Republished from the Jefferson City News Tribune
COLUMBIA, Mo. — A defeat of No. 1 Alabama in Saturday afternoon’s Southeastern Conference championship game would be a historic achievement for Missouri in multiple ways.
For one, it would be the Tigers’ first-ever win against a team ranked No. 1 in the AP Poll. Plus, Missouri would become the first team to join the SEC after its inauguration in 1932 and win a football championship.
But for coach Gary Pinkel, a win would get an even bigger monkey off his back — as he was reminded during a national teleconference Sunday.
“This guy came on and said — he was very complimentary about it — he said, ‘You know, you’ve won five divisional titles in the last eight years.’” Pinkel said. “And you knew what was coming next: ‘Can’t you win a championship?’”
The Tigers won Big 12 divisional titles in 2007, ‘08 and ‘10 and were SEC East division champs last season, but Missouri has never won a conference title game.
“That’s my responsibility,” Pinkel said in the teleconference. “Hopefully we can play well and have an opportunity to do that.”
The Tigers, ranked No. 1 at the time, lost to Oklahoma in 2007, 38-17, and again in 2008, 62-21. In 2010, the Tigers were co-champions with Nebraska, which represented the Big 12 North in the championship game. Last year, the Tigers fell short in the SEC championship game to Auburn, 59-42, in just their second year in the conference.
Pinkel was the only Missouri coach to take the Tigers to a Big 12 championship game, and the conference-title woes for Missouri extend beyond his tenure, which began in 2001.
The Tigers’ most recent conference championship came in 1969, as a member of the Big Eight. Missouri shared that title, however, with Nebraska.
Missouri’s last outright conference championship was in 1960, though even that title is in dispute. Kansas defeated Missouri 23-7 that year to claim the initial Big 8 championship, but the conference later voided the win because a Jayhawk player was voted ineligible, granting Missouri the Big 8 title. The game is still a source of much controversy, and both schools claim to have won the contest.
Missouri’s last conference championship won outright and in a non-disputed fashion was in 1945, seven years before Pinkel was born.
Missouri won 12 conference titles in the Big 8, 10 outright, which trails only Nebraska (32 outright) and Oklahoma (26 outright). During the Tigers’ Big 12 tenure from 1996-2011, Missouri’s three divisional titles was tied for sixth-best in the conference. The Tigers were one of six Big 12 teams to not win a conference championship outright during that time.
In fact, Missouri’s conference championship struggles date back to the 19th century. As a member of the Western Interstate University Football Association from 1892-97, Missouri was the only team in the four-team league to not win an outright championship. Although, the Tigers were named conference co-champions three times, as were Kansas and Nebraska.
Missouri has wasted little time fighting for a title in their newest conference. During the Tigers’ first three years as an SEC school, Missouri and Alabama are the only teams to have reached the championship game twice. Missouri already ranks eighth in appearances in the SEC Championship Game, which began in 1992. Four teams have never gone, including three original members.
However, three teams who have never appeared in an SEC Championship game have SEC titles if you lump in the pre-divisional era, as do former SEC members Georgia Tech and Tulane.
With one more win, Missouri can join the club, make history and perhaps put some old history behind them.
Of course, Pinkel isn’t thinking too much about that.
“We’re not going to drastically change what we do,” he said. “The most important thing is is to go to play your best football game. And ultimately, that’s all that matters. We can talk about a zillion things, (but) can you play your best football? It’s my job to get our football team to play their best, and if they don’t play their best, then I didn’t do a very good job.”