Missouri’s path to a possible berth in the Southeastern Conference football championship game Dec. 7 at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta came into clear focus last weekend.
South Carolina’s win against Florida means the eighth-ranked Tigers, 9-1 overall and 5-1 in the SEC, must win their final two games to win the SEC East outright.
The Gamecocks, who have only two nonconference games remaining, own the tie breaker if both teams finish 6-2 in conference play by virtue of a double-overtime win Oct. 26 at Memorial Stadium.
“It didn’t really matter to me,” senior cornerback E.J. Gaines said. “We expect to win regardless these two games. That’s how we look at it.”
Missouri could have essentially wrapped up the division if Georgia knocked off Auburn and South Carolina stumbled against the Gators.
Instead, the Tigers were painted into a must-win corner when Nick Marshall’s 73-yard Hail Mary pass to Ricardo Louis stunned Georgia in the closing seconds and the Gamecocks rallied (once again) in the second half.
Still, first-place Missouri isn’t bemoaning those results.
“We’re in control of our destiny,” Tigers coach Gary Pinkel said. “We weren’t looking for any help.”
In fact, he seemed to admire Marshall’s season-saving heave, which kept Auburn in the hunt for the SEC West title as well as on the fringe of the national-championship chase.
“It’s just one of those great plays, one of the great plays in college football,” Pinkel said.
Wiggle room would be nice, but MU’s players — echoing Pinkel’s point of view — didn’t expect Florida or Georgia to provide an additional lifeline.
“You can’t really depend on other teams and other people,” sophomore center Evan Boehm said. “If you want something, you have to go out as a team and go get it.”
Missouri prefers to think of the next two games as rife with opportunity.
“We’ve just got to think of it as another football game, and we’ve done a pretty good job winning football games so far,” said Tigers senior quarterback James Franklin, who hasn’t started the last four games after suffering a sprained shoulder in the win Oct. 12 at Georgia.
Pinkel doesn’t expect a tense team to take the field at 6:45 p.m. Saturday against No. 24 Mississippi in Oxford, Miss.
“When you’re in the hunt, which we are now, that’s what you expect,” Pinkel said. “You expect to play games like this.”