Missouri senior cornerback E.J. Gaines will wake up Saturday morning and bus from the team hotel to Memorial Stadium for the final time.
Senior left tackle Justin Britt will take part in the Tiger Walk for the final time, exiting the bus and walking across the bridge over Providence Road — presumably giving his daughter, Navy, a kiss along the way.
Senior linebacker Andrew Wilson will pull on his pads and run through the tunnel onto Faurot Field one final time when Missouri plays host to Texas A&M at 6:45 p.m. Saturday in Columbia.
The Tigers’ seniors are guaranteed at least one more game, two with a win against the Aggies, but they won’t play another home game in their college careers.
“A lot of these guys are close, and it’s a brotherhood with the senior class that’s coming through,” said Gaines, a Fort Osage graduate. “It’s definitely going to be emotional.”
When Tigers coach Gary Pinkel met with this year’s seniors back in January, he challenged them to build a legacy and said it was “our responsibility” (“I’m always a senior with those guys,” Pinkel said.) to get Missouri back on a winning track.
These Tiger seniors have done that, putting together a dream season and helping the program adapt to the nation’s toughest football conference in only their second season in the Southeastern Conference.
Missouri, 10-1 overall and 6-1 in the SEC, is one victory away from playing in the league championship game, and the gravity of the moment isn’t lost on the squad’s graduating class.
“You wouldn’t want it any other way,” senior cornerback Randy Ponder said. “It’s the last game of the year and the last home game. It’s one of the games you look forward to playing. It’s going to be special.”
It’s also going to be emotional.
Before the game, the Tigers’ 19 seniors — there are 14 fifth-year seniors and five true seniors — will be recognized during the annual Senior Day festivities.
For Gaines and the rest of Missouri’s seniors, who have helped the Tigers to a 33-16 record during the last four seasons, managing the emotions of the pregame ceremony might prove to be the toughest thing they do all day.
“One of my past players called me and said, ‘Be sure to tell those seniors what to expect. They’ve got to get their heads right after they get introduced,’” Pinkel said.
He knows that he will be an emotional basket case as well.
“I’m so appreciative of what they have done, I can’t even describe,” Pinkel said. “I’ll be an emotional wreck. Usually, about eight minutes into the first quarter, I kind of figure out where I’m at, so I’ve got to watch that a little bit.”
For the underclassmen, there is a wariness about repeating last season’s loss in the Tigers’ “Blackout Game.” Winning the SEC East title outright and earning some respect are a big deal — just not as big as sending the seniors out in style.
“This game is more about the seniors,” defensive lineman Lucas Vincent said. “I remember last year, after the senior night loss to Syracuse, that look in all the seniors’ faces. I don’t want them to have to go through that like last year’s seniors did.”