In a somber Missouri locker room after the dizzying 59-42 loss to Auburn in the SEC championship game on Saturday at the Georgia Dome, you could feel the agony and see the tears and hear the sniffles.
All of it at once if you saw the scab-nosed, smeared and otherwise tortured face of guard Max Copeland, who was being consoled by center Evan Boehm even as media were given rare admission into the players’ sanctuary.
But even the galling way the loss was administered, with Auburn running berserk for a stupefying 545 yards, the defeat isn’t the prevailing signature of Mizzou’s season. Not remotely.
Yes, it’s hard to shake off or fathom how Auburn plowed and frolicked past a MU defense that was allowing 119 yards a game. Even more improbable, Auburn’s victory likely propelled these other Tigers into the national championship game.
In the spotlight, whether because of its glare or by coincidence, MU withered instead of flourishing.
But in the big scheme, the one that matters most, getting this far still was the thing. Better to have been here and lost than not to have been here at all.
Especially since Mizzou went 5-7 overall and 2-6 in Southeastern Conference play a year ago in its SEC debut, making for a mocking of its move and considerable doubt about whether it belonged in the conference that has produced the last seven national titles.
Especially when MU most improbably responded with a revival to win the SEC East and on Saturday was competing for its first outright conference title since 1960.
Even with the loss, the turnaround just as Mizzou was grasping for legitimacy and competitive traction in the SEC represents one of the most pivotal seasons in school history.
Imagine the alternative.
“I’m not going to shed a tear. I’m not going to shed one tear,” senior receiver L’Damian Washington said. “Because I’m proud I’m a proud Mizzou Tiger. I’m going to walk out of here with my chest up and my head high.”
As he should. Because something changed this season, something important.
All that recent history about jinxes and bad luck, all the woe-is-us of the Fifth Down and the Fleakicker and the Norman Conquest, etc., was cast in the past.
It started on Oct. 12 at Georgia, when quarterback James Franklin went down with an injury just as the Bulldogs were rallying. It’s all over now, many thought, reverting to form.
Only the season didn’t end there. In fact, only a few plays later with freshman quarterback Maty Mauk in the game, MU upped its lead and went on to win 41-26.
Then came the exasperating double-overtime loss to South Carolina after blowing a 17-point lead, another moment to sulk and mope.
Only Mizzou didn’t, winning the next four with the SEC East on the line each week.
This team had uncommon grit. More importantly, it demonstrated that it needn’t be limited by the stigma of “same old Mizzou.”
It could make its own way, unconstrained by anyone’s perception but their own of themselves.
So what if they were picked sixth in the SEC East?
“We proved people wrong,” Washington said, adding, “No matter what they say, we’re here.”
It wasn’t the game Mizzou wanted to play, of course.
But it was evident early that MU was utterly out-schemed by the Auburn offense, led by Tre Mason’s preposterous 304 yards on 46 carries. An MU team that had given up 11 rushing touchdowns all season was pounded for seven in one game.
Asked afterward what could be done to stop Auburn, Pinkel essentially admitted he hadn’t had the answers even as he insisted there were no surprises.
“I’m the wrong person to ask, because I’d have stopped it if I could have,” he said, adding that Auburn “has a lot of good talent that can damage you. You put that with a good scheme and you’ve got problems. So obviously, I’m not the coach to ask that.”
So it didn’t matter much that MU scored 42 points, including seven on a defensive touchdown.
“We put points on the board, but we didn’t do our job,” Boehm said. “Our job is to outscore the other team.”
Still, Mizzou has outscored the other team 11 times this season, and with a bowl victory it can tie the school record for wins in a season.
And the loss doesn’t change the fact that MU won the SEC East in a year that most expected them to further show that they aren’t a fit.
Recalling how he felt before the game, Copeland said, “I got to take 10 seconds to say, ‘Hey, they picked you last for kickball, and here you are.’ ”
Losing Saturday doesn’t change that, even if wasn’t MU’s finest moment.
“It wasn’t the season we predicted, because we said ‘national championship’ and we came up a little bit short,” Washington said. “But I think we still proved something; I think we still got our respect. We proved people wrong.”