Tuesday, November 26, 2013
SEC newcomers find fast success
By Sam Khan Jr.
On Saturday night, Missouri will host Texas A&M. If the Tigers beat the Aggies, they'll go to Atlanta to face the winner of Alabama-Auburn in the SEC championship game.
Stop for a second and read that paragraph again. Think about what all the talk was two years ago when both programs decided to leave the Big 12 for the Southeastern Conference. Some critics thought it would take years for the programs to become competitive in the league, which is known for producing BCS national champions (it claims the last seven) but in just its second year, Missouri is in position to compete for a championship and Texas A&M has had solid success of its own.
For the No. 5 Tigers (10-1), it's simple. Win and they go to Atlanta. Lose and South Carolina goes, by virtue of head-to-head tiebreaker. Missouri controls its own destiny, as it has since the Tigers vaulted to the top of the SEC East.
"It's all about us," Missouri coach Gary Pinkel told reporters Monday. "That has kind of been the theme we've had this whole year."
Each team has had different fortunes in its first two seasons. Missouri, which some thought might have the quicker success, struggled in its first SEC campaign. The Tigers were riddled with injuries and finished 5-7 (2-6 in league play), and it appeared that the road ahead might be a hard one.
Meanwhile the Aggies experienced smashing success, going 11-2 led by the most captivating player in college football, quarterback Johnny Manziel, who won the Heisman Trophy. Quite a dichotomy for the two SEC newbies.
But something interesting happened this year for the Tigers. Though they have been banged up some, it hasn't been nearly as much as it was a year ago. Missouri breezed through its nonconference schedule, which wasn't exactly taxing, and as the Tigers got into conference play, outsiders wondered how good they really were.
Each week, Missouri added an SEC victory. Then came the qualifiers. They beat then-No. 7 Georgia in Athens, but the Bulldogs were depleted by injuries. They beat then-No. 22 Florida, but the Gators had even more injuries than Georgia.
South Carolina's come-from-behind 27-24 overtime win in Columbia, Mo., made some wonder if the Tigers would slip, but instead, they've responded with three straight wins and put themselves in position to achieve something special.
"We don't like anything given to us," sophomore center Evan Boehm said Monday. "We knew coming into this year nothing was going to be given to us. All the other teams this year had injuries like we had last year. They counted us out, but we are coming out right now and we are focused on what is in front of us and that is Texas A&M."
The chance the Tigers earned is one some believed the Aggies might just have a chance to coming into the 2013 season -- playing for a chance to win their division championship. But an early loss to No. 1 Alabama hindered the Aggies' chances at SEC West title contention, and later a loss to Auburn virtually eliminated it. The No. 21 Aggies (8-3) are now mathematically out of the picture, and out of the picture for a BCS bowl as well, something they still had hopes of sneaking into before Saturday's loss to LSU.
Youth and inexperience on a struggling defense have been the roots of the Aggies' struggles in losses -- and even some wins -- but Saturday everything looked rough. Texas A&M's hope is to close out the season on a winning note while spoiling the Tigers' championship chances. And though Manziel could enter the NFL draft after this season, the foundation appears to be solid for future success in the league for Texas A&M.
Either way, both programs have made waves and a significant impact on the SEC in their first two seasons, much faster than most anticipated. It all illustrates how quickly fortunes can change, even in the league of champions.