Georgia came to Memorial Stadium on Oct. 11, took Missouri behind the woodshed and delivered a 34-0 whooping.
A lot of coaches might have popped a vessel during a post-game verbal assault after that kind of home loss, but Tigers coach Gary Pinkel said he chose not to “flip out” in the aftermath of the bullying by the Bulldogs.
“I said, ‘Everybody’s frustrated and disappointed, but we’ve got a chance to do something about it,’” Pinkel said. “I think it was really important for them to understand that we could be really good still, but a sense of urgency was an understatement.”
Pinkel says now that “Georgia outplayed us and outcoached us,” a circumstance made worse by five turnovers — sophomore quarterback Maty Mauk threw four interceptions and also lost a fumble on a sack.
On the heels of a home loss against Big Ten bottom-feeder Indiana a few weeks earlier, the lopsided loss to the Bulldogs could have given the Tigers license to pack it in for the season.
Nobody outside the program expected Missouri to rattle off six straight wins and claim a second straight SEC East crown.
It didn’t seem possible, but that’s exactly what the Tigers did — with help from Georgia, which stubbed a toe during a Cocktail Party with Florida.
“The leadership of the seniors elevated at that point,” Pinkel said. “The seniors actually at that point, as a group, really took over the team a little bit in a very positive way.”
It was clear that what Missouri was doing midway through the season wasn’t good enough.
It had to change, had to get better, and it did.
“I want to get better is not good enough,” Pinkel said of the team’s attitude shift after the Georgia loss. “I’m determined to get better. I’m determined to make my play better, my preparation better, so my team can win. It’s got to be a different mind-set.”
Six wins later, the No. 14 Tigers, 10-2, have a chance to claim the program’s first conference championship in 45 years with a win against No. 1 Alabama, 11-1, in the SEC Championship Game at 3 p.m. Saturday at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta.
“We’re a lot different football team than we were back then,” Pinkel said.
He continued, “After that game (against Georgia), it was kind of a wake-up call for our guys that, hey, we need to get really focused and have attention to detail or this is going to happen some more against the teams we play in this league. From that game forward, there was a real focus and a real push and a real desire from the players.”
The college football season isn’t geared to reward improvement.
Playing for a championship generally requires excellence from start to finish, so Missouri isn’t likely to be rewarded for turning its season around with an appearance in the inaugural College Football Playoff.
That shouldn’t diminish a remarkable run of wins at Florida, against Vanderbilt and Kentucky at home, at Texas A&M (which had just won at Auburn), at Tennessee (which had scored 95 points in its two previous games) and against Arkansas (which was fresh off back-to-back shutout wins against LSU and Mississippi).
“Our players, obviously they know what’s going on,” Pinkel said. “They watch TV. They hear things. Certainly, they’re competitors and they have a lot of pride in who they are. I think our players draw from that a little bit, being the underdog and maybe not getting the respect that you want to.”
Pinkel said a little of that is fine, but MU’s staff doesn’t beat the drum of disrespect.
“We don’t talk about that at all from the standpoint of my coaches with our players,” he said. “We focus on ourselves playing well. We don’t focus on where we play or who we play. Our whole focus is on playing our best football.”
Respect will come, perhaps grudgingly, if the Tigers can stop the Crimson Tide.