Republished from the Jefferson City News Tribune
COLUMBIA, Mo. — With Mississippi’s 31-17 defeat of Mississippi State on Saturday, Missouri’s opponent in the Southeastern Conference Championship Game was decided: The Tigers will play Alabama on Saturday in Atlanta.
Missouri surprised many by winning the SEC East outright for the second straight year, clinched Friday with a 21-14 defeat of Arkansas. Many doubted the Tigers could compete in their new conference when Missouri left the Big 12 for the SEC in 2012. And things got off to a rough start for the Tigers, who won just two conference games that year.
But fast-forward two years, and Missouri has reached the SEC Championship Game more times than six other SEC schools with its two appearances. Let’s take a look at how Missouri’s two SEC East champs compare.
How they got in — Neither the 2013 nor 2014 Missouri teams had the benefit of wiggle room while closing out a division title. In 2013, Missouri won four straight conference games to close out the regular season and fend off South Carolina. This year, the Tigers finished on a roll as well, winning six straight to hold off Georgia.
The titles were also clinched in similar fashion.
Both years, Missouri secured a division title in a Thanksgiving-weekend home game against an SEC West opponent — Texas A&M in 2013 and Arkansas in 2014. Both games were decided by a touchdown, and both winning scores came on fourth-quarter runs by tailbacks — Henry Josey last year and Marcus Murphy on Friday. Both years, Missouri followed the touchdown runs with defensive stops, the Tigers ran out the clock, and the Missouri faithful rushed the field to celebrate.
In each season, the Tigers lost just one SEC game — against the teams they ultimately denied division titles.
Bullish bookends — Last year it was Michael Sam and Kony Ealy. This year it has been Shane Ray and Markus Golden. Both teams’ defenses were motored by impressive defensive ends. Sam racked up 10.5 sacks in the regular season, and his sack in the Cotton Bowl tied a Missouri record with 11.5. Ealy racked up 8.0 sacks in 2013 (5.0 in the regular season), and the two combined for 27 tackles for loss in the regular season and 33 total. Sam won SEC defensive player of the year, and he and Ealy were selected by St. Louis and Carolina, respectively, in the 2014 NFL Draft.
Ray and Golden have usurped them this year. Ray has already broken the Missouri sack record with 13.5 sacks, and Golden has chipped in 8.5 of his own — despite missing a game and being held up physically for a stretch of games with a hamstring injury. The two have combined for 36.5 tackles for loss in the regular season. Ray is projected to be a first-rounder in the upcoming NFL Draft, though the junior has yet to say whether he will forgo his final year at Missouri. Golden, a senior, has a good shot to be drafted as well.
How they win — The 2014 Missouri offense has relied heavily on the run at the end of the year, tallying at least 40 rushing attempts in each of its past four games for an average of 214.6 yards. The 2013 team knew how to run, too, leading the SEC East with an average of 237.9 yards per game on the ground.
But that team also had a steady passing attack that featured physical receivers like L’Damian Washington, Dorial Green-Beckham and Marcus Lucas. The 2013 squad averaged 252.9 passing yards per game and more than two touchdowns through the air.
Those numbers are down this year, though quarterback Maty Mauk has steadily improved throughout conference play. The Tigers struggled with offensive outputs of 119 total yards against Florida and 147 against Georgia. Missouri’s offensive lowpoint in 2013? A mere 375 yards against Georgia.
The 2014 Tigers have had to rely on defense to rack up conference wins. Missouri’s seven conference wins have come by an average of 10.3 points this year, and only one was a blowout (a 42-13 defeat of Florida). Last season the Tigers’ average SEC win came by 19.6 points, including wins of 31 and 28 points.
Resumes — This year’s Missouri team has faced criticism for playing a weak schedule. The Tigers don’t have a single SEC win against a team with a winning conference record this year. But that’s not a huge drop from last season, when the Tigers only had one such win — although, the 2013 team did have six wins against ranked teams and two against teams that ended the season in the top 25. The current team has just two wins against teams that were ranked at the time and none against currently ranked squads.
But the differences between Missouri’s 2014 and ‘13 schedules aren’t exactly vast. Missouri’s 2014 opponents have an overall record of 77-66 (.538 win percentage). In 2013, the Tigers’ opponents had a 77-67 record in the regular season. Missouri’s SEC opponents were 23-41 in conference in 2014 and 27-37 in 2013.
The big difference is what Missouri did what that schedule. Margins of victory notwithstanding, the Tigers’ two losses this season are much uglier. The first came at home against an Indiana team that won just one game in Big Ten play. The second was a 34-0 shellacking by Georgia — also in Columbia — that gave the Bulldogs their first-ever road shutout of a ranked opponent. In 2013, the Tigers’ only loss came to South Carolina, which finished the season ranked fourth, in a triple-overtime defeat.
The Indiana loss is the one that should sting most for Missouri. Had the 2014 Tigers glided unharmed through non-conference play, Missouri would be in the midst of College Football Playoff discussions right now. Instead, the Tigers will most likely be on the outside looking in at the inaugural playoff, even with a potential defeat of No. 1 Alabama.
Still, the 2014 Tigers have a chance to do something a Missouri football team hasn’t done since 1969: Win a conference championship.