There is just one more first left this season for Missouri football. The first SEC game was historic. The first SEC road trip was, up until the game, a fun new experience. Now, Missouri needs the first SEC win.
When the Tigers joined the nation's pre-eminent college football conference, I heard one thing more than any other: The difference in the SEC is that there are no easy games.
For this year's Missouri team, I think that's likely true. The Tigers don't have an offense right now that is going to allow them to run many (or perhaps any) SEC teams off the field.
But Vanderbilt at home? It's not a gimme. Missouri is favored by 7.5 points and it would surprise some people if they just ran the Commodores out of town. But make no mistake, it has to be a win.
In the Big 12, there were some games you just kind of figured were W's at the start of the season. Iowa State at home, Kansas just about anywhere, K-State as long as Bill Snyder wasn't the coach, Baylor before RG3 got to town. You know which ones they were.
The common sermon from the SEC was that there were no gimmies. You can't just show up and win games.
I get that. There's some truth to it. Ask Georgia, which had to fight tooth and nail to get by Tennessee. Or South Carolina, which used everything it had to win the season opener in Nashville against this Vandy team. Heck, ask Alabama, which trailed in a regular season game for the first time in forever (albeit for 15 seconds) against Ole Miss last weekend.
There are tough games all over the map. And this one certainly has every chance to be a tough game for the Tigers. But it can't be a loss.
Vanderbilt, historically, has been the doormat of the SEC. They've got great academics and it's a hell of a school in a nice town, but as far as football goes, well, the rest of the league doesn't really think twice about them.
That's started to change over the last 14 months with the other James Franklin undertaking the resurrection project. But for all the respect the Commodores have gotten, they're 7-10 under Franklin since the start of 2011. Five of last year's seven losses were by a touchdown or less, but they were still losses.
The thought coming into this year was that the Commodores learned to compete last year and would learn to win this year. But through four games, Vandy has just one win and it was against Presbyterian. In three games against FBS opponents, the Dores have two offensive touchdowns and have lost by four, ten and 45 points.
On September 18th, 2010, Vandy won 28-14 at Ole Miss. Since then, the Commodores are 1-10 in road games, including eight straight SEC road losses by an average of 25.5 points per contest.
So is this a game Missouri should win? Absolutely it is.
This game isn't a measuring stick. At least it shouldn't be. There were a lot of SEC fans (and Big 12 fans) stating that the Tigers would be another version of Vandy in their new conference. Lose this game and some credence might be lent to that theory.
On the flip side, beating Vanderbilt won't prove the Tigers belong in the SEC. I mean, it might prove they fit in, but it shouldn't be seen as any sort of a watershed moment for this program. The Commodores have won one bowl game in 57 years. They're better, but they've hardly reached the top of the mountain.
Missouri is on a climb of its own right now. The Tigers started their SEC journey with a closer-than-it-looked 41-20 loss to Georgia and a not-nearly-as-close-as-it-looked 31-10 loss to South Carolina. There's no shame in losing to those teams. They're both in the top ten, both deserve to be there and one will probably represent the SEC East in the conference title game. So Missouri losses in those games didn't exactly carry a huge shock factor.
But this week, as Mizzou ventures back into SEC play, things are different. This isn't a game Missouri can afford to lose. Not just for the sake of its standing in the league, but for the sake of its season.
The Tigers stand 3-and-2. They play three straight home games in October. One of them is against Alabama and even those wearing the blackest-and-goldest goggles will have a tough time making the argument Missouri has much more than a snowball's chance to win that one. A home game against Syracuse is sandwiched in the middle of a three-game SEC November road trip that will hit Gainesville, Knoxville and College Station.
So if Missouri has designs on extending its season past the 12 games allotted to everyone by the NCAA, Saturday is kind of big. And if, in the process, they get that whole first SEC win monkey off their backs, just consider it a little bit of a bonus.
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