Missouri will be an underdog when the SEC Championship Game kicks off against No. 1 Alabama at 3 p.m. next Saturday at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta.
The No. 17 Tigers, 10-2 and 7-1 in the SEC, won’t mind at all.
“We love it,” sophomore linebacker Michael Scherer said. “We don’t want people to believe in us. It’s one of those things where, when you don’t believe in us, you give us a chip on our shoulder where we’re going to go out there and prove you wrong.”
Few expected Missouri, which lost to Auburn in last year’s conference title game, to repeat as SEC East division champions.
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The number of believers dipped even farther after a 34-0 loss Oct. 11 against Georgia at Memorial Stadium, especially considering that the shutout came on the heels of a dispiriting home loss to Big Ten doormat Indiana and a one-point win at South Carolina thanks to a fourth-quarter Houdini act.
“Things weren’t going our way, but it says something about our team and our program that we stuck together and fixed the things that needed to be fixed and won out from there,” Scherer said.
The Tigers certainly didn’t look like a championship team seven weeks ago, but a funny thing happened on the road back to SEC irrelevancy.
Missouri got its act together and started winning games, six in a row. Four of those wins — at Florida, at Texas A&M, at Tennessee and against Arkansas — came as the underdog.
After beating the Razorbacks 21-14 on Friday and reaching 10 wins for the fifth time in coach Gary Pinkel’s 14-year tenure, the Tigers are Atlanta-bound again.
“This is big,” senior defensive end Markus Golden said. “It’s big, man. We want to win championships here. If everybody doesn’t respect us, they aren’t ever going to respect us. Now, it’s about us. It’s about getting a championship for this team and this program and all these great coaches.”
Missouri — which has won five division titles in the last eight seasons, including three in the Big 12 North — had no clue who it’s opponent would be in the immediate aftermath of beating Arkansas.
The SEC West wasn’t settled until Saturday when Mississippi State’s 31-17 loss at Mississippi handed the division crown to Alabama, but the Tigers weren’t overly concerned about who would pop up next on the schedule.
“I’m going to watch the games, but I really don’t care (who wins),” said junior defensive end Shane Ray, a Bishop Miege graduate. “Whoever comes out on top, we have to be prepared for those teams.”
Missouri knows the doubters and detractors nationally remain entrenched.
The Tigers won a weak division and didn’t beat an SEC team that will finish with a winning record in conference.
Missouri is used to the lack of respect, but they’ve also proved that what matters most is the growing confidence inside the locker room
“It was definitely emotional,” Scherer said of watching quarterback Maty Mauk kneel down twice to finish off Arkansas. “Nobody thought we would ever do it. Everybody doubted us every week. We were the underdog every single week just about, but we came out here and proved everyone wrong. We’ve been doing that all year long, and it’s just an awesome thing.”
The Tigers, who haven’t won a conference championship since sharing the 1969 Big Eight crown with Nebraska, also recognize that the job isn’t complete.
“I remember being in Atlanta last year, losing that game and telling everybody we were going to be back here,” Golden said. “It feels good, one of the best feelings ever. Now, we’ve just got to get out there and go win it.”
Scherer agreed: “We made it this far. We might as well finish it.”