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Gary Pinkel’s legacy: 2 Final Fours (basically)

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Mizzou was one half away from the national title game twice under Gary Pinkel. That wasn’t close enough, but it’s closer than most non-bluebloods get.

SEC Championship - Missouri v Auburn Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

On December 1, 2007, in San Antonio, Mizzou was 25 minutes from the BCS title game. The Tigers had survived Kansas in Arrowhead the week before. They had survived shaky early play to tie Oklahoma at 14-14 late in the first half. They had forced an OU punt to start the third quarter. And a 22-yard end around to Jeremy Maclin had given the Tigers a first down at the Sooners’ 25 yard line five minutes into the second half.

There was plenty of time to go, of course, and this was OU — Mizzou fans had no reason to feel optimistic about beating the Sooners until the clock officially ran out. The Tigers hadn’t done so since 1998, and they had suffered particularly frustrating losses in 2002, 2006, and earlier in 2007.

Still, it was possible to begin believing. The Tigers had to settle for field goals after creating a couple of early goal-to-go situations, and they trailed 14-6 late in the second quarter. Everything was shaping up to be a frustrating, “just one of those days” loss.

But that drive late in the second quarter had changed the vibe. It was a perfect Mizzou 2007 drive. The ball went everywhere — Tony Temple, Jeremy Maclin, Tommy Saunders, Danario Alexander, Martin Rucker, Will Franklin, and Chase Daniel himself had all touched the ball on the drive before Daniel scored from the 4 with 14 seconds left in the half. Then Maclin threw a two-point conversion pass to Rucker for some extra spice.

The camera caught Daniel pumping his fist. This felt significant. Fun Mizzou had shown up. Fun Mizzou was very, very good that year.

Big 12 Championship - Oklahoma v Missouri Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

On December 7, 2013, in Atlanta, it was possible to believe once more. The Tigers were this time only 20 minutes away from the BCS title game. They had not only survived an incredible offensive onslaught from Auburn in the first half; they had somehow ended the half down only one point.

Mizzou forced a punt and a field goal in Auburn’s first two drives in the third quarter, then Dorial Green-Beckham took a third-and-8 screen pass from left to right for a gorgeous 37-yard gain midway through the period. James Franklin found Bud Sasser near the left sideline for 21 yards to the Auburn 14. And with 5:35 left in the third quarter, running back Marcus Murphy drifted uncovered into the end zone, and Franklin connected with him for a 10-yard touchdown. Mizzou 34, Auburn 31.

Again, there was a long way to go. But Mizzou had allowed just three points on three possessions after getting torched for 28 early points. The offense was playing with fire with second- and third-and-longs but kept figuring out ways to bail itself out. The Tigers kept finding the answers.

SEC Championship - Missouri v Auburn Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

You and I both know it didn’t happen.

Oklahoma’s Jeremy Beal shot through a block and sacked Daniel, then Curtis Lofton chased him down out of field goal range on third down. OU drove for a touchdown, Daniel fired a ball through Rucker’s hands and into Lofton’s, and OU scored again. That was that.

In Atlanta, Auburn’s Nick Marshall ran for 42 yards on third-and-3 to set up a go-ahead touchdown, Mizzou went three-and-out, and Auburn scored again. Once more, that was that. After 35-40 minutes of trading blows, two three-minute glitches did the Tigers in. OU won, which allowed LSU into the national title game. Auburn won, which (thanks to Michigan State’s upset of Ohio State) got Auburn into the title game.

Mizzou found a lovely parachute both times — Cotton Bowl wins and top-five finishes — but missed a shot at the sport’s biggest prize.

There could be only so much regret, though. For one thing, Mizzou would have gotten mauled by Florida State in 2013. The Seminoles were tremendous. There would have been a better opportunity against Ohio State in 2007, but that Buckeye team was quite a bit better than people choose to remember, too. Granted, it would have been great to be able to go and roll the dice, but this probably tamped down regret at least a bit.

Beyond that, though ... this is Mizzou we’re talking about. You can win games, and you can have ambition at Missouri, but this, coming within 20 or so minutes of the title game, isn’t supposed to happen.

Let’s put it this way: by my count (and this is admittedly a pretty loose thing to figure out pre-CFP), here are the teams that have had at least two “win this game, and you’re definitely playing for the national title” opportunities in the last 10 years:

  • 7: Alabama
  • 4: Ohio State
  • 2: Clemson, Florida, Florida State, LSU, Missouri, Oklahoma, Oregon

Granted, Missouri is the only team on this list that didn’t actually win one of those games and play in the title game, but these were Missouri’s Final Four appearances. The Tigers are the only non-members of college football’s oligarchy* to make this list.

* I guess that depends on how you view Oregon, too. Mizzou was either the only non-member or one of two. But I digress.

Pinkel couldn’t end a going-on-five-decade conference title drought, but he nearly got Mizzou an even larger prize. You don’t want your legacy to based on almosts, but ... well, these are some serious, legacy-worthy almosts.

Dan Devine was Missouri’s most consistently awesome coach. In an 11-year span under Devine, Mizzou spent parts of seven seasons in the AP top 10 and, yes, actually won a couple of Big 8 titles. But Pinkel has two of Mizzou’s three top-five finishes, two of its three Final Fours.

Here are both conference title games. I nearly programmed them to end when the going was good, but ... you’re an adult. You can stop watching when you want. And I included some nice palate cleansers as well.

Palate cleanser: 2008 Cotton Bowl.

Palate cleanser: 2014 Cotton Bowl.