Sunday, March 22, 2015

"If it ain't swayin', we ain't playin'" and surf 'n turf on Rocky Top: My 2014 college football memoir

I’m aware we won’t do this forever, but sometimes it seems like we might.

Such is the familiarity when you’re in love with college football and your team has had the same coach since Bill Clinton was President.

Since Gary Pinkel was hired to coach Missouri in late 2000 after another lost season in Columbia, for 14 seasons now, Pinkel has poured his time and passion and soul into winning a conference championship at Missouri.

For roughly a similar duration, I’ve swung for the fences, trying to find the love of my life.

We’ve each had some great moments here and there, made wonderful memories, although those loftiest aspirations have remained unfulfilled. But the chase continues.

Pinkel’s loss in December’s SEC title game dropped him to 0-4 in conference title games. But in some ways, this might have been his best coaching job yet, cajoling his team to the furthest reaches of its potential.

Perhaps it’s this way for a lot of Tiger fans by now, but Gary is like an old friend. An occasionally surly friend whose smile could use some practice, but still familiar. We’ll keep striving, with each year feeling familiar, but the wonder returns fresh and vibrant with each new beginning, with each attempt.

* * *


This year’s grand production began in South Carolina, with the Gamecocks hosting Texas A&M in the kickoff game and myself watching on TV, eating delivered Bangkok Gardens fried rice with chicken.

It was late August and approximately 47 billion degrees in Columbia, South Carolina. Weeks later, when I was in South Carolina, the girl dipping up my ice cream on campus said it was “appallingly hot” for that opening game.

Hindsight would show it was not as big of a game as I thought it would be, as both teams had pedestrian seasons. But A&M routed South Carolina and got people excited. The game was the first on the new SEC Network, with Brent Musberger on the call. We were underway.

Missouri gradually built early momentum. We didn’t know what to expect losing a quarterback, most of the outstanding receiving corps and two outstanding defensive linemen. But the Tigers beat South Dakota State on a gorgeous day at Faurot, debuting the new East stadium tower. My sister, Abbie, drove down for the game.

Missouri then won at Toledo and at home against UCF, in a game that shockingly would have finished in less than three hours if not for a late turnover and defensive touchdown by Missouri.

At 3-0, the Tigers just needed to beat Indiana at home to be undefeated rolling into SEC play. Indiana would prove to not be very good in Big Ten play and go 4-8 overall, but somehow the Hoosiers just outplayed the Tigers and won 31-27.

I recoiled from the scene like I imagine most girls do when guys include a wink face in a text message.

It was an almost unthinkable result that left Tiger fans questioning how this team could compete in the SEC if it couldn’t beat Indiana at home.

Quite well, actually.

“If it ain’t swayin’, we ain’t playin'”

With the wound of the Indiana defeat still fresh, I got in a car with three friends, Brent Foster, Seth Maberry and Chris Coffman, to drive - yes, drive - to Missouri’s game at South Carolina the last weekend in September.

It’s a long drive, folks. We left Thursday night to get a leg up. Through Missouri, through the clusterwhoops of road construction in Illinois, through Kentucky, into Tennessee, where we stayed in Lebanon for the night. Then Friday was through East Tennessee, slicing through the mountains and into North Carolina, finally down into Columbia, South Carolina. We were on the other side of the Appalachians, but it could have been the other side of the world. Palmetto trees, like a normal tree wearing jousting armor, popped up everywhere.

We headed out on the town Friday night. One of the great things about college football fandom is that it’s so darn participatory. You tailgate. You make noise at the games. You talk trash. You go out on the town on Friday night before the game, you feel the town buzzing about the clash coming the next day.
After thorough scouting, including a twitter exchange with sportswriter Kent Babb, we ate dinner at Yesterday’s, in the Five Points region. For the first time, I had steak and cornbread at the same meal. Dixie knows what it’s doing.

After the meal, we asked the cute hostess where she would recommend we go for post-dinner revelry. She was, however, under 21 and could not give a bar recommendation, certainly not on the record. She asked another worked at the restaurant who pointed us in the right direction.

We checked out the capitol grounds, the birthplace of the Confederacy. It was a Southern statehouse straight out of central casting, with a Confederate memorial and flag, a Strom Thurmond statue, and generally large amounts of vegetation and overgrowth (Spanish moss?). There was even a marker where the old statehouse stood, until “Sherman’s troops” burned it during the war.

We also looked around the campus and saw where the students were camped out on “the Horseshoe,” waiting for College Gameday in the morning. Giant cardboard goalposts depicted Missouri’s infuriating, double-overtime loss to South Carolina last year, when a short Tiger field goal hit the upright.

We then hit up the Carolina Ale House on Lady Street, near the Congaree River. The Royals (!) dominated the TVs as they had ended their playoff drought that night. I had a root beer float because why not and we held court on the rooftop patio until the wee hours.

It was a late night, but a college football gameday serves as an adrenaline boost. After lunch in Five Points, we headed to campus to look around.

It was the Southern college campus from central casting. Perfect weather. Giant old buildings with columns. So much vegetation. Accents and fancy gameday attire. An unending procession of gorgeous Southern women with dresses and skirts and tan legs and here’s my wallet take whatever you want.
We checked out the bookstore, where South Carolina students were reading classics such as the Hunger Games trilogy.

We then found the student center, where Maberry and I hopped in a long line for ice cream. We chatted with the girls in line ahead of us. We got accents, but not what we expected. One was from Australia; the other was from England. We tried to tell the Australian where on the globe Missouri is located, and we chatted with the English girl about Scotland’s recent vote to stay in the United Kingdom. We’re worldly folk.

When it was our turn to be served, the girl dipping our ice cream commented on how lucky we were to experience this beautiful weather for our visit, how that first game with A&M had been “appallingly hot,” and that she had not wanted to wear any clothes when it was that hot.

We sat at a table by a glass staircase to eat the ice cream, using South Carolina men’s basketball rally towels as napkins. The staircase and all those super hot South Carolina girls in skirts walking up and down the staircase was quite a combo.

Eventually, the lecherousness of the student center gave way to football time, and we headed to the stadium.

Williams-Brice Stadium is located on the South Carolina State Fairgrounds, a few miles from campus. It’s an imposing structure, looming above the surrounding flat terrain, its great white light standards soaring above like wings.

We had to walk through most of the fairgrounds en route to the stadium, and it was quite a scene. We ended up walking behind the Mizzou cheerleaders and Truman the Tiger, who rode on a goal cart. Passing through one fairly close quartered area, South Carolina fans began howling at us and Truman. Maberry waved his arms, egging them on. It was like notorious criminals being led to court past an angry mob. It was fantastic, good-natured, exhilarating. One Gamecock fan said, “We’re no Indiana, but we’ll do our best.” Just masterful trash talk.

We saw Cocky, the South Carolina mascot, enter the stadium. We entered by the “Cockabooses,” old railroad cars next to the stadium converted to tailgating use.

Williams-Brice is a grand old child of the Great Depression, a Works Progress Administration project. The interior was a series of narrow concourses, vendors and a tangled network of steel beams calling to mind Game of Thrones’ Iron Throne.

In the men’s restroom, where the urinal should be you step up on a ledge and relieve yourself against a wall. I’d have taken a picture but didn’t want to end up on a list.

But despite the quirks, or maybe in part because of them, it is one of the great venues in the SEC. Crowds at Williams-Brice are fierce and loud, especially for this game, as South Carolina’s win over Georgia had made the Gamecocks the presumed front-runner in the SEC East Division.

The east upper deck sways when fans are jumping up and down and generally going crazy. The school has put in shock absorbers and says it is safe, but that upper deck moves as the crowd gets wound up. It was very pronounced in 1983 when the Gamecocks shredded the storied USC Trojans 38-14. Afterward, coach Joe Morrison said, “If it ain’t swayin’, we ain’t playin’.”

Naturally, we were tucked in the lower level, more or less under the east upper deck.

By the time South Carolina ran out on the field to “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” the theme from “2001: A Space Odyssey,” a South Carolina tradition, the stadium was a cauldron of sound; delirious, roaring, frenzied. It was, wonderfully, a 7 p.m. kickoff.

For another tradition, fans there wave white rally towels, especially before kickoff while “Sandstorm” screams from the loudspeakers. Seconds before kickoff, with much on the line, the stadium was a bouncing sea of white rally towels. SEC football, man.

Missouri took the early lead after South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier, a swaggering legend with a sharp tongue and taste for taking risks, went for it on fourth down in his own territory and didn’t get it. Missouri was up 7-0, but then the offense went on hiatus, punting 10 possessions in a row at one maddening point. On third downs, the crowd was especially loud, aided by an earsplitting rooster crow booming from the loudspeakers. It called to mind the phrase “abominable noise” from Lord of the Flies, shortly before Simon meets his demise.

Missouri’s defense stood tall, but South Carolina gradually churned out some points while the Tiger offense kept flailing away.

With South Carolina up 13-7, Pharoh Cooper caught a touchdown pass to put the Gamecocks up 20-7 in the fourth quarter and seemed to put the dagger in the Tigers. Spurrier oddly did not go for two after the score to go up 14, but it seemed like a moot point.

But then, unable to yield another inch, the resilient Tigers made a charge. Missouri ripped off a shocking, three-play touchdown drive to draw within six. The Tigers got the ball back and embarked on a madcap, nine-play, 51-yard drive that saw two do-or-die fourth down conversions, the second of which was a Russell Hansbrough one-yard touchdown run. Our pocket of Mizzou fans in the corner erupted. I hugged Brent and lifted him off the ground, only later learning I’d knocked his sunglasses off his head in the process and they had been broken.

The defense held one more time and the Tigers had completed the heart-stopping 21-20 win. I held up a “Beat Mizzou” rally towel for a “Dewey Defeats Truman” picture, like a good Missourian would do.
It was a long drive home on Sunday, to say the least, but I more or less flew all the way home. Bring on Georgia.


Thankfully, Missouri had a bye week between South Carolina and Georgia. I visited my parents on the off week. After a family trip to the apple orchard, I settled in to watch Alabama at Ole Miss on CBS, with Verne, Gary and Allie.

It was the week Katy Perry stole the show in college football. She was the celebrity guest picker for College Gameday in the Grove, and she killed it. She went to the game, saw Ole Miss spring the upset, then rushed the field with the frenzied students. That night, Twitter was ablaze with video of Perry chugging a beer in an Oxford bar then jumping into the crowd. College football is the best. For all the lunacy and greed among people running the sport, unscripted, organic moments still win the day.

The next Saturday, Oct. 11, was massive for the Show-Me State. Missouri hosted Georgia in a huge SEC East game at noon, then the Royals and Cardinals had playoff baseball games later that day.

Georgia smoked Missouri, plain and simple. 34-0. With star running back Todd Gurley suspended for NCAA violations, Georgia hammered away again and again with backup Nick Chubb, who went Heisenberg on the Tigers. (Did I use that right, Breaking Bad people?) Missouri’s offense was a mess. Quarterback Maty Mauk, who had endeared himself to Tiger fans with his “Mauktober” run in 2013, had a terrible day. It was the first time in 12 years Missouri had been shut out.

But as would frequently be the case for this winsome Tiger team, Missouri got back up after being leveled and went to work. Yes, the team had its flaws, especially on offense, but they were going to wring out every last drop of ability they had to pour into this season.

Missouri went into the Swamp and destroyed an imploding Florida team, 42-13. The Tigers had a paltry 119 yards of offense, but they scored four non-offensive touchdowns (kick return, punt return, fumble return, interception return) to win easily.

Missouri then faced Vanderbilt for Homecoming. In a thoroughly ridiculous and wonderful development, the Royals were playing in the World Series that weekend. My friend Caleb Barron was in town for the game, along with his girlfriend from Phoenix, Jenny. She had been to Columbia once before, in the summer. Summer in Columbia has a nice, chill aura. But the old town is at its best on football game weekends, and it is in full bloom for in October, particularly for Homecoming. On Homecoming, Columbia represents all the tradition and nostalgia and beauty and passion you could want from a college town. The windows of downtown businesses are painted black and gold, alumni pour back into town, and the trees glow with autumnal color.

We had a classic Homecoming Friday; dinner, Greek Town for house decs, and then downtown. We went to Shiloh, where I saw the Royals win and move within two games of the world title.
As you’d expect, we saw a lot of people we knew at Shiloh, chatting and reveling until closing time.

After some surprisingly warm tailgating the next day, I was expecting a fairly comfortable win over Vanderbilt, which was having a pretty miserable season. The crowd at Faurot was striped black and gold.

Still, Missouri’s offensive shortcomings were on full display in the long, slow game, as the Commodores were within a score into the fourth quarter. It was late in the game and afternoon, as evening sunlight angled across the trees that peek over the south end zone stands, that Missouri finally put the game away and won, 24-14.

The next week, Nov. 1, was very much not surprisingly warm, as November showed up with teeth for Missouri’s home game with Kentucky. The Wildcats were getting better under Mark Stoops, fulfilling the potential I had mentioned when a Kentucky fan took my picture at Mt. Rushmore the summer before, although he was probably wondering why I was talking about Mark freaking Stoops and not John Calipari and his arsenal of NBA talent on the basketball team.

Just as my light gloves were no match for the persistent chill of the afternoon and evening game, Kentucky was not ready for a defense like Missouri’s. The Tigers choked the life out of the Wildcats, leading 20-3 in the fourth before a late Kentucky score made the final margin 20-10.

The win improved Missouri to 7-2, 4-1 in the SEC, but the real drama was down in Jacksonville, where bumbling Florida got it together and steamrolled Georgia. Missouri now controlled its destiny in the SEC East race, despite the humiliating loss to Georgia. When told of that result in the postgame interview, Pinkel chuckled.

The situation for the last three games of the regular season ended up being pretty simple, with the hindsight of knowing Georgia would win at Auburn on Nov. 15. Missouri had to win its last three games to win the East and go back to Atlanta for the SEC Championship Game. Three games, two on the road, no margin for error.

That final surge was a tightrope walk on a windy day, a swordfight on the edge of a cliff. Missouri was not a dominant team, and the road was tough, but they dug deep to try to find a way. It would be one of the more remarkable things I’ve seen a Mizzou football team do.

#GimmeThatSECEast, a trip to Rocky Top

After a bye week on Nov. 8 that allowed me to relax and enjoy the latest installment of the Alabama-LSU blood feud, this one an overtime classic at spooky old Tiger Stadium, Missouri headed to Texas A&M to take on the Aggies. Due to the renovations at Kyle Field taking place in phases, the Home of the 12th Man’s capacity was higher for the 2014 season than it would be after all renovations were complete. It also made this the biggest crowd to ever watch a Mizzou football game, 104,756 people including former President George H.W. Bush, and one collie dog, A&M’s mascot Reveille.

Aggies do weird stuff like declare Reveille the highest ranking member of the school’s corps of cadets and start their fight song with, “Hullaballoo, Caneck, Caneck; Hullaballoo, Caneck, Caneck...” But their zealous passion makes for a supportive home crowd, and Mizzou was the underdog. The Tigers trailed 13-6 at the half.

Home for deer season, I was watching at my brother and sister-in-law’s new house, along with my sister, stress eating Ritz crackers and York peppermint patties and stress drinking Mt. Dew. It’s a wonder I slept in the 48 hours following that onslaught.

But with Georgia crushing Auburn and the season hanging in the balance, Missouri went to work in the rainy night, hammering away on the ground against A&M’s vulnerable defense, taking a 34-20 lead into the fourth. The Aggies drew within 34-27 and had the ball in the closing minutes before Missouri’s defense made a dramatic stand near the goal line on fourth down to preserve the win. Another round of York peppermint patties for the house!

Next came a road game at resurgent Tennessee, a program on the rise under Butch Jones. Granted, their “surge” was beating Kentucky and stumbling South Carolina. Had Mizzou achieved that feat, the SEC Establishment would pat its head and send the Tigers to bed with a nice glass of milk, like the Grinch does with Cindy Lou Who. But this was a big game, and the Tigers were two steps from the SEC East title, and four friends, Maberry, Coffman, Nathan Yount, Caleb Barron, and I were road tripping to the game.

It’s a special thing to be kicking off a weekend, heading into Dixie with its charm and fervor and those great college football shrines.

We left St. Louis early Friday morning, early enough we had a late lunch at The Pharmacy in Nashville. Great spot. Nice burger with an off-the-charts bun. Had a glass bottle of Coke with it. Barron Instagrammed the restaurant’s sign and created the hashtag for the trip, #GimmeThatSECEast. Then on to Knoxville.

Knoxville is a fantastic college town, nestled along the Tennessee River with views of the Great Smoky Mountains. We were within walking distance of everything because we went big on the hotel, staying at the downtown Hilton. We were on something like the 16th floor, a floor or two from the top.

There was supposedly a rooftop pool, and even though it was late November, when you’re staying at a Hilton, you check out the rooftop pool. In what seems obvious in hindsight, the pool is on the top of the part of the hotel that is only a couple of floors high. But we checked out the highest roof, atop the 17 or 18 floors of the hotel. For some reason, the door out onto the roof was propped open, so we scampered out into the chill. There was a guard wall at the edge, but we were basically Batman, perched on the roof of a downtown tower, ready to swoop down on criminals before they could abscond. The view of Knoxville in the evening, all lit up, was breathtaking. That or the late November air was.

Knoxville was a happening spot that weekend. The Saturday before Thanksgiving is often a slow week for big college football games, especially in the SEC. The main broadcast crew for ABC/ESPN, Chris Fowler and Kirk Herbstreit, were in town to call the game, as was SEC Nation, the SEC Network’s traveling pregame show. We ran into one of the SEC Nation analysts, who was staying in our hotel, a certain former Heisman Trophy winner.

I was getting ready to ride the elevator down to the lobby to go get dinner, when out stepped Barron, who had been checking out the hotel’s concierge room. I also saw a familiar face in the elevator car Barron had came out of.

Tim Tebow.

“Hey, Tim!” I said with my typical smoothness. He smiled and said, “Yep.” The elevator doors closed. As high as our room was, his was higher.

We caught the next elevator going down and walked to Calhoun’s on the Tennessee River. The monolith of Tennessee’s massive Neyland Stadium loomed in sight of the restaurant.

The surf n’ turf was on special, and it was some excellent steak and shrimp. The waitress originally brought Barron’s wine in a plastic cup, but he did some negotiating to get a glass drinking container. This was our pregame Friday night meal out, after all.

We again accidentally asked an under-21 restaurant worker which bars/establishments to go to after dinner. But she gave some off-the-record recommendations and pointed us in the right direction.
Walking up the steep hill from the river proved to be a much more difficult task after a big meal, but next thing I knew we were sprinting up the hill, relatively speaking.

We hit up a Scottish bar and then another spot a little closer to our hotel. High on life and confidence, I was messaging a girl about coming with me to the SEC Championship Game. (She had to work that weekend.) It was a big swing, as she’s quite hot and smart and, oh by the way, Missouri still had two tough games to make it to the title game.

The next morning Knoxville threw itself into gameday gear. Orange everywhere. Multiple groups, from a carload of sorority girls to older men in overall-based getups, asked us, “Are you ready to lose today?” I just smiled or chuckled, walking with the smug swagger of a man whose team had won the division last year and was leading the division race this year.

We walked all over Tennessee’s beautiful-but-hilly campus, walking up to The Hill and around Neyland and Thomson-Boling Arena. We grabbed a late lunch downtown, stopped by the hotel and saw a bit of an abomination of a Virginia Tech football game that went to overtime tied at 0. Then we hit up the alumni tailgate and headed toward Neyland for the 7 p.m. kickoff.

We watched the Pride of the Southland band march into Neyland among a throng of thousands of fans, playing “Rocky Top” over and over and over and over. It was a magnificent scene, topped only by the scene inside the stadium.

Tennessee is probably the second-most successful SEC program, after Alabama, and that pride and tradition was on full display on this November night.

The orange-and-white checkered end zones. A huge, hot crowd that was roaring from before kickoff. The T formation out of which the Volunteers ran. “Rocky Top” booming throughout the old stadium. The public address announcer yelling at kickoff, “It’s FOOT-ball time in Tennessee!”

In a less traditional move, Tennessee has started playing Lil’ John’s “Turn down for what...” before every opponent’s third down. (Get it, THIRD down for what.) The song played over and over as the third downs piled up, and to this day when I hear it I’m back in Neyland and the crowd is getting loud.
On Missouri’s opening drive, three times…


The Tigers converted all three, then punched in a touchdown on a one-yard Marcus Murphy run.
“Touchdown for what!” a fantastic Mizzou fan across the aisle from us yelled.

Tennessee would later take a 10-7 lead on a fake field goal touchdown, which prompted one Tennessee fan to fall out of the stands celebrating.



...retook the lead, then Tennessee tied it at 13 at the half.

You could feel the tension in the second half. At least I could. I really wanted to go back to Atlanta for another SEC title game, and the Tigers had to have this one.

Early in the fourth quarter, Missouri clung to a 16-13 lead and faced a third-and-eight…


The crowd was thunderous, willing the Volunteer defense to make the stop, the sound echoing out of the massive, 93-year-old stadium, across the Tennessee River and into the Appalachian Mountains.
Missouri quarterback Maty Mauk dropped back and heaved a pass into the chilly Tennessee night.

Deep down the field, Tiger receiver Jimmie Hunt leapt up, caught the pass, and outran the Volunteer defenders into the end zone for the touchdown. The big crowd fell silent, except for a pocket of black-and-gold clad Missouri fans celebrating in the corner.

Missouri added another touchdown, missed the extra point, then held off a late Tennessee rally to win, 29-21, and move within one victory of winning the SEC East Division. Missouri players ran over to the Mizzou fans to celebrate.

Euphoric, we headed down the steps for pictures by the field. I heard a crash, looked over, and saw two Tennessee fans brawling on the bleachers. SEC football Saturday nights, baby.

We went up in the Sunsphere to celebrate and take in the view, and a charismatic fellow up there bought us drinks and told stories about coming to the Sunsphere when the Wold’s Fair was going on, the original purpose for the structure. As we got off the elevator at the bottom of the Sunsphere, two women got on, and I can’t say with 100 percent certainty they were not hookers.

Back at the hotel, we bought a pizza in the lobby, went up the our room, and I laid there, unable to sleep for a while, fired up about the win and thinking about how lucky I was.

* * *

All that remained was a Black Friday game with Arkansas at Faurot, with a trip to Atlanta on the line for the Tigers. Driving back to Columbia Thanksgiving night from my family’s gathering in Kansas City, I caught the LSU broadcast of their game with Texas A&M on the AM radio. It felt like stepping back in time, the familiar crackle of a booming nighttime AM station, an SEC clash in some huge stadium somewhere, being able to feel the passion dripping from the broadcasters’ call of the game.

It was the day after the holiday, but Columbia was ready. I went to the radio station tailgate with Brent Foster, his brother and his dad. They served ham sandwiches. It had to be pork on the day the Tigers played the Razorbacks.

Arkansas was hotter than a $2 pistol coming into the game, and the Hogs’ industrial strength defense was on display. Missouri’s only first-half scoring were two 50-plus-yard field goals by Andrew Baggett, and the Hogs led 14-6 at the half. That lead held up into the fourth quarter. After coming so far, the adventure and achievement of a return trip to Atlanta seemed to be fading with last of the late autumn day’s sunlight.

Then, Missouri came alive. As the team had done many times this season, they got up off the mat, kept digging, and found a way.

As a gorgeous sunset lit up the sky above Faurot Field, Missouri 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.

The crowd was delirious, part rock concert and part tent revival.

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. Writing about it months later, I still get goosebumps.

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 was headed to Atlanta.

With Mizzou playing on a Friday, that freed me up to gorge on college football viewing on Saturday, and what a day for binge watching. The last Saturday, Rivalry Saturday, is just fantastic. Fresh in the glow of a second straight unexpected SEC East title, I could smugly sit back and watch to see who Mizzou would face in Atlanta the following week, Mississippi State or Alabama. Ole Miss beat Mississippi State in the Egg Bowl, ending the drama. CBS put up the graphic for the SEC Championship Game, Alabama vs. Mizzou. I was so fired up I took a picture of the TV screen.

Alabama beat Auburn for good measure in a breathtaking Iron Bowl. During a stoppage of play, the loudspeakers played “Dixieland Delight,” and the Alabama students sang along, punctuating each line with “F--- Auburn!” Long live college football rivalries.

Atlanta. Championship Saturday. Destiny.

I long ago decided if Missouri is playing for a football conference championship, which they haven’t won since 1969, I’ll be there, so my friend Nathan Armer and I boarded a plane on Friday, Dec. 5 for Atlanta. We had a late supper at the IHOP by our hotel and watched the Missouri basketball team lose to Oklahoma.

Saturday arrived warm and hopeful, and I wore shorts. Missouri was a massive underdog to Alabama.
The SEC does its championship game right. It feels like a big event, with a Fan Fest at the convention hall next to the Georgia Dome, massive pep rallies for the teams, and the attention of the college football nation, given the national respect SEC football has garnered.

Out front of the stadium each year is a row of flags commemorating the champions for every year in SEC history. Alabama is well represented.

Inside was all color and sound and passion, the fervor of the SEC football season reaching its crescendo. The crowd was massively pro-Alabama, similar to the heavily Auburn crowd at the 2013 SEC title game. Out ran No. 1 Alabama, the juggernaut. Big Al the elephant mascot led the Crimson Tide out, his trunk swaying side to side as he ran. The Alabama Crimsonettes twirling squad glittered and twirled and radiated hotness. The band played the booming opening to the “Yea, Alabama” fight song. The crowd thundered. Alabama football is big and bold and in your face.

Missouri ran out with the cheerleaders, the Missouri state flag, and Truman the Tiger. Marching Mizzou countered with its fight song, and Missouri’s smaller but hearty section made all the noise it could. The Tigers were not here to be bullied or intimidated. Yes, Alabama was really good, but when you’re this close to a first conference title in FOURTY-FIVE YEARS, you’ve got to play like you can win. The scene was set, the teams were ready, the crowd was hot. College football is full of moments like this where you just fall in love with the flawed, fantastic sport over and over again.

Unfortunately, college football can be, like Taylor Swift, a nightmare dressed as a daydream.

Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin had the Tide running a quick tempo, hammering away at Missouri with sweeps and perimeter passing. The opening Alabama drive was a symphony, 10 plays, 68 yards, three minutes and 36 seconds, touchdown.

Missouri’s offense struggled to even get first downs for a while. Alabama added another touchdown early in the second quarter on a 58-yard touchdown pass. Missouri’s defensive lineman Shane Ray, SEC Defensive Player of the Year, was ejected from the game on that play for targeting.

By halftime it was 21-3 and Missouri looked cooked. But the Tigers kept battling, as they had all season. On two straight drives, Mauk spun away from the pass rush and heaved deep passes to Jimmie Hunt, who reeled them in. The first drive ended on a touchdown pass to Bud Sasser, the second with a Baggett field goal. Somehow, Missouri was within 8 late in the third quarter, 21-13.

But Alabama was relentless. After Missouri got within a score, the Tide rolled to another 10-play touchdown drive. It was still 21-13 heading into the fourth quarter, but on the first play of that final quarter, Blake Sims threw a touchdown pass for Alabama. 28-13 and danger time for the Tigers.

Alabama poured it on late, adding two Derrick Henry rushing touchdowns to push the final margin to 42-13. The Tigers had been soundly beaten; the Tide had rolled. It was Nick Saban’s fifth SEC title. The confetti streamed down from the Georgia Dome roof, and for the second straight year, Armer and I watched another team celebrate. The Crimsonettes writhed around in the confetti, tossing it up and letting it fall on them.

It was the expected result, but still sobering to come that close and be turned away yet again, to be back at square one in the seemingly unending effort to end the conference title drought. Pinkel has guided the Tigers to four conference title games, losing each by at least 17 points. Two of them were very competitive, but Missouri has given up and average of 50.25 points in those games.

But life goes on, so we found a great BBQ spot, Fox Brothers BBQ. I housed some brisket and we watched the other conference title games on the big TVs there.

We got on a fairly early morning flight home, and heard the field for the first College Football Playoff: Alabama, Oregon, Florida State, Ohio State.

Citrus Bowl, epilogue

Mizzou beat Minnesota in the Citrus Bowl, a second straight January bowl win. Minnesota hung around for a while, but the Tigers were just the better team. Missouri’s successful onside kick to open the second half added some spice.

It was Pinkel’s third best season at Missouri, 11-3, and maybe his best coaching job, given the limitations the team worked around and the mental toughness the team showed. Missouri finished 11th in the coaches poll; 14th in the AP poll.

Later on New Year’s Day, Oregon annihilated Florida State in the Rose Bowl, to Twitter’s delight, and Ohio State stunned Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. Ohio State then beat Oregon to win the first College Football Playoff. Urban Meyer, you may have noticed, can coach.

* * *

It was another exhilarating season; the old game still enraptures its fans. Gary is still looking for that conference championship at ol’ Mizzou, and I’m still looking for the right girl. I can’t say how it will all turn out, but I can say the journey is incredible. As Walt Whitman would say, the powerful play goes on.

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