best football, not thinking about all the stuff out there."
His players are certainly saying the right things.
"It's not (hard) for me," Justin Britt said. "The injury last year taught me just focus on the play at hand, focus on the game because it could be your last. You can't look forward because you'll let something slip away in the present. I think it comes with maturity. Some people can do it and some people have to learn to be able to do it."
"It is (hard) especially with these two games coming up," Evan Boehm said. "Against Florida and against South Carolina, you've really got to stay focused. You've really got to stay focused this week because Florida has a great defense. We were just in there watching film and they've got a great defense."
Of course, they were probably saying the right things in late October of 2010 as well. The proof can't come until Saturday. Gary Pinkel has answered every critic so far this season. But in his business, he knows one thing for certain: You are only as good as your last game. Pinkel's team has passed six tests this season. It's toughest lies ahead.