OXFORD, MS--It would be okay to admit that nobody saw this coming. But James Franklin won't.
"The correct answer is to say I don't think that far ahead. Just taking it one game at a time," the Missouri quarterback said after engineering a 24-10 win over Ole Miss on Saturday night that moved Missouri to 10-and-1 and one win away from the SEC Championship Game.
Okay, so can we have the incorrect answer?
"No, sir," Franklin says with a wry smile.
But still, nobody saw this coming. The Tigers ran for more than 200 yards in the second half, drained the final eight minutes off the clock with a helpless Ole Miss offense on the sidelines and rolled to their tenth win--all by two touchdowns or more--in eleven games.
It all set up the biggest game Faurot Field has hosted in more than a half a century.
"It means a lot," L'Damian Washington said. "We want to be a part of history and I think that was everyone's goal coming into the season. We love the 2007 team, but we want the 2013 team to be remembered. That was our goal going into the year, for people to mention the 2013 team forever."
"You think that was big?" Gary Pinkel asked. "It's gonna get a lot bigger than that. It's a huge game. We're gonna play against the best player in college football."
Ah, yes, playing the foil is Johnny Manziel, the leader of last year's SEC newcomer darling, the Texas A&M Aggies. Exactly 365 days ago, Manziel rolled up 449 yards of total offense and five touchdowns, putting the bow on a Heisman Trophy in the process of embarrassing Missouri 59-29. He will come into Faurot Field fresh off a 16-for-41, two-turnover, 34-10 blowout against LSU that likely cost him the chance to be the second player ever to take home college football's top individual award twice.
That it is Missouri chasing a school-record tying 11th regular season win, a berth in the league title game and the chance to keep chasing a national championship is perhaps college football's biggest surprise in 2013. But whether anyone expected it is now immaterial. It is reality.
"This team, this is kind of who they are," Pinkel said. "It doesn't matter where we play the game. It doesn't matter who we play. That's a big deal to them. They don't care.
"It doesn't matter who we're playing and it does not matter where we're playing. It matters how we play. How we perform out there. How we compete. That's what they do."
By the end of Saturday night's win, a tough, workmanlike effort, the majority of fans left in Oxford's Vaught-Hemingway Stadium were wearing black and gold, cheering raucously into the bitter night as their Tigers took a rare road victory lap, the capper on an undefeated season away from Columbia. Before they boarded a plane bound for home, the Tigers had a message for those eight thousand or so fans...and another sixty thousand who will show up next Saturday night.
"I would just tell all those people out on break to come on back," Kony Ealy said. "It's the big one."
"Our fans will be going crazy, which is awesome," Pinkel said. "This is what you do it for. This is fun. It's intense, it's exciting. But this is what you do."