Were it not for Auburn running back Tre Mason’s defense-eviscerating performance in the SEC Championship Game, Missouri probably would have played for a national title last season.
The players are keenly aware of that fact, and it provides the driving motivation as the Tigers steam toward their season opener Aug. 30 against South Dakota State.
“There’s a different kind of intrinsic motivation, because every year you have to find a new way to push yourself,” senior left tackle Mitch Morse said. “Last year, we were coming off a terrible season. … We had the intrinsic motivation that we had something to prove last year. We were a wounded animal, and we needed to come out and kick (butt).
“This year, we still have something to prove, but the intrinsic motivation is, ‘All right, we were this close (to playing for a national championship).’ But we didn’t meet the standard that we want to meet. Now, we’ve got to come out here and push even harder, because we know what it took to get through last year — and that was hard work. Now, we’ve got to come out with even more preparation and more hard work than last year.”
The 2007 Tigers also were on the brink of a national championship-game appearance, so it’s not foreign territory for Gary Pinkel’s program.
It makes sense that would remain Missouri’s goal.
“If we got that close last year, why not this year?” senior wide receiver Bud Sasser said. “And why not get farther this year? We know what it takes, and we know that we’re going to have to show up and show out every game — and for all four quarters, too. It starts here at camp. When those double horns blow at the end of the day, we know that’s fourth quarter, man. We’ve got to get this thing rolling.”
Some fans surely will scoff, but those same fans probably rolled their eyes when L’Damian Washington predicted an 11-win season at SEC Media Days before last season, a goal Missouri surpassed.
While the returning Tigers take pride in the accomplishments of 2013, the ultimate prize, a national title, remains the prime objective.
“Satisfied? What’s that?” said senior nose guard Lucas Vincent, an Olathe North graduate. “We’re not satisfied. We didn’t win a national championship. We’re a whole different team. So 12-2, Cotton Bowl, that doesn’t matter to us. Going all the way is our goal honestly. We’ve worked really hard and we know our goals. We’re going to keep working until we get there.”
The road might be tougher, especially in the Southeastern Conference East division.
Georgia was snakebit by injuries last season, much as Missouri was during its 2012 SEC debut, and could be a force with better health.
South Carolina is a top-10 team to start the season.
Florida collects as much talent as any program not named Alabama and can be expected to rebound.
“It’s always going to be tough,” Vincent said. “There’s a lot of great teams in there. … It’s going to be a grind to win every game. Every team’s a threat, but the seniors last year got us back to the top. This year’s seniors need to prove that we can stay here.”
There is no great mystery to sustained success, according to Pinkel, who became the Tigers’ career coaching victory leader with a Cotton Bowl win in January.
“It’s still about coming out and playing your best, bringing your best effort every night,” he said. “I know it sounds so redundant and boring, but it is. Teams that do that, they get better. We had a team that did that last year.”
So, continual improvement once again is the primary aim and the best path to achieving lofty goals for the Tigers, who have won at least eight games in seven of the last eight seasons and finished no worse than second in their division standings seven of the last nine years.