The SEC Championship Game is set. You can stop looking at the game index on ESPN. Those are actually the two teams participating.
The Missouri Tigers and the Auburn Tigers… a menagerie of Tigers.
Two teams that combined to go 2-14 in the SEC last year. One team of Tigers with a coach supposedly on his way out the door, and one team of Tigers with a coach on his way in.
They’re both incredible turnaround stories, yet, in the wake of what may be the most sensational finish in the history of a college football game, we only seem to be talking about the Tigers from Auburn.
They dethroned the mighty Nick Saban and his Alabama Crimson Tide. They laughed hysterically as he descended the steps carefully, fearful that his stubby little legs might not safely find their destination.
The following evening, the BCS standings were revealed and since then, the only subject of speculation has been whether a one-loss Auburn deserves to make a BCS title game over an undefeated Ohio State Buckeyes team. However, half of entertaining that spectacle requires assuming that victory is imminent.
I can assure you, that’s not exactly the case.
When Gary Pinkel and the Missouri Tigers joined the SEC in 2012, they came touting a new brand of football. They vowed to eradicate or at least humiliate the established powers in the conference and their dated brand of “old man” football.
They were crushed by Georgia and would go on to lose their first four conference matchups.
On the season, they’d go 5-7 (2-6 in the SEC) and miss out on a bowl game when they followed up a devastating loss to Syracuse at home with a blowout loss at the hands of their fellow Big 12 transplants, Texas A&M. Gary Pinkel barely made it out of 2012 with his job, and in 2013 the narrative was set.
Missouri was too soft for the SEC.
However, a year’s worth of health can change the entire equation. The injuries endured by the 2012 machination of the Missouri Tigers were never used as a crutch by Gary Pinkel, but in a league as competitive as the SEC, staying healthy–or staying lucky, if you will–is always a part of the equation.
And the simple fact of the matter is the Missouri Tigers were not very lucky.
The offensive line was so varied on a week-to-week basis that they probably should have had names on the front of their jerseys to aid familiarization in the huddle. James Franklin battled a shoulder that significantly hampered his effectiveness as both a runner and passer.
Henry Josey missed the entire season with a torn ACL in the spring, and so on and so forth.
However, in 2013, when the Tigers showed up healthy, we had a feeling that things might be different. Missouri had a history of consistent success in the Big 12, and while the SEC is undoubtedly a different hurdle altogether, it was only a matter of time before the Tigers found their niche in the conference.
However, nobody expected their niche to be SEC East champions.
The generous predicted eight or nine wins for the Missouri Tigers in 2013, but by the time the undefeated Tigers had rolled into Athens and laid a beating on the preseason favorites in the division, it became clear that the Tigers were legitimate contenders to win the division.
Now, seven weeks later, here we are. The Missouri Tigers are representing the SEC East in the SEC Championship Game. Their opponent out of the west, the Auburn Tigers, are just as unlikely of a combatant.
And yet, we seem to have completely written Missouri off in lieu of a dream scenario that would enable the SEC to keep their national title streak alive. But the Missouri Tigers are nobody’s cannon fodder.
This isn’t just a team that caught people off guard and stumbled into the conference title game. This is a team that got mad, got healthy and begrudgingly imposed their will on a league full of doubters.
They play an opportunistic brand of defense and they’re balanced an explosive on offense (unlike their opponents, who are unquestionably explosive but not balanced). On Saturday, the two teams square off and you can expect it to go the way of the rest of the SEC in 2013.