More than two months after Shane Ray crossed the goal line at Cowboys Stadium, icing a 41-31 win over Oklahoma State and bringing the Cotton Bowl trophy, a 12th win and a top five national ranking back to Columbia, Mo., there are plenty of Missouri fans still basking in the glow in perhaps the best--and most definitely the most out-of-nowehere--season in the history of Tiger football.
And as of 3:30 this afternoon, that season simply doesn't matter anymore.
Don't get me wrong. It was a great season. It was an incredibly fun season. It was a season that for those involved and for those who followed it will never be forgotten. But with the first practice of spring football upon them, the Tigers' mission now is simply to forget it.
Missouri has been here before. In 2007, the Tigers won 12 games. They were picked as the nation's No. 4 team in the preseason the following summer. I still remember Lorenzo Williams telling reporters after the 2008 Cotton Bowl that he would (and this is a direct quote) come back to Columbia and burn some people's houses down if Missouri wasn't playing for the national title game the following season. I can't promise it was the first day of spring practice (though I think it was), but I definitely remember Sean Weatherspoon making sure reporters knew the date and location of the 2009 BCS National Championship Game. The inference was that the Tigers would be playing it.
That didn't happen. The 2008 season was far from disastrous. It ended with ten more wins and an Alamo Bowl victory. It was not what the Tigers had in mind, but it was still good.
I expect none of the grandiose declarations of national title or bust from these 2014 Tigers. First of all, I'm sure the coaching staff has spent the last two months drilling into this team the lessons it may have learned leading into 2008 and that last year doesn't matter. Second, this team's going to be picked closer to fourth in its own division than fourth in the country.
Shortly after Missouri joined the SEC, I had a member of the media that had covered the league for a long time on our podcast. I asked him if the rest of the SEC had much respect for Mizzou football. He answered with a bit of a laugh and then served notice of just what it means to play in college football's biggest, baddest collection of 14 teams. He told me, and I'm paraphrasing here, that Missouri would earn some respect if it could go out and win. And once they won, everybody would want to see if they could do it again. And again. And again. Major sports are all about what have you done for me lately. Nowhere is that more true than in SEC football.
I'm not about to tell you this season will be a failure if Missouri fails to make it back to the SEC Championship Game. That's pretty stupid. But the Tigers have to back up last year.
Right now, Mizzou has two SEC seasons on its resume. One is great and one is awful. So over the next few months, expect to read a lot of "Will the real Missouri please stand up?" Just as Tiger fans deemed the 2012 season a fluke, many others will contend 2013 was the outlier. Sure Missouri did it once. But Georgia played junior varsity walk-ons at running back (not really) and Florida went from great to terrible because of injuries (not really) and the Tigers needed help from Tennessee to outlast South Carolina for the division crown (that one's actually true) and Missouri didn't play the top three teams from the other division (also true, but Texas A&M was supposed to be a national title contender and the Tigers beat them in one of the most pressure-packed games in program history and did more to limit Johnny Manziel than any other team he faced in his entire college career).
In short, every other team, fanbase, media corps, etc, is going to be asking Missouri to live up to its state motto: Come on, Mizzou, show us.
For every doubt that is out there, Mizzou can counter with an argument that says it has an answer. James Franklin is gone but Maty Mauk was an admirable fill-in and takes over. Henry Josey left, but Marcus Murphy, Russell Hansbrough and a host of youngsters are capable. L'Damian Washington and Marcus Lucas depart, but Mauk has experience, Jimmie Hunt and Darius White will get their shots, Dorial Green-Beckham should be better and the tight ends should be more of a threat in the passing game. Justin Britt and Max Copeland graduated, but three starters return on the offensive line.
On defense, all-American Michael Sam and likely first-round pick Kony Ealy leave, but Ray and Markus Golden, who was Mizzou's most productive defender in terms of stats versus snaps, are back. The top four defensive tackles at season's end return. Mizzou will probably get more athletic at linebacker and while the Tigers have to replace both starting corners, Aarion Penton and John Gibson got valuable experience and looked good doing it a year ago.
Missouri no longer needs to validate its inclusion in the SEC. The Tigers did that a year ago. But there will still be plenty of eyes on the Tigers. Is Mizzou a perennial contender in the East? Or are they a nice middle-of-the-pack team that will make a bowl, but not normally push for more?
The Tigers begin the search for that answer at 3:30 this afternoon. PowerMizzou.com will be your complete source for news from spring practice leading up to the April 19th Black and Gold game.