ATHENS, Ga. — Missouri players had a message after their 41-26 win over No. 7 Georgia on Saturday: “Why not us?”
The gutsy victory put the Tigers in the driver’s seat to get to the Southeastern Conference championship game in December. And it’s only their second year among what’s considered the nation’s toughest conference.
“The respect notch just went up a couple spots,” Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said. “I’ve said from Day 1 that I’m very proud to be a member of the SEC, and you’ve got to earn respect. And we earned a little bit.”
Most offseason media predictions penciled in Georgia, Florida or South Carolina as SEC Eastern Division champs. Only Kentucky had fewer voter points than Missouri from the polls taken at SEC Media Days.
The Tigers are ranked, undefeated and have a horde of momentum looking ahead. They have yet to see the brunt of their schedule, however, which includes looming matchups against No. 17 Florida and No. 14 South Carolina the next two weeks, and No. 9 Texas A&M in the season finale.
But all three of those games will be played at home.
The Tigers’s victory in Athens snapped the nation’s second-longest home winning streak (15 games). But despite securing what Pinkel called “big win,” Saturday wasn’t as comfortable as the Tigers would have liked.
After jumping out to a 28-10 halftime lead, they lifted in the third quarter and allowed Georgia to slowly creep its way back.
The Bulldogs notched a 28-yard field goal on the opening drive of the third before trading punts with the Tigers following a few key stops. Then Aaron Murray and company stretched out an 11-play, 80-drive that closed the gap to eight.
Anxiety furthered in the fourth when Tigers quarterback James Franklin left the game with a shoulder injury. Pinkel, who wasn’t certain if Franklin would return next week against Florida, said he shifted Missouri’s game plan somewhat to cater to back-up Maty Mauk.
“He went out there and for that next series, we weren’t afraid to throw the ball with him but you know, certainly, we wanted to make sure we did the right thing and keep the game under control,” Pinkel said.
Mauk didn’t throw a single pass during his first drive. In fact, Missouri wideout Bud Sasser had a completion before Mauk when he threw a 40-yard flea-flicker touchdown to L’D Washington in the fourth quarter. The play extended the lead to 34-26 and gave the Tigers some breathing room.
It was a few late interceptions by Murray, however, that eventually sealed the game.
“They win football games,” Pinkel said of turnovers. “Everybody in the country works on them, we’re not special.”
Missouri players were quite raucous following the win, and Pinkel even looked and chuckled at the closed locker room door a few times during his press news conference. He then said last year’s struggles have fueled the team’s resolve in 2013, and that the seniors have an anxious ambition of returning the program to its winning ways.
Halfway through the season, they have yet to lose (6-0, 2-0 SEC).
The Tigers control their own destiny from here. The Eastern Division, conference and perhaps even BCS are all within
“Last year people said we don’t belong in the SEC and we’ve been dealing with that criticism,” Missouri linebacker Shane Ray said. “To be able to come out and beat a great team like Georgia, it’s epic.”