Sunday, January 4, 2015

Reflections on the season that was

Missouri capped its season with a 33-17 win over Minnesota on New Year’s Day in the Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl. You may understandably find wings and citrus to be a surprising combination, but perhaps that’s a fitting end to a surprising Missouri season that saw the Tigers repeat as SEC East champions and again outpace expectations.

Missouri (11-3) started slowly against Minnesota (8-5), which was playing in its first New Year’s Day bowl game since the early 1960s. But once the Tigers quit turning over the ball, Missouri was pretty clearly the better team. Still, Missouri only led 19-17 early in the fourth quarter until Russell Hansbrough ripped off a 78-yard run to give the Tigers some breathing room.

It was a nice sendoff for the Tiger seniors who helped the team make the transition to the SEC, and climb far up the conference pecking order quicker than about anyone expected. Senior receiver Bud Sasser, who epitomized this team’s determination and resilience and effort as well as anyone, had a nice curtain call moment to his career when he caught the game’s final touchdown.

Senior defensive end Markus Golden, who contributed as ferociously as anyone on this team’s no-margin-for-error march to the SEC Championship Game, was named the Citrus Bowl most valuable player.

It almost sounds like a backhanded compliment to say Missouri overachieved this season, as if they were a little engine that could that didn’t have much talent but somehow won 11 games. So let’s say this team played just about to its full potential, near as one can know such things for sure. Missouri had limitations this year, especially on offense. But the Tigers showed a relentlessness and a competitive tenacity to just keep playing football as well as they could, no matter what happened or whom they faced.

Yes, this team’s story will always include a home loss to an Indiana team that wasn’t very good and a 34-0 defeat to Georgia. Missouri’s spirited effort to topple mighty Alabama and end the team’s agonizing 45-year conference title drought came up short under the Georgia Dome’s turtle shell-like roof.

But this team also won the third most games of Gary Pinkel’s 14 Missouri teams. The Tigers showed they could rebound from defeat and disappointment. Missouri’s march to Atlanta, when the Tigers came from behind to win in each of their last three regular season games when they had to win, will be a special memory for Tiger fans.

So what about 2015? Missouri will have to replace Sasser, Golden and Shane Ray, among others. Defensive coordinator Dave Steckel has left to be the head coach at Missouri State. But the Tigers also return several key pieces, including quarterback Maty Mauk.

After back-to-back division titles, the road to the SEC East runs through Columbia. Georgia should be a contender again. Also keep an eye on Tennessee, which finished strong and has loads of young talent.

But first, here’s to the season that was, a thrill ride of wins, losses and memories.

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