Missouri beat Vanderbilt 45-17 on Saturday to clinch a bowl berth, and so much of this was inconceivable fewer than two months ago.
On September 23, after Auburn had crushed his Missouri team in Columbia, coach Barry Odom delivered a fiery rant. He declared that the Mizzou program was a “turnaround” job, and he pleaded for patience. He believed he was the man to fix it.
“I want to get one thing real straight,” Odom said. “I’m going to win here, that’s going to happen, we will win.”
It seemed desperate at the time. This was a team that had lost 31-13 to South Carolina, and 35-3 to Purdue. The Missouri defense — the side of the ball Odom oversaw — had given up 43 points to Missouri State. Missouri would lose twice more after that, in consecutive weeks. Then it would win five straight times.
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Each of those five wins has been a blowout. The latest happened in front of 22,910 people on a cold and wet night after weather delayed the game 30 minutes. It was Missouri’s first road SEC win since Nov. 22, 2014, against Tennessee.
“Some of us joke in the locker room, ‘This winning feeling is nice. We should have done this a long time ago,’ ” offensive lineman Kevin Pendleton said. “But we’re here where we are. We can’t turn back.”
The Tigers are the 14th FBS team to reach bowl eligibility after starting 1-5. They are just the sixth from a Power Five conference to do so, and only one other SEC team — Mississippi in 1983 — has done it. Since 2001, every SEC team that started 1-5 has failed to win even three games — until now.
The SEC is in a down year. This winning streak has included victories over Idaho, Connecticut, a Tennessee team that fired its head coach hours after playing the Tigers and a Vanderbilt squad that came into this game having lost six of its last seven games.
But Missouri (6-5, 3-4 SEC) has not squeaked by in any of its victories. It has crushed its opponents, including the Commodores (4-7, 0-7). This 28-point win was Mizzou’s closest victory of the season.
Missouri seemed to coast in the second half, when Vanderbilt scored all of its points on its first three possessions of the third quarter. The Tigers committed 11 penalties that cost them 56 yards. And yet they still won big because of a dominant first half.
The defense that looked porous against the Missouri State Bears? It recorded two of its three interceptions of Vanderbilt quarterback Kyle Shurmur in the first half, including one by cornerback Adam Sparks, who had once committed to play for the Commodores.
The offense that sometimes doomed the Tigers early in the season with three-and-outs that lasted about half a minute? It outgained Vanderbilt 262 yards to 100 in the first half. The Tigers averaged 6.6 yards per rush in the first half and 24.6 yards per pass completion during the first two quarters.
First drives had given MU trouble most of the season. The opening possession of this game didn’t.
Missouri started the game by scoring in 2 minutes 15 seconds, with an 8-play, 71-yard drive that ended with a touchdown pass from Drew Lock to tight end Albert Okwuegbunam. It was Okwuegbunam’s first score since catching two touchdowns at Connecticut three weeks ago.
Lock completed just 5 of his 15 first-half passes — but he made those completions count. On the second of two straight offsides penalties Vanderbilt committed on MU’s first drive of the second quarter, Lock took advantage of a free play. He heaved a ball to J’Mon Moore for a 71-yard completion. One play later, Larry Rountree III rushed 12 yards for a touchdown, giving the true freshman at least one score in each of the last three weeks.
Lock’s second touchdown pass of the game was a couple of drives later, when he floated a pass 20 yards, near the MU sideline, around the Vanderbilt 10-yard line. No one was near Richaud Floyd, who ran in for a score.
In between those scores, linebacker Brandon Lee intercepted a pass and returned it 42 yards for a touchdown. It was the first Mizzou pick-six since Nov. 12, 2016, in another game against the Commodores. The play included a big block from defensive end Chris Turner, and Lee juked a Commodore near the end zone. MU’s two primary running backs, Ish Witter and Rountree, told Lee he’s one of them now.
Mizzou did not have a positive turnover margin in any of its first eight games. It now has in each of the last three weekends.
“I thought early in the year, we had a little bit of confidence, but it was fake,” Odom said of his defense. “We hadn’t earned it yet. … It’s taken some maturity. It’s taken some growing up by a lot of people.”
Missouri even had a special-teams touchdown. Floyd returned a punt for a score for the second time this season. This one was 74 yards and came late in the second quarter to help put Missouri up 35-0 at the half.
The Tigers wouldn’t score another touchdown until just more than 7 minutes remained in the game. That’s when Lock, who completed 10 of 25 passes for 235 yards and three touchdowns, put the Commodores away for good with a 57-yard pass to Okwuegbunam, who ran it into the end zone. That score gave Okwuegbunam his ninth touchdown reception of the season, which tied him with Jeremy Maclin for MU’s freshman record. The Vanderbilt possession that followed the score ended in an interception by defensive tackle Terry Beckner Jr.
Most of the Vanderbilt fans were gone well before then, though.
Missouri was playing in front of a mostly empty stadium, and its fans made of the majority of people in it. In the press box, representatives from the TaxSlayer Bowl and Liberty Bowl watched the Tigers complete their comeback from a pathetic start to the season. The bowls are two members of the SEC’s Pool of Six Bowls, which the conference assigns teams to after the Citrus Bowl gets first pick of programs that do not make either the College Football Playoff or one of the playoff’s “access bowls,” which are games that rotate as semifinal sites but aren’t this season.
Alabama, Auburn and Georgia should all either make the playoff or an access bowl, and that would leave Missouri, South Carolina, Kentucky, LSU, Mississippi State and Texas A&M as the remaining bowl-eligible teams. Vanderbilt and Tennessee, both still in contention entering the weekend, received their seventh losses on Saturday.
It was the second straight week that representatives from the Liberty Bowl, in Memphis, Tenn., on Dec. 30, came to watch MU. The game seems like the most natural fit for Missouri, which has most of its fans within driving distance. The bowl’s associate executive director, Harold Graeter, met with MU athletic director Jim Sterk and chancellor Alexander Cartwright before the game.
“We’re certainly aware of all those positive attributes of the program that Barry’s putting together, our history, the fan base and the entire university community,” Graeter said.
Missouri’s participation in a bowl game outside of the playoff or access bowls will give each of the Tigers’ eight assistant coaches — as well as director of football operations Mike McHugh and director of football recruiting A.J. Ofodile — 6-percent incentive bonuses.
And Odom will pocket $50,000, with a chance at another $75,000 if MU wins.
Not bad for a man who was fighting for his job eight weeks ago.