"You think that was big?" Gary Pinkel asked. "It's gonna get a lot bigger than that. It's a huge game. We're gonna play against the best player in college football."
Ah, yes, playing the foil is Johnny Manziel, the leader of last year's SEC newcomer darling, the Texas A&M Aggies. Exactly 365 days ago, Manziel rolled up 449 yards of total offense and five touchdowns, putting the bow on a Heisman Trophy in the process of embarrassing Missouri 59-29. He will come into Faurot Field fresh off a 16-for-41, two-turnover, 34-10 blowout against LSU that likely cost him the chance to be the second player ever to take home college football's top individual award twice.
That it is Missouri chasing a school-record tying 11th regular season win, a berth in the league title game and the chance to keep chasing a national championship is perhaps college football's biggest surprise in 2013. But whether anyone expected it is now immaterial. It is reality.
This season remains Missouri’s to write because of what they did at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium. Operating in decidedly big-boy fashion, the Tigers imposed themselves in ways inconceivable during their 2012 debut in the Southeastern Conference.
Favored by less than a field goal, the Tigers extended their improbable run as a second-year SEC gate-crasher. They parlayed Franklin’s return from a shoulder injury and a heavy dose of whipsaw defense into a 24-10 win that assures them at least a share of the SEC East title, their 10th win this season and No. 100 in Columbia for out-of-the-frying-pan, into-the-Top 10 head coach Gary Pinkel.
This is where the story goes from interesting to downright compelling. Now the "what-ifs" are reduced to one: Beat bruised Texas A&M next weekend at Faurot Field and book an out-of-the-clouds trip to the Olympic City previously reserved for programs such as Florida, Georgia and South Carolina.
You saw all you needed of last night's game if you watched each team's final drive.
Mississippi used big plays to move the ball to Missouri's 7-yard line and had a first-and-goal. But the Rebels had not been able to line up and pound the ball on the Tigers all night, and with the field shortened, they were in a pickle. A pass to the end zone was well-covered; a reverse was disrupted by Kony Ealy and terminated by Lucas Vincent; a pass to the end zone was broken up by Matt White; and another pass to the end zone fell harmlessly as quarterback Bo Wallace had no time to let the play develop. It was the second time in the game Ole Miss had a first-and-goal and scored no points.
Then Missouri took over with 8:08 left and a 14-point lead. Ole Miss knew what was coming. It didn't matter. On 13 straight plays, the Tigers ran the ball behind the line of Justin Britt, Max Copeland, Evan Boehm, Connor McGovern and Mitch Morse. On the next two plays, they rested, with James Franklin taking a knee in victory formation as time expired.
Physical superiority has its advantages.
"We’re in the SEC just like everybody else," defensive end Kony Ealy said. "I guess you can say we want it more."
The sellout home crowd of 61,168 rested its lungs early as Missouri quarterback James Franklin conducted an eight-play touchdown drive at breakneck speed (2:45) to open the game.
Saturday night was Franklin’s first time in the starting lineup since suffering a right shoulder injury at Georgia Oct. 12. His return boosted a potent running game that totaled 260 yards on the night.
"We’re so great at communicating with each other," running back Henry Josey said of Franklin. "It was a good feeling having him back and I felt stronger having him back there, too." [...]
"We’re fighting more so for the seniors than for ourselves," Ealy said. "It all comes down to focus. It’s about how you come back from adversity. I think we’ve done a good job facing that this season."
Coach Gary Pinkel became the second coach in Missouri history to reach 100 victories. His record is now 100-62 in 13 seasons at MU.
Only legendary coach Don Faurot, who went 101-79-10 in 19 seasons during two stints at MU (1935-42, 1946-56), has won more.
Next Saturday night...
...Missouri goes for its 11th win, a total so many regional and national analysts thought the Tigers would never reach in the SEC.
...Missouri goes for its first SEC East title. In just its second try.
...Missouri goes for what would almost certainly be a top-4 spot in the BCS standings. The Tigers will be either fifth or sixth when the rankings are revealed tonight, but either Alabama or Auburn will lose next weekend, and a win over Texas A&M would give Missouri an excellent chance of passing Clemson in the rankings, if it hasn't already happened.
...Gary Pinkel goes for his 101st win. Only Don Faurot has won 101. And No. 101 would give Pinkel a chance at 102 the next week.
...Johnny Football comes to town. The player who became college football's go-to heel in the offseason (fair or not) will play the ultimate heel for Missouri.
...is Senior Night for James Franklin, Michael Sam, E.J. Gaines, L'Damian Washington, Max Copeland and all of the members of one of the greatest senior classes in Missouri's history. I don't call it great because of its accomplishments; I call it great because of the leadership it has shown. This is what you want every senior class to be.
The Texas A&M game was going to be meaningful no matter what happened in Oxford last night. But because of Mizzou's effort against Ole Miss, the coming game means almost everything. It is not the biggest home game in Missouri's history -- technically, that will always be the 1960 Kansas game, since it was for a national title -- but it might be the second-biggest. (We'll have to come up with a list later this week, huh?) It is also the second-biggest Thanksgiving Saturday game in Missouri's history, behind the one that took place at Arrowhead six years ago.
Soak this in. This has been an amazing, redeeming season, and the biggest game of the year takes place in six days.