Missouri still remembers the Georgia Dome – not because of the experience of playing in an NFL stadium or the atmosphere from last year’s SEC championship – the players remember it more for the empty feeling they felt in the locker room following a 59-42 loss to Auburn.
It was the first time the Tigers had ever played in the SEC title game, but they weren’t about to pat themselves on the back for making it that far. They were mad they didn’t win, mad they weren’t going to be the team to represent the conference in the BCS national championship.
“Of course, we weren't too happy because we worked hard to get there,” defensive end Markus Golden said. “We're a competitive team. So we weren't too happy. At the end of the day, we were telling each other we're going to make it back next year and be in the same position.”
That feeling after the game, that low point, motivated Missouri this season. The Tigers were picked to finish fourth in the SEC East, but they rallied after losses to Indiana and Georgia. In similar fashion to last year, they won six straight SEC games to finish the season, and that dream of getting back to Atlanta became a reality with last Saturday’s victory over Arkansas.
“It was such a devastating loss last year,” senior offensive lineman Mitch Morse said. “We had so much emotionally invested in that game and it didn't turn out our way, but it meant the world to this team that we were able to come back to Atlanta.
“We harnessed what we felt after that game last year, and it’s definitely going to help us drive through this week.”
Missouri didn’t get run out of the building last year, either. Granted, the defense gave up 59 points and a record 545 yards rushing to Auburn, but the Tigers were within a field goal heading into the fourth quarter.
This year presents a new challenge, though. This year Missouri faces No. 1 Alabama, a team that’s fresh off a 55-44 win over Auburn in the Iron Bowl. The Crimson Tide are among the SEC leaders in both offense and defense, and they have been playing as well as anybody down the stretch.
“I think you watch this Alabama team, they're just a phenomenal football team,” Morse said. “You get what you hear when you watch film.”
But regardless of whether it’s Alabama, Auburn or any other team, the Tigers know what to expect on Saturday. That loss last year paved the way for this Missouri team to make it back to Atlanta, but it also gave them valuable experience that they can lean on this year.
“I think obviously when you’ve been in that environment before, the players now have experience,” Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said. “The older ones have experience. I think that certainly helps. Anytime you gain experience, whether it was a good experience or bad, you can learn from it and apply it to the next time.”
“It's going to be a big atmosphere,” Golden said. “[There’s] going to be a lot of people there. [It’s] going to be crazy, a lot of fans. We already know that now, so it won't be a surprise for us. We've been there before. Now we've got to get out there and play the Mizzou way -- be tough and physical, and do everything the coaches asked us to. We’re going to be OK.”
Most people aren’t giving Missouri a chance against Alabama, but that’s nothing new. The Tigers were underdogs in six of their eight SEC games this season and went 5-1 in those games. They relish that role.
One thing is for sure. This team doesn't want to experience that same empty feeling in the locker room after Saturday’s game.