Sunday, January 4, 2015

Missouri faces No. 1 Alabama in Atlanta for SEC title

When Missouri started a drive at its own two-yard line late in the third quarter last Friday, the situation seemed dire. The Tigers needed a win to clinch the SEC East title, but they trailed Arkansas 14-6. Missouri’s offense had not scored a touchdown on all eight drives so far on the day, and Arkansas’ defense had kept its opponent from scoring a touchdown on a staggering 31 straight drives over three games.

Then, as a gorgeous sunset lit up the sky above Faurot Field, Missouri (10-2, 7-1 in SEC) embarked on a drive for the ages. The Tigers went 98 yards on 10 plays for a touchdown. They completed the two-point conversion on a trick play wide receiver pass, with old reliable Bud Sasser tossing it to Darius White to tie the game at 14.

The long drive and score got the fans fired up, and the sellout crowd was roaring as the Tiger defense, strong all day, forced a punt.

Missouri’s suddenly hot offense reeled off a 12-play, 85-yard touchdown drive to take the lead with 4:38 to go. Faurot was rocking, a tempest of sound and hope.

Missouri got one more stop, when defensive end Markus Golden, maybe the MVP of this stretch run, recovered a fumble by Alex Collins to seal the 21-14 win.

Fans poured out onto the field, fireworks exploded above the old stadium, and then the sweet sounds of Ray Charles’ “Georgia On My Mind” drifted out from the stadium speakers. For the second year in a row, Missouri is headed to Atlanta.

Missouri’s opponent in the SEC Championship Game on Saturday (3 p.m. on CBS) is SEC West champ Alabama, the No. 1 team in the nation and most successful program in the conference, if not the country.

Alabama (11-1, 7-1 in SEC) showed its own resolve on Saturday. The Crimson Tide trailed its nemesis Auburn 33-21 in the Iron Bowl, but then went on a breathtaking 34-3 run to notch a 55-44 win.
Alabama coach Nick Saban has won four national championships and four SEC titles and is probably the best coach in the nation. But Gary Pinkel, Saban’s college teammate at Kent State, is doing as good a job coaching Missouri as he ever has.

One of the chief concerns for Pinkel and defensive coordinator Dave Steckel is slowing down Alabama’s outstanding wide receiver, Amari Cooper. Cooper was unguardable against Auburn, with 13 catches for 224 yards and three touchdowns.

The best way for Missouri to contain Cooper is for its defensive line to get heat on quarterback Blake Sims and not give him time to find Cooper downfield.

Just getting here is a fantastic achievement for Missouri, but when you’re this close to a championship, you want to close the deal. Missouri has not won a football conference title in 45 years. To win one here, against a dominant, top-ranked Alabama team, would maybe be the biggest win in Missouri football history.

Whatever happens, this remarkable season has been given one heck of an encore.

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