Coach Gary Pinkel laughed — literally and joyfully — upon hearing that Florida knocked off Georgia, which meant his Missouri squad vaulted to first place in the SEC Eastern Division with a 20-10 victory Saturday against Kentucky at Memorial Stadium.
The Tigers, 7-2 and 4-1 in conference, own a half-game lead on the Bulldogs, who would have the tiebreaker if both teams finish with identical records in the Southeastern Conference.
Critically, Missouri is a game up in the loss column, which means that Pinkel’s club takes the division crown by winning out.
“It means a lot,” said quarterback Maty Mauk, who had his best game in six weeks going 18 of 33 for 164 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions. “That’s all you can ask for and it’s what we’ve been working for the last eight months.”
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During the game, sophomore linebacker Michael Scherer admitted that he peeked at Memorial Stadium’s away scoreboard and saw that Georgia was getting thumped 31-7 — a game the Bulldogs eventually lost 38-20.
“I tried not to let myself really think about it, so I just figured after the game that they had lost,” Scherer said. “They announced it in here, but it really doesn’t change much. We’ve still got to win out.”
After getting shutout 34-0 on Oct. 11 by Georgia, Missouri faced an uphill climb, but after Saturday the Tigers control their own destiny again in the climb to the SEC East summit.
“Of course, we’d like to get back to Atlanta and play for an SEC championship,” junior defensive end Shane Ray said. “This is another step towards that … but we’re going to continue to focus on us.”
Missouri, the reigning SEC East champion, has a bye week before back-to-back road games at Texas A&M and Tennessee.
The Tigers wrap up the regular season at home against Arkansas on the Friday after Thanksgiving.
Each game seems winnable, but none are a sure thing either.
“There’s nothing easy this year,” Pinkel said. “It’s one of those years. You’ve got to battle and fight. We get that.”
Georgia wraps up its conference schedule with games Saturday at Kentucky and at home Nov. 15 against Auburn.
If the Bulldogs and Tigers end up in a two-way tie for first, Georgia plays in the SEC Championship Game by virtue of its victory against Missouri.
Only one other team has a chance to unseat the Tigers — Florida, which plays at Vanderbilt on Saturday and wraps up its conference slate Nov. 15 against South Carolina.
The simplest way for Florida to reach Atlanta is to win out, while Missouri loses its final three games and Georgia loses at least one more conference game.
The would leave Florida and Georgia tied at 5-3, a game ahead of Missouri, bringing the Gators’ win against the Bulldogs into play.
If all three teams finish 4-4 in conference, MU would win the SEC’s three-way tiebreaker procedure and represent the division in the SEC Championship Game.
For all three teams to finish at .500 in conference, Georgia would be 3-3 in division games, while Missouri and Florida would be 4-2.
The Tigers would then march to Atlanta on the strength of a head-to-head win against the Gators.
The same would hold true if Kentucky ended up in the mix at 4-4 with wins against Georgia and Kentucky, because Missouri beat Florida and Kentucky.
Tennessee has a shot to finish in a three- or four-way tie atop the division at 4-4 if Georgia and Missouri lose every remaining conference game and Florida loses one or more of its remaining conference games against Vanderbilt or South Carolina.
But if it’s a four-way tie, Florida wins the tiebreaker and, if the Gators lose twice making it a three-way tie, Georgia wins the tiebreaker with Missouri and Tennessee in that scenario.