Surrounded by reporters in front of his locker in the bowels of the Georgia Dome after last season’s SEC Championship Game, Missouri center Evan Boehm got agitated — perhaps even angry — at the assertion that the stage was too big for the Tigers.
Boehm correctly pointed out that it was a three-point game entering the fourth quarter and that Missouri put up 42 points against the eventual national runner-up.
Of course, that 59-42 loss also was the closest conference championship game coach Gary Pinkel’s program has played in three tries.
Including back-to-back Big 12 title-game losses against Oklahoma in 2007 and 2008, Missouri has been outscored 159-80 when vying for the conference crown — an average margin of defeat of more than 26 points.
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As the No. 17 Tigers, 10-2, prepare for a second straight SEC Championship Game at 3 p.m. Saturday back at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta, No. 1 Alabama, 11-1, already is a 10-point favorite and is expected by many to hand Missouri another championship-game rout.
“We prepare for this game like we prepare for any game, and we won’t ever change that,” Pinkel said. “This is the fifth divisional championship we have won in the last eight years and we have not won a conference championship in the Big 12 or the SEC. That’s my responsibility, so hopefully we can play well and have an opportunity to do that.”
There certainly is a sense around the Tigers that this season and this championship game could be different.
“It was such a devastating loss last year,” senior left tackle Mitch Morse said. “We had so much emotionally invested in that game, and it didn’t turn out that way. But it meant the world to this team that we were able to come back to Atlanta. … We harnessed what we felt after that game last year and definitely it’s going to help us drive through this week.”
Since losing to Indiana and getting shutout by Georgia at home midway through the season, Missouri’s played with its back to the wall.
The Tigers have been have been the underdog nearly every week during a six-game win streak and understand that won’t change now, especially not against top-ranked Alabama.
But experience, the world’s greatest teacher, is on Missouri’s side.
“We know what to expect,” senior running back Marcus Murphy said. “We’ve been there and we’ve experienced it. We got the bad end of the stick last year, so we always want to fight harder and come back with a win here. … You have to focus and limit the distractions, but at the same time you kind of have to approach it like a regular game.”
More than experience, the Tigers also bring a fresh approach to its second consecutive SEC Championship Game.
“Last year, I feel that we went there to play for respect … versus going to play for a championship,” sophomore quarterback Maty Mauk said. “I think our guys have got the right mindset right now. You can tell when you’re looking in their eyes in practice. They’re giving everything they have.”
It’s not about respect anymore. It’s not about proving Missouri belongs or sticking it to the detractors.
Instead, it’s about cementing a legacy 45 years in the making.
The Tigers haven’t won a conference championship since sharing the 1969 Big Eight title with Nebraska and the last outright conference title came in 1960.
“Respect is intangible,” junior defensive Shane Ray said. “You can give that or take it away, but you can’t take away a championship. That’s the goal — to go out there and win.”