No. 8: Missouri Surprises Everyone, Wins the SEC East

Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sports

Some said the Tigers didn't belong in the SEC. Those people were wrong.

When Missouri joined the SEC, it wasn't hard to find people expecting the Tigers to have a rough go of it in football in the conference.

Jeff Gordon, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, on October 2, 2011:

The Tigers will scuffle along as a lower-tier football team in their new conference, unless a major transformation occurs.

Robert Mays, Grantland.com, on October 3, 2011:

The spread offense was designed as a way to account for disparities in talent, and nowhere would that be more important for Mizzou than in the SEC. It remains to be seen whether that type of game came succeed in the SEC, where letting fast, powerful defenses tee off on the quarterback might be a dicey proposition. SEC speed is not a fabrication, and a schedule featuring Alabama, LSU and Auburn might mean a long wait before Mizzou comes near another big-time bowl (or any sort of bowl).

David Ubben, then-of ESPN.com, October 11, 2011:

I've said it a few times, and I'm not going to harp on it, but for me, it boils down to Missouri's style not working with the speedier, more physical defenses in the SEC... I do believe Missouri will have trouble consistently making bowl games in the SEC.

The fact that Mizzou's first team went through a mammoth injury problem and limped to a 5-7 record didn't help. Heading into this season, MU was fourth in the preseason consensus without a single preview outlet collected there picking it above that point in the league. Every major printed preseason magazine had the Tigers either tied with or behind Tennessee. I felt like I was about as bullish as anyone on Mizzou, and I still had them only 8-4 and, again, fourth in the East.

Well, that's why they play the games. Missouri not only broke above fourth in the division, but it went to Atlanta as the East's representative in the SEC Championship Game. In only the team's second year in the conference, it proved everyone who said it couldn't compete wrong.

It turns out that Gary Pinkel can coach a little. It turns out that having a healthy James Franklin and Henry Josey makes a big difference. It turns out that it wasn't a fluke that the Tigers won 10 or more games in three of their last five seasons in the Big 12. It turns out that Missouri isn't destined to struggle to get to bowls in its new league.

The regular season's only blemish was a double overtime loss on a field goal attempt that hit the post. It was the third of a three-week stretch against three of the division's four most talented teams by recruiting ranking, and the Tigers very nearly pulled off that gauntlet perfectly. With South Carolina waiting to steal the division crown away in the waning weeks, Missouri did what a number of commentators still didn't think it could do by knocking off Ole Miss and Texas A&M to seal the victory. The loss to Auburn in the SEC Championship Game was unfortunate on many levels, rushing defense being the main one, but that was a team playing out of its mind. MU still put up 42 points and gained 534 yards, anyway.

Getting to the SEC Championship Game was a major milestone for the program. It quieted two years of talk that the team couldn't compete in the old man football league. Opposing recruiters can no longer tell prospects that they'll never play for a championship at Missouri. The system in place there works, and MU will have to be reckoned with going forward in the division.

What a difference a year can make.

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