More than half of major-college football programs were invited into this postseason infinity of 40 bowl games, including 37 matchups that have nothing to do with competing for the national title.
So it’s tempting to dismiss some berths as mere participation prizes, and no doubt some of the games are anticlimactic afterthoughts even to the players — as appeared to be the case the last time Missouri played in the Texas Bowl and got stomped 35-13 by Navy in 2009.
“Sometimes, it just depends on where your team is …,” Mizzou athletic director Jim Sterk said as he was looking forward to the Tigers kicking off against Texas in the 2017 Texas Bowl on Wednesday at NRG Stadium. “There’s a lot of psychology in the whole thing.”
More than we can ever know, evidently.
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Because a Mizzou team that had won six in a row and seemed to have every emotional incentive — and advantage — against a depleted Texas team that had been the essence of mediocrity (6-6), a Mizzou team whose Marcell Frazier had said “we’re treating it like the national championship,” instead played casually and clumsily against what turned out to be a highly motivated Texas team.
So Texas beat MU 33-16, making a dud of second-year coach Barry Odom’s first bowl effort, and you’d never have known who was supposed to be the favorite.
Starting with winning the coin toss and deferring to receive the second half kickoff and extending through a blunder-filled first half, MU (7-6) played tentatively, uptight even, instead of with the abandon that had helped it score a minimum of 45 points a game in the winning streak — and made the Tigers seem likely to amass as many or more against a Texas team missing three key defensive players among eight overall who were out for a variety of reasons.
Count the ways this night mattered for MU:
From an opportunity to silence naysayers fixated on the winning streak coming against the soft part of Mizzou’s schedule (which it did but … so what?) … to the chance to enhance recruiting in Texas by planting a flag in the state’s flagship institution … to making the trip one to remember for 11 players from the state … to flipping the arrogant words of former Texas athletic director DeLoss Dodds back on him:
“Take a school like Missouri,” he said in 2013. “Our bad years are better than their good years.”
In some ways, everything about MU’s reasons for leaving the Big 12 for the Southeastern Conference were embodied in that snarky remark, one that had rung hollow considering since then Mizzou is 39-25 with two SEC divisional titles and Texas had been 30-32.
Only to have new life now.
No doubt those words were in the pre-game repertoire of Odom, who also liked to say that nobody in MU’s locker room was recruited by Texas.
It’s hard to know how much of that would resonate with players, of course, but surely this should have:
“Any time you play Texas, it gives a national presence to the game,” Sterk said, “and I think that’s very positive for us, for our program.”
If they seized the moment, that is.
Instead, they seized up from the get-go.
The Tigers committed three penalties on their first defensive series to pave the way for the Longhorns to take a 7-0 lead on a 22-yard touchdown pass from Shane Buechele to a neglected Daniel Young.
They didn’t register their initial first down until their fifth series, on a 23-yard pass from Lock to Kendall Blanton — which would have been a touchdown if Lock hadn’t been uncharacteristically off-target.
When MU started to get cranked up and gain some traction, it couldn’t bear prosperity … or avoid more gaffes.
After the Tigers cut Texas’ lead to 14-7 and were on the move, Ish Witter fumbled for the first time this season. Texas’ Anthony Wheeler returned it 38 yards for a touchdown to make it 21-7 into the half.
Even when Lock hit Johnathon Johnson for a 79-yard touchdown pass to open the second half, Mizzou couldn’t make good on the extra point after a bad snap.
Another bad snap that Lock didn’t seem to anticipate resulted in an MU safety, perhaps inevitable on a night when Texas punter Michael Dickson pinned Mizzou repeatedly and had a good case to be named most valuable player of the game.
Then a Texas field goal made it 26-16 … but only after MU’s DeMarkus Acy was called for roughing the passer on third and long.
That particular call was flimsy, with Acy clearly trying to minimize the hit after he went in the air trying to bat down the pass.
But it was still consistent with the theme of the night:
On a national stage against a marquee opponent, at least in brand if not recent success, Mizzou had a chance to lend some currency to the meaning of its winning streak and some clarity to what it really has here.
The loss doesn’t invalidate MU’s turnaround this season, of course, and maybe some of the disconnect on offense was to be expected with the departure of offensive coordinator Josh Heupel for Central Florida.
But it does fast-forward the questions about what it really means in the bigger picture heading into next year.
Now, Mizzou heads into an offseason of questions — including the replacement for Heupel and whether Lock will opt to leave for the NFL Draft — with one more: Why wasn’t it ready to play in a game it had every reason to be into?