What Was Once Misery: The Missouri Tigers Won the East

When you can’t make sense of something, you get to the writing machine. The Missouri Tigers pulled off a second-straight SEC East championship yesterday in what is now typically insane fashion. Just like in 2013, the most “West” team in the SEC East had to win three straight to clinch, were underdogs all the way, and needed a few unlikely plays to prevail.

It wasn’t supposed to happen like this. I was an undergrad from 1992-1996, and in that time Missouri won as many football games as they won last season. Now, they could pull off a repeat.

Last year’s team was senior-heavy, with stud bookend defensive ends, a steady, vet senior QB, tall, clutch receivers all over the field, a fantastic RB trio, and an offensive line that was consistent. Still, for that team to go 7-1 in the SEC after a 2-6 initial season was more unlikely than my cat singing the national anthem with perfect pitch.

Even their one regular-season loss in 2013 was stupidly improbable, a 27-24 defeat that featured Missouri blowing a 17-0 fourth-quarter lead, giving up a TD on fourth and goal from the 15 and a missed field goal in double OT that clanged off the post, a sound that reverberated through a stunned silent home crowd. The silent home crowd, that I could relate to.

The team even needed a redshirt freshman QB to come in and save the season, Baby Manziel aka Maty Mauk, an undersized dynamo who never saw a throwing window that was too tight for his arm to test.

I attended the SEC championship game with a combination of awe, joy, and terror, certain that some official would come in and replace Missouri with one of the more traditional powers fat with five-star recruits, but nope, they played out the game and an unstoppable Auburn offense put the dream to bed. It ended nicely as Missouri defeated former conference rival Oklahoma State in the Cotton Bowl, a fitting end to a 12-2 dream season.

This isn’t what I expected after losing to Indiana. I watched the game alone, sending the wife and her family off to a Garth Brooks concert. Surely the early struggles of the offense and the inability of the defense to stop any of Indiana’s running backs was just a passing thing. It wasn’t. Indiana faced a fourth and ten, trailing by three with less than two minutes to go. The pass was incomplete, and in my fan’s eyes it was a solid three count before the flag came out. After that it was a fait accompli and a season I saw as 8-4 at best was going all 5-7 as one of the worst teams of the 2013 Big 10 (or whatever they call it these days) celebrated in Columbia.

It happened again when I found a sports bar in Nashville to watch Missouri get utterly annihilated by Georgia. It was the kind of defeat I expected in the SEC, and after the team’s first year in the conference this seemed to be an annual event. It wasn’t the first time that a formerly giving defense shut down what used to be a pretty good Tigers offense.

At 4-2, I considered getting two more wins to be a serious chore. What happened? Well, Mauk played like a QB who was leading the conference in efficiency even though he played like rotten garbage for most of what was called “Mauktober”. The run game, with kick returner Marcus Murphy and the clutch play of Russell Hansbrough, deemed Mansbrough after converting many touchdowns and short-yardage situations, stood up. The receivers, led by Bud Sasser, came through despite drops. The DE tandem of Markus Golden and Shane Ray were better than the 2013 tandem of Michael Sam and Kony Ealy.

Here are some of the moments that led to 10-2:

September 27, at South Carolina

Trailing 20-7 to a defense that had been otherwise flattened, Mauk let fly a long pass to Bud Sasser that turned around the momentum. The game-winner was “Mansbrough” on fourth and goal from the one with less than 100 seconds to go.

October 18, at Florida

In a year of strange wins, this was probably the strangest. Missouri scored on a kick return, punt return, interception return and kick return, had 20 yards passing and won 42-13. Missouri’s wins at South Carolina and Florida meant that in year three, they had won at every SEC East stadium.

November 15, at Texas A&M

Since the two teams joined the SEC, Texas A&M has received way more press. For Missouri to stay ahead of Georgia, who inexplicably lost to Florida, they’d have to win out. After struggling to a 13-6 halftime deficit, the team scored 28 points in the third quarter. That’s more points in a quarter than the team scored in all but two conference games. Hansbrough was the man again with 199 rushing yards and two touchdowns.

November 22, at Tennessee

Once again, this didn’t look like a division-winning team for much of the game. It was a slog all the way until Mauk threw a 73-yard TD on third and nine to senior Jimmie Hunt to give them the lead. The game included two missed extra points and an onside kick sequence that made the crowd insane. Missouri was awarded the ball the second time and ran the clock out.

November 29, vs. Arkansas

We’re never going to see this again. Arkansas lost 16 straight SEC games then proceeded to shut out LSU, who took Alabama to OT and Mississippi, the only team to beat Alabama in 2013. With a huge offensive line and two great backs, the Razorbacks rushed to a 14-3 second-quarter lead. Missouri rallied for the lead, but it was the defense that clinched it. Arkansas tried their first run in a desperate final drive and Kentrell Brothers stripped the ball from the Arkansas RB and Markus Golden recovered the ball. The officials appeared to not see the play, but a review confirmed it.

In the end, a once in a lifetime trip to Atlanta for a chance to win the SEC happened twice in a row. This has to be the most unlikely champion in Missouri football history. Maybe this is the team to win the school’s first conference title since the 60s. I know they aren’t going to be afraid.

Oddities about Missouri’s schedule:

Despite going 7-1, Missouri finishes the 2014 regular season having not defeated an SEC team with a winning conference record. The two SEC West teams Missouri beat finished 6th and 7th in the division.

Missouri’s three out-of-conference wins have come against teams who won a combined 24 games in 2014 (so far). South Dakota State went 8-4 and is in the 1-AA playoffs. Toledo’s 8-4 and could win the MAC. UCF is 8-3 and has a shot at a tie for the American East crown. Indiana, who beat Missouri, is 0-7 in the Big 10.

It’s the second year in a row that the team who beat Missouri finished second in the division. Missouri played Ray Charles’ “Georgia on My Mind” during the post-game celebration yesterday. Sorry bout that, Georgia.

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