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Columnist Vahe Gregorian offers musings about the sports scene in and around Kansas City

Mizzou’s football season needs grand finale

12/11/2013 10:55 PM

12/11/2013 10:55 PM

As well they should, the accolades are cascading down now over the Missouri football program.

Defensive end Michael Sam became MU’s first conference defender of the year since 1981 this week when he was chosen SEC defensive player of the year by voters for The Associated Press, demonstrating his play could say plenty enough without him needing to speak to the media, too.

A year after a dud conference debut season in which only one Tiger (Sheldon Richardson) was recognized as all-SEC, three other Tigers were similarly honored: cornerback E.J. Gaines, defensive end Kony Ealy and offensive tackle Justin Britt were first-team All-SEC.

For engineering a turnaround from 5-7 to 11-2 and an SEC East championship, coach Gary Pinkel was chosen as a regional coach of the year by the American Football Coaches Association on Wednesday. He’s also one of eight finalists for the Eddie Robinson National Coach of the Year award given by the Football Writers Association of America.

But for plenty of reasons, all these good vibes require an exclamation point in the Cotton Bowl for the season to have real resonance after MU’s 59-42 loss to Auburn in the SEC championship game.

Mizzou obviously has nothing to apologize for about its revitalizing year, but there sure is something to be redeemed for its hapless defensive play and strange refusal to shake up the coaching approach as Auburn was rushing unbridled for 545 yards.

Really, it was ridiculous.

I bore witness to Kansas’ Tony Sands setting a then-Division I-A (FBS) record with 396 yards against MU in 1991, and I saw Navy prance for 385 yards against MU in the 2009 Texas Bowl. Mizzou looked helpless in those games, but I don’t believe it looked more befuddled.

Against Auburn, it wasn’t so much that Missouri was missing tackles as it was that the Tigers often weren’t even close enough to flail at Auburn’s Tre Mason (304 yards) and Nick Marshall (101 yards) before they had zoomed for big plays.

But making up for that isn’t the only reason Mizzou needs to beat Oklahoma State on Jan. 3 to make this season stand as one of the best in school history (matching its record of 12 wins) and make a declaration for national respect that Pinkel so craves.

To some degree beyond the BCS National Championship Game, bowl games are just gravy.

Not this one.

Pinkel now is 0-3 in conference championship games, with his teams giving up 159 points along the way, and he’s 4-4 in bowls at MU.

So for all his considerable accomplishments at Missouri, where he is tied with Don Faurot for the most wins in school history with 101, his teams have had their share of thuds in the postseason. For all the Novembers to remember, Decembers have been more forgettable.

Now, it’s also worth noting that two of his MU bowl wins came after Big 12 conference title game thumpings by Oklahoma, so there’s reason to believe that resilience can be here now, too.

Yet there’s also reason to believe Missouri will need all of that and more against the 10-2 Cowboys, which, like MU, went into their game last Saturday with a chance to win a conference title only to fall short.

That wasn’t just any conference title, of course, but the Big 12 title.

And even if no one is saying it publicly, at least not yet, don’t think that Missouri’s defection to the SEC from the Big 12 won’t loom large over this game.

In MU’s first football game against a former conference foe, it’s Oklahoma State’s chance to make a statement about the endless hype ladled over the SEC, which via Auburn has a chance to win an eighth straight national title.

More directly, it’s also Oklahoma State’s moment to try to show Missouri where it might have fit in the Big 12 this season.

Mizzou needs to withstand that and atone for the Auburn game and win this one, lest it go into the offseason with two straight losses that scrape some luster off an otherwise terrific season.

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