Crazy things can happen between now and Dec. 7, when the book closes on college football’s regular season. Wild turns, head-shaking upsets, the regular season never seems to end without drama.
But whatever else happens, we can reach this conclusion: With three years of realignment nearly in the books, the biggest upset has been recorded in the Southeastern Conference.
Missouri and Texas A&M battle in Columbia on Saturday and the Tigers are playing for a spot in the SEC championship game. Win, and Mizzou heads to Atlanta to face the Alabama-Auburn survivor.
If this happens, Missouri could achieve a level of success beyond any others in the recent realignment class.
Nebraska has played in a Big Ten championship game, and if its defeats Iowa in Lincoln on Friday, the Huskers will have won at least nine games in each of their three Big Ten seasons. That’s nearly an identical resume as Nebraska’s final three years in the Big 12.
West Virginia and TCU in the Big 12 have scored some nice victories, but both had bowl participation streaks snapped this year.
In the Pac-12, Utah has fallen from its double-digit victory ways in the Mountain West and Colorado continues to struggle as it did in the final Big 12 years.
Syracuse and Pittsburgh are playing break-even in their Atlantic Coast Conference debuts this season.
No, the biggest strides have been taken in the conference where history told us it was least likely to happen.
The underdogs are winning in the SEC.
Last year, Texas A&M finished 11-2 and won at Alabama. In 16 Big 12 seasons, the Aggies never had a record that good — or had a player win the Heisman Trophy.
A year later, Missouri is taking the season by storm, a victory away from playing for the SEC championship. Mizzou didn’t reach its first Big 12 title game until its 12th year in the league.
It took Arkansas four years to get into its first SEC title game. South Carolina needed 19.
Remember the doubts? Texas A&M and Missouri weren’t ready for the SEC, especially the Midwest-based Tigers, who would fall into a recruiting abyss transitioning to new destinations. And that finesse spread offense philosophy? Just wait until it faces a SEC defense.
Missouri reinforced those notions in its SEC opener last year. The Tigers couldn’t keep up with Georgia and its “old-man football,” as Tigers defensive end Sheldon Richardson described it before the game. The entire SEC old guard nodded its approval, and Mizzou limped to a 2-6 conference record.
That made it easy to downgrade Missouri’s chances this season. Sixth in the East, was the projection, and Missouri followers weren’t used to gazing so far down a preseason poll. No matter what happens Saturday, Mizzou has already clinched a share of a first-place division finish, its fourth in the last seven years. They’ll be headed to their ninth bowl game in 11 years.
When coach Gary Pinkel says, as he has many times this season — “We’re used to winning” — that’s his evidence.
Now that Missouri has taken down every SEC comer this season but South Carolina and stands at the edge of a division crown, how are the Tigers being received in the traditional conference haunts? Our Tod Palmer asked some Mississippi fans about this on his trip to Oxford last week.
“We wanted them to earn their keep, to come in and be the bottom teams for a while,” said Bubba Bonds, an Oxford native who lives in Nashville, Tenn. “I assure you, Mississippi State or Kentucky are wishing Missouri and Texas A&M would have come in 0-8 in the SEC, so there are a lot of fans who resent them because they’ve had success so early.”
It’s understandable, really. Mississippi has had one 10-victory season in 1971 and never played in the SEC title game. Mizzou could achieve that Saturday. But others felt differently.
“I think it’s great,” said Charlie Rousseau, who graduated from Ole Miss in 1959. “It makes the league stronger. I think (Missouri) is going to help an I think Texas A&M is going to help.”
As unlikely as it seemed when the newcomers were welcomed, the success of Missouri and Texas A&M shouldn’t have come as a big surprise. It’s the SEC. They win at everything, including realignment.