COLUMBIA, Mo. -- Missouri's ascent in the SEC has come as a bit of a shock to many observers around the college football world.
Coming off a rough 5-7 debut season in the league, while dealing with a rash of injuries, the No. 5 Tigers have been one of the surprise stories of the year, not just because they've gone 11-1, but because it only took them two seasons to claim a division title in what is widely considered the nation's premier football conference.
When Missouri and Texas A&M first entered the league in 2012, there were many proclamations about how difficult the conference is and how long it might take for either to make a serious impact.
But when you take a look at the Tigers' recent past prior to joining the conference, this season -- or rather, their ability to compete for a divisional championship -- shouldn't come as a surprise at all.
That's what the Tigers have been doing on a regular basis in the Big 12 under coach Gary Pinkel.
"We did in '07, '08," Pinkel said after his team beat Texas A&M on Saturday to secure the SEC East Division title. "[In] 2010 Nebraska had to lose in the end [for us to go to the Big 12 championship game]. This is another shot here. We've had shots at it four of the last seven years. We didn't play as well and lost the two that we played in. This is awesome. This is great."
Pinkel was referring to Missouri's success in the Big 12 North Division. The Tigers won the division in 2007 and 2008 and they were co-champions with Nebraska in 2010, but Nebraska went to the Big 12 title game, not Missouri. Still, this season's SEC East title is the Tigers' fourth division championship or co-championship in seven seasons. The standard for success exists at Missouri, as evidenced by the Tigers' 48-19 record in the five seasons prior to joining the SEC.
Those three Big 12 seasons in particular, the Tigers reached lofty heights. In 2007, when they went 12-2 and won the Big 12 North, the Tigers reached No. 1 in the Associated Press poll and BCS standings at one point. The Tigers achieved top-10 rankings in 2008 and 2010 also and were ranked in the Top 25 at some point in every season dating back to 2006 prior to their entry into the SEC.
The 2012 season was the year that the ranking streak ended. But the Tigers were no strangers to winning.
I think we came in as seniors, we established our goals. We said a national championship, let's aim high and get an SEC championship. The guys in the locker room believed in that once the leaders did, and that kind of trickled down.
”-- Missouri WR L'Damian Washington
"It's always in our program, as a goal just like it was in the Big 12," Pinkel said Monday of the goal of winning the division. "First of all, to win a national championship, it starts out with winning your division. If you can't win your division, then you can't get to your championship game."
Pinkel is especially thankful for his group of 18 seniors, who played their last game at Faurot Field on Saturday, for setting the standard coming into this season. After the rough 2012 campaign, Pinkel said they came in and discussed raising the expectation level for 2013. That has had a profound impact on the team.
"I think we came in as seniors, we established our goals," senior receiver L'Damian Washington said. "We said a national championship, let's aim high and get an SEC championship. The guys in the locker room believed in that once the leaders did, and that kind of trickled down."
Pinkel said so far, the Tigers have hit on every big-picture goal they set before the season.
"It's amazing," he said. "Kind of created a vision for the team.....With kids like that, they do so much, you can't even begin to explain to them the appreciation for the kind of impact they make on the University of Missouri football."
It's easy for observers to qualify Missouri's ascent by citing the struggles of other teams in the SEC East this season (Georgia and Florida in particular), but the truth of the matter is that this is a senior-laden, talented team with playmakers on both sides of the football, strong leadership on and off the field and, with the exception of one bad fourth quarter against South Carolina, the Tigers have answered the call at every turn. That's why they are here. Considering where they have been, it shouldn't be a major surprise.
"We've been doubted," junior running back Henry Josey said. "We've been an underdog, and we've done what nobody thought we could do. We've just showed up and earned everything we wanted this year, and that's something that's very important."