Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Missouri wins the East, faces Auburn for SEC title

As Missouri’s momentous football game last Saturday worked toward its conclusion, the tension grew and hung in the air, like the smoke from the fireworks that lingered over the stadium and wouldn’t fade away into the night.

Missouri (11-1, 7-1 in SEC play) trailed 14-7 at the half, but roared back to take a 21-14 lead into the fourth quarter. To their credit, Texas A&M (8-4, 4-4 in SEC) wouldn’t go quietly. Reigning Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel, a polarizing figure off the field but a dynamic player college football will miss, led the Aggies on a 98-yard touchdown drive to tie it up.

With the game tied in the final quarter, the teams combined for four straight punts as the suspense rose higher and higher. Finally, on a Missouri third-and-one from its own 43, Tiger running back Henry Josey, who missed all of last year with a knee injury, burst through the line and sprinted into the open field and the end zone for what would be the game-winning touchdown. Missouri’s “blackout” crowd bounced and waved and surged like black grass in a swirling wind.

Missouri’s 28-21 win clinched the SEC East Division championship in just the Tigers’ second year in the conference. Fans poured onto Faurot Field, celebrating one of the biggest wins in the 88 seasons at the venerable stadium.

This win comes near the end of a resounding season in which Missouri proved it can compete in the powerful SEC. It was a bounce-back year for coach Gary Pinkel, who tied Don Faurot for the most wins in school history, with 101.

There were varying degrees of optimism and apprehension back in August, but nobody saw this, 11-1 and a trip to next Saturday’s SEC Championship Game at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta (3 p.m. on CBS).

Missouri will be playing for its first football conference title since 1969, in President Richard Nixon’s first term, a year that began with mankind having never walked on the moon. The Tigers are also still in the national championship picture, probably needing a win and then a loss by either Ohio State or Florida State in their respective conference title games.

In this improbable SEC title game, No. 5 Missouri will face No. 3 Auburn (11-1, 7-1 in SEC play). Auburn’s Tigers had a disastrous season last year, falling to 3-9 overall and 0-8 in SEC play just two years removed from a national title. But new coach Gus Malzahn, the offensive coordinator for that national championship team, gave an immediate jolt to the program.

Auburn punched its ticket to the SEC title game Saturday with a play for the ages, returning a missed field goal 109 yards for a game-winning touchdown as time expired to dethrone mighty Alabama.
With the nation’s fifth-ranked rushing attack led by running back Tre Mason and quarterback Nick Marshall, Auburn will be a unique challenge for Missouri’s defense.

This season has been a wonderful surprise for Tiger fans, and it seems fitting to cap it off with surprise matchup for the SEC championship.

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