Last December, there would be no Christmas music in Zou-ville.
A grinch of a season left Missouri without a bowl berth, the first time since 2004 where December wouldn't bring the sounds of players hitting inside of Devine Pavilion, practicing for a postseason game. Gary Pinkel, the leader in Zou-ville, struggled without that yearly Christmas present.
"That was a real difficult month for me," Pinkel said during Monday's media availability. "I love Christmas music. I like all music, but I love Christmas music. I'll tell you one thing, we weren't going to a bowl, and I didn't listen to any Christmas music. I didn't want to feel good."
A year later, Pinkel and his team have completely changed direction, a sinking ship turned into a championship contender.
"Me on the hot seat?," Pinkel mused fatuously. "You kidding me? Was that out there? I didn't know that."
2012 is still a year Pinkel and his team can't get rid of.
They. Just. Can't. Shake. It.
It's especially noticeable when, during a 34-minute press conference, the overwhelming majority of time is spent on answering some form of the same question:
How did this happen?
Missouri stands 60 minutes away from an SEC Championship, and then possibly another 60 minutes away from a national championship berth, depending on how the Big Ten and ACC title games play out.
A year ago, Missouri was putting the bow on a lump-of-coal season, cleaning out lockers and moving on.
There would be no Christmas music in Zou-ville, that's for sure.
So how did Missouri get here, for a Tigers-only date for the SEC crown?
It started, as anyone familiar with Pinkel would know, with Don James and the Washington Huskies and history repeating itself.
"I remember Coach James talking about this business," Pinkel, who was a long-time assistant for Don James, said. "The people that make it when things get tough are the people that make it. We're gonna have tough times in this business. I think the best thing about it that we did (after last season) is there was no panic around here at all.
"We evaluated everything, what we do every year, whether we win ten games or eleven games or eight games. Or, last year, five games. We go through an evaluation of everything we do to make ourselves better and to do little things to make the program better, as long as it's in the foundation of who we are.
"We clung to our program. That's what we did. We clung to what we're about at Mizzou, and those are the things we emphasized with our players, the basics of who we are and what we're about. I think that worked itself out in a very positive way."
Pinkel knew not to panic, because James' career showed him. More specifically, one of James' low-points -- failing to reach bowl eligibility in 1988, after ten consecutive years of doing so -- showed Pinkel that the difference between a losing year and a championship year can be changed solely by perspective and process.
"I saw all these articles that were written about him," Pinkel said about the recently-deceased James. "That he was over the hill, can't do it anymore, on and on and on. I folded them up, because it was interesting. To think they would say those things about him and all the things that he's accomplished?
"Now, fast-forward four years later, they win the national championship. I know my business, I know the way it is, and I just do my job. That's the best way to deal with it."
Missouri's path to respect in the SEC continued with that process, without panicking. A new set of seniors moved over on the depth chart, toward their final year of eligibility. For these seniors, who arrived in the 2009 and 2010 recruiting classes, winning at Missouri was expected. Their freshman years were closely grouped to the 12-win 2007 season, the 10-win 2008 season. They would win ten games, again in 2010.
Pinkel's process moved to an exercise where he wanted his seniors to visualize the legacy of this season. He wanted his players to imagine Missouri fans sitting around and talking about the 2013 team.
"What would you want them to say? What should they be saying about this 2013 football team?" Pinkel asked.
"They came up with six or seven or eight things that were just outstanding, and I've been using those things, with the seniors, all season long. Just a lot of different things that were in there, and we hit on a lot of them, too."
Pinkel wouldn't say specifically what the seniors say, besides that they wanted "to be known as a physically, mentally-tough football team, number one." Another point seems to be increased standards and goals. Pinkel said his teams have always had three goals, represented by blocks in the locker room.
At the top is a national championship. The other two are a conference divisional championship and a bowl championship. Missouri's seniors this year wanted the team to focus on the championships, not just a bowl berth.
"We'd won three divisional championships, played in two championship games in the Big 12," the Missouri captains said, according to Pinkel. "And that's what the goal should be. That's THE goal."
"I think that also kind of reset the mindset of why we're here and what we're about," Pinkel said. "Interesting to see how things turned out."
Now, Missouri is a football team that was formed by that process, molded by those increased standards -- "Same lyrics, same song with the whole football team, Pinkel said.
It's a team that's also gotten better throughout the season.
"I could see it, you know, third week, fourth week, sixth week, just could see our football team becoming a lot better," Pinkel said. "What you always try to do is you get into November with a chance to win the championship, up to the point. I think, we got into Georgia, and obviously that big win at Georgia, and even with our back-up quarterback, Maty Mauk, who went in. Then got Florida, and I'm thinking.
"'Gosh, we might really be able to take a run at this."
"I think especially after the Vanderbilt game, and after the Georgia game," James Franklin said. "It was kind of a turning point for a lot of us knowing we can still succeed and still be great this season."
"I think when the team really knew we had something special--when we really, really, knew--was after the Georgia game," L'Damian Washington said. "Most teams don't go into Athens and come out with a win. We knew we had something special. We knew we had a great group. We knew we had to capitalize on the opportunity we had at hand."
The run is nearly over as Christmas approaches. Or the run is just seriously beginning, depending on what spectrum is being looked through. For the five days, Missouri's inclusion into Saturday's SEC title game will be viewed through a prism of 2012.
But whatever happens from here on out, there's one thing that's a certainty:
There will be Christmas music in Zou-ville this December.
FRANKLIN CONTINUES TO IMPROVE: There will be plenty of discussion about Auburn's offense and dynamic quarterback Nick Marshall, and how to slow down Gus Malzahn's attack will get deserved attention.
Missouri is also counting on the continued improvement of its own quarterback, James Franklin, who will make his third start since returning from a shoulder injury that forced him to miss four games.
Against Texas A&M, Franklin completed 18-of-28 passes for 233 yards and two touchdowns. He also ran for 80 yards on 18 carries, both high marks for the season. His total yardage (313) was his fourth-highest total this season, too.
"You talk about a big game, a game some people are saying is going to be the biggest game in Faurot Field ... if you win, you win a championship," Pinkel began.
"So there was a lot on him, and he's the starting quarterback and it all goes with that. But I'm really proud of him and how he's competed, all the things he's done to get back at 100-percent. He's excited about playing in the game and it's a good situation."
Pinkel said Franklin's biggest change this season is that he's "mentally tougher."
"All he went through hardened him as a competitor a bit, which is good," Pinkel said. "Made him mentally tougher. We always knew he was physically tough. we all know that.
"I'm just real proud of him. He's had to overcome an awful lot. Took a lot of criticism for things that certainly weren't all his fault, but with that position, that's certainly how it goes, that's kind of reality."
JOSEY'S BIG NIGHT: Henry Josey had the biggest run of the year for Missouri, going 57 yards in the fourth-quarter against Texas A&M to provide the winning score. He didn't talk to the media following the win, but he spoke on Monday.
"I was just happy to be able to do that for my teammates," Josey said. "It was a blessing to be able to do it and just to get us to the SEC championship that was was an awesome feeling. I couldn't be happier with it. My teammates have shown me a lot of love for that and I really appreciate that but I'm just ready to move on from it.
"It was great," teammate Marcus Murphy said. "With everything that he's been through, he's like my brother. I was just happy for him. We was on the sidelines talking about it. I just told him, 'You got to take over and put us on your back and take us to Atlanta' and he did it."
For the season, Josey has 951 yards and 13 touchdowns on 153 carries.
PUT THOSE HANDS TOGETHER: Auburn's string of end-of-game theatrics has caused many to label the Tigers as a team of destiny, a team of luck. But when asked, basically, if Auburn was good or lucky, Pinkel said it could be both.
"I think you create your own luck," Pinkel said, "and if you get a player here, something happens. They're a great football team. Shoot, you kidding me? It was a very unusual play, the last play of the game. I haven't seen that -- I've probably seen one or two returns like that off field goals, maybe, in my 36 years of coaching. But the guy made a great play and that's what you have to do."
Marcus Murphy, Missouri's return man, did take notice of Chris Davis' 109-yard return. Now Murphy wants to add those type of returns to his duties.
"I'm going to have to put in that word this week," Murphy laughed.
NO PINKEL POLITICKING, YET: Since the reality of possible SEC-less BCS tittle game set in across the Southeast around 7:30 PM EST Saturday, the politicking for the merits of a one-less SEC champion to jump a possibly undefeated Florida State or Ohio State began.
Auburn athletic director spoke to reporters following his team's upset win over No. 1-Alabama on Saturday, immediately campaigning for his school and conference.
"An SEC team can't get left out (of the BCS title game) with one loss," Jacobs said. "We just beat the No. 1-team in the nation and a team ahead of us struggled today, I understand.
"And a one-loss SEC team that wins in Atlanta -- if it's us or Missouri -- you can't get left out of the BCS after you beat the No. 1 team. We have a better argument because we beat the No. 1-team.
"It's already happened in 2004 (Auburn was unbeaten but did not make the national title game), and it would be a disservice to the nation if we got left out."
Pinkel, however, would not muse on the national-title picture.
"That's the beauty of it, you've gotta play," Pinkel said. "I can't do anything more than that. You've got to go play and take care of your business. Can't do anything more than that."
Pinkel wouldn't play the Rodney Dangerfield card, either, saying that the reason why the four teams ahead of Missouri in the polls (FSU, Ohio State, Auburn, Alabama) are getting the most national-title talk is because they've won national championships before.
"We haven't," Pinkel said. "The new kids on the block, whatever it is. That doesn't faze me. I just want to go win a football game.
"I'm not very good at beating the drum."
And what if Missouri wins? Would Pinkel, possibly drumless now, learn how to play?
"I'm focusing on Auburn here," Pinkel reiterated. "We've got a tough task. I don't care anything that happens after it. I'm just focusing on Auburn."
QUICK HITS: Safety Duron Singleton is again listed as questionable on the depth chart, still recovering from a hip injury that occurred before the Mississippi game. Pinkel said Singleton could "possibly" play: "He tried to practice a little bit Tuesday. Maybe we'll get him back, but he's doing a lot better. He'll practice tomorrow in a red pullover but we'll see." ... The SEC championship may not alter Missouri's tendency to get a series for redshirt freshman QB Maty Mauk, either. Pinkel said, "We'll make that decision Thursday, like we always do, but we intend to do that." Pinkel also seemed to bristle at the suggestion that Mauk enters cold and struggles to get going in these situations: "Shoot, he was really cold when he went in there against Georgia, wasn't he? There's nothing perfect about what I do for a living, and that's one of the few times (against Texas A&M) he's gone in and just had an average series."
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