Tigers rebound all the way to Atlanta

Missouri running back Henry Josey (20) is congratulated by Tiger teammates after scoring on a 57-yard run in the fourth quarter of Saturday night's game against Texas A&M at Faurot Field.

Missouri running back Henry Josey (20) is congratulated by Tiger teammates after scoring on a 57-yard run in the fourth quarter of Saturday night's game against Texas A&M at Faurot Field. Photo by The Associated Press.

COLUMBIA — Gary Pinkel didn’t listen to any Christmas music.

L’Damian Washington didn’t watch any bowl games.

That’s how dire the situation was following Missouri’s inaugural Southeastern Conference season, a year that saw the Tigers finish 5-7 overall while securing just a pair of league victories. It marked the first time since 2004 that Missouri failed to reach a bowl game.

“I didn’t want to feel good,” the 13th-year Missouri head coach said Monday. “That was a real difficult month for me. I like all music, but I love Christmas music. But I’ll tell you one thing. We weren’t going to a bowl and I didn’t listen to any Christmas music.”

Added Washington, a senior wide receiver: “It ate at me that my team deserved to be in a bowl game. That’s when we came with the mindset of, ‘Why just talk bowl games?’”

Look where the Tigers are now.

Missouri (11-1, 7-1 SEC) sits fifth in the Associated Press poll, USA Today coaches poll and BCS standings. The Tigers are set to play in the SEC championship game against Auburn (11-1, 7-1 SEC) at 3 p.m. Saturday (KRCG-TV) at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta with an outside shot at the national championship game still in play.

“It’s a dream come true,” Missouri defensive end Shane Ray said. “A lot times as a kid you dream of being in this position. You never really are in the position of grasping something that big. As of right now, we’re controlling our destiny. It’s so surreal, but every day as a team we discuss about how important this is and not letting this moment escape us.”

That’s exactly what it is. A dream come true.

It’s a scenario that almost seemed impossible heading into the season. Missouri was picked to finish sixth in the SEC East Division. Yes, sixth in its division. The Tigers weren’t even a blip on anybody’s radar screen, much less on the national scene.

But here they are. A win away from earning the right to call themselves SEC champions in just their second year in the country’s most dominating league, a conference that’s home to the last seven national champions.

It’s a journey only those inside the locker room could ever have imagined. Even if it was in their wildest dreams.

“No one can tell you about you. I can’t tell you about you. That’s kind of how I felt at SEC media day,” Washington said, alluding to the fact he picked Missouri to win 11 games in the preseason. “People that aren’t training with us, aren’t in the locker room with us, that aren’t on the same grind as the guys I was grinding with, they couldn’t tell me about my team. That’s why I said 11 wins. They can’t tell me that the guys in your locker room aren’t good enough for 11 wins. I saw those guys, I saw their ambition.”

Once laughed at, Washington’s prognostications ring true.

“We knew what we were about. Nobody else knew what we were about,” center Evan Boehm said. “That’s what’s so special about this season, is even though we’re in the SEC championship, we’re still trying to get our respect. That’s special about this group. We’re just setting out to go get our respect.”

After maybe the most trying year of Pinkel’s tenure — a season that saw his Tiger team decimated by injuries, a season that finished with the longtime coach on the hot seat, a season that prompted all sorts of outside talk about how Missouri didn’t belong in the SEC — his Tigers are just one win away from being crowned SEC champs.

Talk about silencing the critics.

“Our message right now is that we came too far to just get close,” Washington said. “We’re here, we have to make the most of it. If we really want to be remembered, let’s win these last two games.”

What a story that would be.

“One of the things (the seniors) talked about was raising the standards of not only getting back to winning, but competing for championships,” Pinkel said. “That was a real emphasis on our team in August as we talked about the goal-setting. The goal was always there. The seniors put a real emphasis on it.”

Added senior left guard Max Copeland: “These are the final chapters of our mission and I’m going to make sure they’re written well.”

Mission almost accomplished.

III

Senior cornerback E.J. Gaines was named the SEC Co-Defensive Player of the Week, it was announced Monday.

Gaines shut down standout Texas A&M wide receiver Mike Evans during Missouri’s 28-21 victory Saturday. Evans, who entered the contest averaging 119.5 receiving yards per game with 12 touchdowns, was held to season-low totals of four catches for eight yards. Gaines also finished with six tackles.

The honor marks the 12th time this season a Missouri player has picked up conference player of the week recognition.

III

Free safety Duron Singleton, who has missed the past two games with a hip injury, is questionable on the depth chart.

“Maybe we’ll get him back,” Pinkel said. “He’s doing a lot better. He’ll practice with a red pullover (today).”

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