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December 25, 2013

Powered Up: Looking Back



Without a doubt, 2013 was the year of the Tiger in the Southeastern Conference. There is that group of miracle-makers from Auburn playing in the BCS National Championship Game and most certainly Gus Malzahn's crew earned every bit of praise and recognition it has gotten and will get.


But my guess is most of you reading this have heard more than enough about that group of Tigers over the last 18 days. And make no mistake, despite a disappointing end in Atlanta, Missouri's Tigers made some serious impressions of their own over the last few months.


Mizzou was picked to finish sixth this season...in the SEC East. The Tigers enter the Cotton Bowl eighth...in America. With a win over Oklahoma State, it is not at all a stretch to think that Missouri will finish higher in the national polls than most "experts" (the quotes aren't demeaning, I use them to refer to myself as well and point out the folly of tabbing anyone as an expert on the most insanely unpredictable sport of them all) picked them to finish in their own division.



It is Christmas Day, a time for excitement and anticipation of what is to come, but also an appropriate time to look back. My gift to you (I'm nothing if not frugal) is simply my own rambling recollections of what I will take away from this unforgettable season.


In August, I truly thought I would wake up on Christmas morning, watch my kids rip through their presents and get back to chasing rumors of a coaching search. I have no shame in admitting that. Given what had happened in Columbia in 2012, given the conference they played in, my hopes were not high for this team. I thought they could win six games, maybe seven. If everything went their way, I thought eight or maybe (I stress the maybe) even nine. But realistically, four or five were in my mind too...and not in a tiny little corner where we don't talk about it. I thought there was a legitimate chance of a seven-loss (or more) season. And with that, well, we all know what was going to happen.

Obviously, that didn't happen. What happened was that Missouri came straight out of nowhere and stormed through the first four games of the season. I didn't really expect the Tigers to lose a game in September. Not only didn't they lose one, they didn't come close.


But really, the season started on the night of October 5th in Nashville. That was when Missouri announced they weren't here to whip up on a so-so (to be kind) non-conference schedule and then assume the position for the final eight weeks of the year in the big, bad SEC.


Vandy was led by the James Franklin that was quickly ascending the throne as America's darling. I mean the dude had won nine games at Vanderbilt. And many thought he could do it again (by the way, he probably will). Missouri stormed into Nashville and led the Commodores 20-0 before the few that decided to walk out of the honky tonks and over to the football stadium knew what happened. Mizzou won 51-28 and it wasn't really even anywhere near that close.

If the win at Vanderbilt signaled to a few that Missouri might be a surprise, a win the next week in Athens, GA screamed it from the mountaintops. I know Todd Gurley was out and I know Keith Marshall was out and I know that supposedly Georgia was pulling people out of the stands to play against Missouri (that's what it seemed like many were saying anyway). But the Tigers had a 28-10 lead at halftime and Michael Sam put his signature moment on his everybody's all-American season with a fumble return for a touchdown. Then Georgia came back and was within a dropped two-point conversion of tying the game and the James Franklin that truly would become one of America's best stories got hurt and everybody just knew it was going to all come crashing down. Until it didn't. Maty Mauk ran for a first down and Bud Sasser threw his only pass of the season and L'Damian Washington snatched it out of the air. As their starting quarterback trudged to the locker room and the media began to write Missouri off (again), the rest of the Tigers barked to the few red-clad fans left in Sanford Stadium that they were here and, damn it, they weren't planning to go anywhere anytime soon.

The next week, Mauk darted around Faurot Field and flung balls all over the place as the Tigers sent Florida on the first step of its second-half death march toward questions about Will Muschamp's job.



That set up, in effect, an SEC East Championship Game in Columbia on October 26th. If Missouri could beat South Carolina, the Tigers were going to clinch the division, at the latest, on November 9th. And for 48 minutes, it was maybe the most magical football I have ever seen at Faurot Field. The defense dominated and the offense did enough and the fans held a three-hour pre-party to what was going to be a celebration unlike any we'd ever seen. And then Connor Shaw happened. He flung the dirt off his grave and came in and drew the Gamecocks even. The game went to overtime and Missouri piled dirt on Shaw and he faced fourth and 15 and as soon as that pass fell incomplete, some 70 thousand people were going to storm out of the stands to Harpo's. Oops. Missouri's season, again, was over. Finally, this ragtag group was done. They couldn't come back from this. The kicker got Twitter threats of bodily harm and the Gamecocks resurrected their division title hopes and we all began to write the epitaph on a season that once looked bound for Atlanta ending up there anyway...in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl.


But once again, Missouri simply didn't get the memo. They played a game that was, by most standards, decent, and hammered Tennessee by four touchdowns. They destroyed Kentucky behind four touchdowns from their next all-American (Dorial Green-Beckham will be on a lot of those lists next August). They went to Oxford unaware they were supposed to polish the SEC East trophy for South Carolina and they put together a goal line stand that set the stage for a 24-10 win and the biggest game most of us had ever seen in Columbia, Missouri.


Then Johnny Football came to town and he brought all-everything receiver Mike Evans and this video game offense that had embarrassed Missouri in the final game of last season. And if he wasn't the highlight reel we've come to expect, Manziel did enough--along with the help of an unexpectedly salty defense--to have his team in a tie game with a little over four minutes left.


That's when every Missouri fan's favorite player (if he isn't, make an appointment with your physician and tell him you just need to make sure you still have a heart that is beating in your chest) took a handoff on third and two. Henry Josey jumped over the arm of an Aggie defender and ran over 53 yards of field turf into the South end zone at Faurot Field. For the duration of those 159 feet, nobody could tell which one of his knees simply wasn't supposed to work anymore. Two hundred and thirty-three seconds later, Missouri had won the SEC East. The fans looked around. They weren't sure what they were supposed to do. I mean, they wanted to come on the field. But they'd been told so many times not to do so. The SEC fines schools for that because, well, in the SEC, all those shenanigans are supposed to be just a little bit beneath us. I mean, this league has won seven straight national championships and even if 70% of the league has had absolutely nothing to do with that, they all claim that ridiculous feat as if it's their own.


At some point, someone took that first step and the crowd covered the turf in the most orderly field-rushing I've ever seen. There were some tears (some of them might have been for Josey and his run, but I think most of them were simply a reflection of the fact that not a single person on that field really believed even five minutes before that they'd be there). The players stayed. They took pictures. They gave out hugs and accepted high fives. They didn't want to leave. Nobody did.



Eventually they left and they went to Atlanta and after 50 minutes, they just couldn't match Tre Mason and Keith Marshall yard for yard or score for score anymore. The silly system college football uses (which does exactly what it is supposed to in matching the top two teams in a bowl game and is useful for virtually nothing else--as I'm typing this something called the Beef O'Brady's Bowl is about to end) sent them off to Texas, possibly America's best two-loss team playing in the Cotton Bowl while at least a couple inferior squads play in an arbitrarily labelled top tier BCS Bowl for the second time in seven years.


Whether that game means a whole lot depends on who you talk to. Some will want to win because 12 wins has only been done once around here. Some will want to win to prove the SEC is much better than the Big 12 (Missouri doesn't have to win the Cotton Bowl for that to be true). Most will want to win simply to send guys like Franklin and Sam and L'Damian Washington and Andrew Wilson and Marcus Lucas and E.J. Gaines and Justin Britt out the way they deserve to go out.



Honestly, I don't think this game matters all that much. No matter what goes down for 60 minutes in Jerry World, I'll remember this season. After the win at Ole Miss, L'Damian Washington (talk about kids you can't help but root for) told me this team wanted to go down in history. They've heard for a few years now how Missouri fans talk about that 2007 team. And they want to be talked about that way.


For me, at least, they will be. In August of 2007, I wouldn't have bet Missouri was going to win 12 games and come within a half of the national title game. But I'd have put a lot more money on that than I would have put on the Tigers looking for a new coach. That season was a surprise on the level of store-bought mild salsa. This one had the shock value of stuff made with ghost peppers in some dude's basement.

Usually by this time of year, I can't wait for the football season to be over. I have a great job. It's a lot of fun. But between August and January, it can get pretty exhausting. I've seen enough Hampton Inns and put enough miles on my car and listened to (and asked) enough stupid questions that don't have a legitimate answer. I'm usually ready to relax. But in nine days, this season is going to be over. To be honest, I don't think I want it to be. Nobody ever wants the fun to end.



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