It was only four short months ago that Missouri Head Coach Gary Pinkel was the first name that most media pundits would utter when talking about the coaching “hot seat.” His Tigers were coming off a lackluster first season in the Southeastern Conference as Mizzou failed to make a bowl game for the first time in eight years, their recruiting seemed to be flailing and fans were beginning to grumble. The team had to deal with a myriad of injuries including most of their starting offensive line and quartarback James Franklin who missed four games as a starter. It was clear that things were going to have to chance in 2013 for the Missouri program.
And now we sit here, on a cold week in December awaiting the 5th ranked Tigers first ever trip to the SEC Championship Game this Saturday when they battle the also surprising Auburn Tigers. The journey has been so gratifying for coach Pinkel and his group of resilient players. They were picked 6th in the SEC East and most thought that a bowl game would be a suitable goal. “We just want to keep battling,” Pinkel stated emphatically. “I have a responsibility to the University of Missouri to build a great program that’s respected.” And respect is something that has come in large doses this year as the Tigers have marched to an impressive 11-1 record. It is undeniably fitting that a team that found it so hard to gain respect a year ago, has received it so glowingly only a year later.
If there is one player that has provided a metaphor for his teams’ surprising success, it is running back Henry Josey. His 951 yards rushing and 13 touchdowns may lead the team, but it is undoubtedly his persistence and leadership that has made the biggest impact. Josey suffered a severe knee injury during the 2011 season and the early prognosis was not positive. After tearing his ACL, MCL, PCL and patella tendon, it was a very real possibility that Josey would never play football again. For a year and a half he rehabbed, strengthened and believed. “No one knows what he’s had to go through and all the work he’s gone through and his determination.” Gary Pinkel said before the 2013 season even began. And determined Henry has been especially this past Saturday as his 57 yard touchdown run catapulted Missouri to a 28-21 win over Texas A&M which vaulted Mizzou into this weekend’s SEC Championship Game in Atlanta.
So now we get to watch this Missouri team, which has dealt with so many emotional and physical ups and downs in the past two years play upstart Auburn for the championship of the most prestigious football conference on earth. An Auburn team that has seemed destined for greatness all season after rebounding from an 0-8 conference season in 2012. An Auburn team that just defeated its arch-rival Alabama on one of the most thrilling plays in the history of college football. And Missouri knows that they will have to look past the bravado and the large Georgia Dome stage to emerge victorious. A win on Saturday would give Mizzou the respect that they so richly desire and have fought so hard to obtain. But regardless of outcome, the Tigers have unquestionably opened the eyes of their own fan base as well as the nations.