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October 30, 2013

Powered Up: Destination Atlanta



One dream died for Missouri fans last weekend. The Tigers aren't going to go undefeated. Another dream, a BCS title game appearance, is on life support after a heartbreaking come-from-ahead 27-24 loss to South Carolina.


But if I'm being honest, those dreams were long shots to begin with. I'm not saying they were impossible. Missouri was one of the last dozen undefeated teams in the country and one of about eight with legitimate national championship hopes. So people who were talking about those things weren't completely misguided. But there was a lot of season left and those things were still very much out in the distance.



With a one in the loss column now, Missouri's focus should be a much more attainable goal and, honestly, probably a more important one. The Tigers still control their path to the SEC Championship game.


Prior to the game against South Carolina, I was asked on a national radio show just what an appearance in that game would mean for Missouri. I don't know if you can measure what it would mean.


For more than a year, the nicest thing said about the Tigers was that they might be able to compete in the best conference in college football, but it was probably a ten-year process at the least.

Most people knew that was a little bit ridiculous. Now Missouri is proving it. But even those of us that knew it was ridiculous probably didn't think the Tigers would be in legitimate contention for a division championship in their second year in the league.


The SEC title game has been played since 1992. That means there have been 21 games and 42 total teams that have made it. Here is the list of title game appearances:


Florida: 10
Alabama: 8
Tennessee: 5
Georgia: 5
LSU: 5
Auburn: 4
Arkansas: 3
South Carolina: 1
Mississippi State: 1


Nine of the twelve teams that have been in the league for more than a year have made the game. But only seven have made it more than once. Thirty-three of the possible 42 appearances (79%) have come from five schools. In other words, it's not an easy thing to do.



Of the six schools in the East, other than Missouri, three of them have combined for 20 of the 21 division championships since 1992. Florida made seven of the first ten SEC Championship Games. Tennessee made the other three. Georgia has been in five of the last 11, including the last two. South Carolina's 2010 appearance is the only exception out of the East.

On the other side, it's been a little bit more spread out. Four teams have combined for 20 of the 21 appearances with the 1998 Mississippi State Bulldogs being the lone outlier. Alabama and LSU have won the division five out of the last six years (soon to likely be six of the last seven). Auburn has made it four times and Arkansas three.

The Gamecocks and the Razorbacks were the SEC's "newcomers" prior to Texas A&M and Missouri joining the league before last season. They have combined to make the league title game four times in their combined 42 seasons, or just less than once every five years between them.


Many of those saying it would take Mizzou a decade to compete in the league pointed to Arkansas and South Carolina as the reasons why. Arkansas made the SEC Championship game in its fourth year in the conference, then again in year eleven. South Carolina took 19 years before it made the conference's top game.

So what would it mean for Mizzou to make the title game in year two? It would mean that not only can Missouri compete in the best conference in college football eventually, but that the Tigers can do it almost immediately. Winning that game would be the cherry on top of the sundae, but honestly, sundaes are pretty good even without cherries.


Of course, there is plenty of work to be done if Mizzou is going to make the title game. The Tigers have a one game lead right now, but the loss to South Carolina means that the Gamecocks will advance if the two teams end up tied.


South Carolina has already played six league games. The Gamecocks will host Mississippi State and Florida and will be done with their SEC schedule by November 16th.


Missouri has three realistic paths to the SEC title game. First of all, the Tigers can win their final four games. If they do that, they go to Atlanta. Second, Mizzou can win three and have the Gamecocks drop one to either the Bulldogs or Gators. Again, if that happens, Missouri is in the title game regardless of anything else.


The final path is the most convoluted, but perhaps also the most realistic. If South Carolina wins its next two, the Gamecocks will finish 6-2 in the SEC. That means Missouri would have to go 3-1 over the final four games to reach the same record. In that case, the Tigers need to be big Georgia Bulldog fans. UGA has a neutral site game with Florida (Saturday), a road game at Auburn (Nov. 16) and a home date with Kentucky (Nov. 23).

If the Bulldogs win out, they get to 6-2, creating a three-way tie with Mizzou and South Carolina. In that scenario, all three teams would have one win and one loss in the games against the other two. The next tiebreaker is division record. If Missouri's loss does not come to Tennessee or Kentucky, the Tigers would have a 5-1 mark against the SEC East, while Georgia and South Carolina would both be 4-2. Mizzou would be Atlanta-bound.

There are plenty of scenarios that could play out in the next month. Missouri has to win its next two games to have any realistic hope of making the title game. If the Tigers do that, they will go into the Texas A&M game knowing exactly what they have to do to make the SEC Championship.


And make no mistake, that's the goal. Yes, Missouri can still have a very good season--a season far above expectations--without playing in Atlanta on December 7th. But the Tigers have put themselves in position to make it. They could do in two years what took South Carolina nearly two decades. They could do in two years what three teams in the SEC have still never done. And the message that would send about the program is immeasurable.



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