COLUMBIA – As piercing and infuriating and deflating as Mizzou’s fourth-quarter collapse and 27-24 double overtime loss to South Carolina on Saturday night was, as lingering as the Gamecocks’ fourth-and-15 touchdown and Andrew Baggett’s chip shot off the left upright will be, here’s the thing:
It really doesn’t have to ruin the season or even be its signature. Hard as it might be to digest this just now, it actually didn’t really change much. Yet, anyway.
"This loss will not define us," MU coach Gary Pinkel said after the game. "What will define (the season) is how we deal with it."
Maybe it sounds like coachspeak.
But he couldn’t be more right.
At 3-1 in Southeastern Conference play, the Tigers still have a game in the loss column on their top SEC Eastern Division competitors and thus the inside track to the SEC title game.
There, they presumably would play two-time defending national champion and top-ranked Alabama.
If MU doesn’t lose again and somehow were to beat Alabama in Atlanta, well, wouldn’t Mizzou still figure to be in the national title game?
After all, the SEC title game has been a springboard to the national championship game the last seven years and only two of those champions finished undefeated.
Just to clarify, I don’t believe Mizzou can beat Alabama. And I also think Texas A&M might be too much for the Tigers. For that matter, winning at Mississippi will be tough.
But none of that changed because of the loss. And even with the loss, there is this:
Since Mizzou beat Florida and Georgia, it holds the head-to-head tiebreaker advantage over the Gators and Bulldogs, who play each other next week meaning at least one more loss for one of them.
Meanwhile, Florida and South Carolina still must play, meaning the same.
And Georgia still has to play at No. 8 Auburn.
So Mizzou’s fate remains entirely in its own hands, and the ceiling for the season is unchanged.
It’s just that the margin for error is a lot slimmer.
Most of all, Mizzou now is coming off a heartbreaking defeat, something it has to demonstrate it can recover from. A game like that can break a team.
So how will MU respond on Saturday when Tennessee (4-4 overall, 1-4 SEC) visits Faurot Field. And beyond?
What’s next really will define the season, no matter how much Saturday will stick in your craw.