After No. 5-Missouri's 24-10 win over Mississippi on Saturday, Gary Pinkel began his press conference with the usual coach speak. He talked about how proud he was of his team, how they battled, prepared and focused. He thanked the fans -- an estimated 8,000 -- who traveled to Oxford. He complimented Ole Miss, saying his team was "fortunate."
At the end of his minute-long opening remarks, Pinkel said three words:
"Here we go."
The win kept Missouri (10-1, 6-1 SEC) atop the standings in the conference's East division. After South Carolina beat Florida and Georgia lost to Auburn nine days ago, Missouri had to win its remaining two games to clinch its division and advance to the SEC Championship against the winner of Saturday's Alabama/Auburn game.
One down. One to go.
The last opponent in Missouri's possible march to Atlanta is fitting. It's Texas A&M, its partner in the move to the SEC. A year ago, Missouri was supposed to transition seamlessly. The Aggies were supposed to struggle. This year, those predictions were flipped. Heisman winner Johnny Manziel would lead a high-powered attack in an assault for a West division crown, the biggest challenger for invincible Alabama.
Texas A&M landed the final blow in Missouri's disappointing 2012 season, a TKO that kept the Tigers from a bowl berth and began an offseason of uncertainty and unrest.
"I don't think necessarily that game itself set the tone," Pinkel said on Monday. "I think the whole season set the tone, without question. It created, I think, an enthusiasm to get back to winning and all the things we did that went on."
Now, it's Missouri that enters the final week of the season with all its chips pushed into the center of the table. At stake is a trip to Atlanta.
At stake is possibly more.
The Aggies ended Missouri's postseason hopes a year ago. This year, they can do the same. Only instead of a date in Shreveport or a trip to Birmingham, Texas A&M can cancel reservations in Atlanta. The Aggies can wipe out any hope of winter break in New Orleans or, just maybe, Pasadena.
Hopes and dreams. That's what this season has become. At the onset, a fanbase which had grown accustomed to winning in recent years simply hoped for improvement, for a bowl berth, for respect.
Missouri's done all that. Now, it's a season of dreams, of three-letter qualifiers in front of corporate bowl names, of trophies that actually mean something.
"If you think that was big, they're gonna get a lot bigger than that," Pinkel said after the game in Oxford.
"We don't like anything give to us," center Evan Boehm said. "We knew coming into this year that nothing was going to be given to us. All the other teams had injuries like we did last year.
"They counted us out, but we're coming out right now and we're focused on what's in front of us, and that's Texas A&M."
There's no denying that. It starts with the enemy Missouri knows, the team it's most familiar with. It starts with the best player in college football, according to Pinkel. It starts with the biggest test for the conference's most surprising defense.
It starts with the most anticipated game at Memorial Stadium in five decades.
"Here we go."
JAMES VS. JOHNNY: How to stop Johnny Manziel was a big topic during Monday's media availability. His prolific ability has only been slowed by LSU each of the past two seasons, and now Missouri's defense has to find a way to contain him.
Those questions didn't just stop with the defensive players and coaches, however. Quarterback James Franklin wasn't immune to fielding questions about his counterpart on Saturday, including on the pressure of trying to match Manziel play-for-play.
"Not too much (pressure to match Manziel)," Franklin said. "I don't want to think about it like that, because going into this game, I'm just kind of thinking, 'OK, I need to do good, I can't do bad,' that kind of thing.
"I didn't do as good as I wanted, as good as I had been before I got hurt. So I'm trying to think about it as going out there, playing some football and scoring some points."
Franklin said he always records his upcoming opponent's most recent game. He watched Texas A&M against LSU when he returned from Oxford with the team, and offered his thoughts on Manziel.
"He's just a playmaker," Franklin said. "He'll scramble around, see someone downfield and make some good throws and have some good runs. He's explosive. Every play, you don't know what's going to happen."
PINKEL'S NERVES: Throughout this conference run, Pinkel has been asked about the mounting pressure and publicity that comes with each win. He's referred to that as the "clutter," the outside noise that can drown out focus if not handled well.
So, of course, that again was a topic on Monday, five days before the big one. In a candid moment, Pinkel talked about the stress surrounding this type of season, but said those feelings follow him to every game, no matter the situation.
"I talk to coaches before games," Pinkel said. "I talk about something, about (how) it's crazy sitting around all day before we play."
Pinkel imitated the response he usually gets.
"Oh, I had a great time. It was great watching games," quoted Pinkel.
His response is a little different:
"I'm ready to stab myself," Pinkel said. "That's just my intensity, it's who I am. But you always thrive on it. So I'm like that every game I'm every coaching."
Once the game starts, however, Pinkel said he gets "consumed" by the game, alleviating the pre-game anxiety.
"I've never heard the cannons go off," Pinkel said. "I've never heard that one time since I've been here. I've never heard it one time. You're just so focused on what you're doing. For me. I am what I am. Focus-wise, intensity-wise, that's just who I am. Everybody's different."
INJURY UPDATE: Safety Duron Singleton did not travel with the team to Mississippi after injuring his hip during practice last week. He's listed as questionable on the depth chart this week, but Pinkel said it's unlikely he plays. Singleton began to see more playing time in conference play at the nickelback position. Ian Simon remains the starter at that position.
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