- Edward Aschoff, ESPN Staff Writer
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For eighth-ranked Missouri (9-1, 5-1 SEC) to win the SEC Eastern Division, the Tigers have to win their two remaining conference games.
It's plain, it's simple and it won't be easy.
Those two games are at No. 24 Ole Miss (7-3, 3-3) and home against No. 12 Texas A&M (8-2, 4-2). Less than a month after being comfortably in the East driver's seat, Mizzou now has the stressful job of keeping its foot on the pedal toward Atlanta by ending the regular season 2-0. With South Carolina owning the head-to-head series with Mizzou and ending SEC play with just two losses, a Tigers' loss in the next two weeks will cancel their reservations in the SEC championship game.
That's a lot of pressure for an SEC newbie, but don't tell that to the Tigers. With the microscope fixed just over their heads, anxiety could derail this team. So far, it hasn't. Mizzou has won two straight by a combined 59 points since that heartbreaking 27-24 overtime loss to the Gamecocks and players feel refreshed and energized heading into Saturday's pivotal showdown in the Grove.
"I feel like this football team isn't even looking at it as pressure," senior cornerback E.J. Gaines said. "It's just opportunity and what we can accomplish. These captains and seniors are leading this team in the right direction and they don't look at it as pressure. They're excited about it."
Such confidence for a team that had its magical run temporarily halted when Andrew Baggett's field goal attempt ricocheted off the Tigers' home goalpost against South Carolina. A special season hung in the balance after that loss, as momentum and excitement suddenly faded.
But only temporarily, as Gaines said the seniors gathered the team and lifted the drooping heads that hung in Mizzou's dejected locker room. Gaines said his classmates talked about still having their SEC and BCS goals intact and "keeping your eyes on the prize."
With that, senior receiver L'Damian Washington said spirits lifted and practices bounced as they prepared for Tennessee the following week.
"We just felt sorry for Tennessee because they were up next on our schedule and we knew that we were ready to play football again and take our anger out on someone," Washington said.
Boy, did they.
The Tigers rolled 31-3 behind 502 yards of offense before trucking Kentucky 48-17 the following week. Players have quelled the misery from the South Carolina game. Losses like that can cause teams to step back or step forward. Mizzou, which has averaged 464 yards and 39.5 points in the past two games, has stepped forward.
"We definitely got stronger from it," Washington said.
"Mentally, man, we're there. We know that we stepped up. We know that we can't take one play off in each game because each play is so costly. We know what our goal is, we know where we're headed and we know that that one loss doesn't define us."
The first step is beating a red-hot Ole Miss team that has won four straight by not dipping below 521 yards in the process, including 751 yards last week against Troy. The Rebels are also trying to make a statement about just how far they've come as well.
It helps that starting quarterback James Franklin (shoulder) is back and that the bye week helped other nagging nicks this team had.
For coach Gary Pinkel, he doesn't think this team should feel the pressure of essentially having a one-game playoff this weekend and the next. To him, it's about Saturday and Ole Miss. Everything else is a distraction.
"That is clutter," Pinkel said. "Teams that prepare right don't let that affect them. They focus on what they can control, and that is playing well. That is when your mental toughness kicks in, and you do not let outside things change your focus. I will be really disappointed if we put all those kind of pressures on ourselves. That does not help you play well."