Stop us if you’ve heard this one:
More or less unfathomably, the Missouri football team wins the SEC Eastern Division.
Improbably enough, before they crumple in the fourth quarter of the SEC championship game, the Tigers are one measly possession behind a team that’s on trajectory to play for the national championship.
All of which, just like last year, leaves you grappling to reconcile the confounding contradictions of MU’s season:
Is the signature the 42-13 loss to top-ranked Alabama on Saturday at the Georgia Dome, where MU trailed just 21-13 before the Crimson Tide flooded the Tigers with three fourth-quarter touchdowns?
You could say it was plenty competitive until then and all, and that’s something.
But the pivotal fourth quarter also was less an entity in itself than a cumulative testament to which team was imposing its will on the other.
To wit: Alabama’s drives of 64 and 90 yards that snuffed out any flickering, lingering drama.
“To me,” subdued MU coach Gary Pinkel said, “those were two statement drives from their standpoint.”
So is that what should drive the statement on MU’s season?
Or was this game more like gravy gone wrong over what really defines MU’s year: a 10-3 overall record and 7-1 SEC mark after roaring back from hideous losses to Indiana (1-7 in Big Ten play) and Georgia (34-0) in a season that started with so many question marks that Missouri was picked fourth in the division.
It would seem unbecomingly ungenerous, to the point of cynicism, even, not to seek to see the more alluring part of this Rorschach test.
Unsightly as this result was, raw and fresh as the frustration of it is now, how spoiled do you have to be to allow this to dominate your view of the season?
“You can’t take an SEC East championship away from us; it’s a big deal,” linebacker Michael Scherer said. “You can’t take the 10 wins we got away from us.”
Just the same …
“People can say, and they’re going to say, whatever they want,” he added.
That’s true, of course.
And part of that is this: Looming even above the big picture of this season is a yet broader historic view.
And it’s one that is going to keep Mizzou confined to a perception of “close … but not quite elite” until the day it does something substantial to change that.
It’s now been 45 years and counting since the Tigers won a conference football championship.
And while MU did beat BCS-rated No. 1 Oklahoma in 2010, it’s now 0-14 against top-ranked teams in The Associated Press poll.
And Pinkel’s teams are 0-4 in conference championship games, losing by a startling average of 29.5 points per game.
Maybe that’s not exactly seared into his mind.
After the game, though, Pinkel exuded something between profound disappointment and a humbling.
And he brought up his championship game record before he was even asked about it.
“We’ll keep working hard. We’ll get up and brush the dirt off and get back to work like we always do,” he said. “It’s not the end of the world, but, certainly, I’ve coached in four championships and haven’t won one.
“So I’m responsible for that.”
How much of this was about MU and how much about Alabama, of course, is a matter of debate.
The game maybe would have looked a little different if the Tigers had been able to pounce on any of Alabama’s three fumbles or block a punt they narrowly missed or if star defensive end Shane Ray hadn’t been kicked out in the second quarter after a targeting penalty.
Then again, Mizzou could only muster 41 rushing yards in 23 carries and gave up 504 yards. The Tigers also trailed 14-0 just 18 minutes, 12 seconds into the game.
For all that, though, MU put together a third-quarter rally that hinged on scramble passes of 63 and 47 yards from Maty Mauk to Jimmie Hunt, cutting a 21-3 lead to 21-13.
“They did a great job of battling back in the third quarter when they could have sort of said, ‘I don’t know if we can win this game,’” Alabama coach Nick Saban said.
Only to be swamped again in the fourth quarter like they were here last year (14-0) in the 59-42 loss to Auburn.
There’s no shame in this loss, but there’s also no change from what’s become a certain status quo for MU — albeit one that anyone rational who followed the program for a lost generation darn well appreciates.
While all should admire the class upgrade — and remember that Mizzou had two winning seasons between 1983 and 2003 before 10 in the 12 last years under Pinkel — the taunting next step to the final frontier remains to be taken.
The program is strong enough to win the big games to get to the big games, including being a win away from playing for the national title in 2007 and 2013.
From this perch, anyway, that’s an admirable place to be.
But it’s one that still leaves room in the eye of the beholder.