Still wearing his shoulder pads and uniform, which bore marks from the Georgia Dome turf, Missouri senior quarterback James Franklin wandered into the losing locker room a half-hour after the SEC championship game on Saturday, still in a daze.
He’d finished a round of interviews outside the Tigers’ locker room and, when greeted by another beckoning reporter, welcomed questions before slumping into a black, padded folding chair.
Throughout his final season at Missouri, Franklin hadn’t been seen without his trademark smile and dimples often, but he was the picture of dejection after Auburn crushed his Southeastern Conference title dream.
Michigan State hadn’t beaten Ohio State in the Big Ten championship game yet, setting the stage for the SEC winner to slide into the BCS National Championship game, or that pain might have been multiplied.
Of course, Franklin wasn’t alone.
Tucked away in a different corner of Missouri’s locker room, senior L’Damian Washington bore the same countenance as he deliberately pulled on his socks and shoes.
In between, senior left guard Max Copeland sobbed.
“They’re crushed,” Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said. “I mean, they are absolutely crushed. And that’s good. I mean, that’s OK. They’re used to winning, and this game was real important to them.”
For junior running back Henry Josey, a good night’s sleep alongside his 4-month-old pit bull puppy, Bo, made the difference.
“I went home and went to sleep last night, and I actually had my dog in bed with me to sleep with me,” Josey said Sunday. “That was a little different, but I feel better today. I’m proud of my team and proud of what we’re doing.”
Senior Justin Britt was pulled from the doldrums Sunday afternoon when he and his fiancée, Alicia Bratten, had a first birthday party for their daughter, Navy Noelle.
“That finally got my mind off things,” Britt said.
Missouri’s players seemed generally upbeat by Sunday evening at Mizzou Arena’s Clinton Club, where it was announced that the Tigers had accepted a bid to play Oklahoma State in the Cotton Bowl on Jan. 3 at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
“After last night, we didn’t really know what to look forward to next, but now we have a goal,” senior linebacker Andrew Wilson, a Ray-Pec graduate, said. “We’ve got a game in mind, so we can start thinking about that as opposed to dwelling on the loss.”
Missouri, like most teams, has a 24-hour rule, which dictates that — win or lose — the team should put the last game behind it by the next night.
Of course, it’s not quite as easy after a championship game or when the next game, the one the 24-hour rule is meant to help a team focus on, seems to be an eternity away.
“I think this team’s mature enough to understand that you can’t dwell on it,” Britt said. “You feel terrible and it’s depressing, but it happened and you’ve got to move on. There’s still business to be finished this season.”
Judging by the festive mood as the Tigers celebrated the third Cotton Bowl appearance in program history, Britt was right and Pinkel’s bunch is coping well.
“Going to the Cotton Bowl does help take the edge off,” sophomore center Evan Boehm said. “We knew even after last night’s game that we still had another game left. That made us excited and ready to get back out there and play. We’re ready and hungry. It hurts, but, at the same time, we’re going to be just fine.”
Missouri, which spent nearly 60 seasons in the same conference with Oklahoma State before leaving for the SEC two years ago, hasn’t beaten the Cowboys since 2005.
The last time the programs squared off, Oklahoma State punished Missouri 45-24 at Memorial Stadium in 2011.
“I remember that game very well, and I did not like it at all,” Josey said. “I’m looking forward to playing them again. I can’t wait for it.”
It seems like none of the Tigers can.
“We definitely want to finish on a strong note,” Wilson said. “I haven’t talked to a lot of the guys today. We didn’t have much going on, but hopefully everybody’s kind of moving on. It’ll take a few fays for sure, but I think we’ll be ready to go. That’s important to us.”