ATLANTA - The Missouri football team is done trying to earn respect. The Tigers have felt disrespected all season, but today they'll have a chance to earn something a bit more tangible: a Southeastern Conference title.
"We got to a point where we said we want to win championships," senior captain Markus Golden said. "Forget about the respect factor. We're going win championships, and that's going to make everybody respect us."
The Tigers return to the championship game, held in the Georgia Dome, for the second straight season, and they hope for a better result against No. 1 Alabama today (3 p.m., KRCG-TV). Last year, Missouri fell to Auburn 59-42 and fell short of a potential national championship appearance.
Linebacker Michael Scherer said he heard last year's game summed up as such: "One team was there to win respect, one team was there to win a championship, and both teams got what they wanted."
The Tigers are aiming for more than respect this team around.
It looked unlikely early on the Tigers would be making a return trip to the SEC title game. Missoouri fell to Indiana on Sept. 20 in a disappointing 31-27 home loss. Three weeks later, Missouri had another embarrassing home loss to Georgia - a 34-0 blowout.
The Tigers, then 4-2, knew something had to change.
"Sense of urgency is an understatement," Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said of the team's mindset after its second loss. "I don't know how to describe it to you, and it's not "Well, I'm going to go out and practice a little bit harder.' That's not good enough. OK? Everybody's got to make a commitment that they're going to practice better and play better and that's the chance that we have to get back going again. That's the only chance, and there's a sense of urgency.
"'I want to get better' is not good enough. "I'm determined to make my play better, preparation better so my team can win.' It's got to be a different mindset. "What we're doing now, guys, is not good, OK?'"
Scherer added: "I just think that we all took a little more responsibility for our job and after that game we realized something needed to change and we just need to work harder and practice harder throughout the week and everybody needed to be a little more responsible for what they were doing."
The added effort paid off. Missouri went on a six-game win streak and staved off Georgia for an SEC East title, thanks in part to the Bulldogs' surprising loss to a floundering Florida team.
The Missouri defense had a big role in the change. The Tigers allowed an average of 391.25 yards of total offense per nonconference game, worst in the SEC. Missouri dropped that average to a conference-best 300.75 against SEC opponents.
As a reward for their performance, the Tigers get to face the Crimson Tide, the top-ranked team in the AP poll. Missouri has lost all 11 games it has played against an AP No. 1 opponent. Alabama, meanwhile, has its sights set on an appearance in the inaugural College Football Playoff and is currently atop the playoff rankings as well.
Alabama missed last year's SEC championship game after a last-second loss to Auburn in the Iron Bowl. The Crimson Tide won the SEC and national championships in 2012, Missouri's first year in the SEC.
Alabama has been led by a new look, up-empo offense this season under first-year offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin. Quarterback Blake Sims brings a dual-threat component to the offense, and junior receiver Amari Cooper is garnering Heisman Trophy buzz with his 1,349 receiving yards this season.
The Missouri defense will be challenged, but the Tigers have weapons themselves. Missouri boasts one of the best defensive line duos in the country between Golden and Shane Ray, who set a school record with 13.5 sacks this year.
Meanwhile, Golden's emergence has coincided with the Tigers' steady improvement. Golden, a JUCO transfer, missed the Indiana game with a hamstring injury and was less than 100 percent in the next few games. Golden, the team's emotional leader, has notched 18 tackles, four sacks and two fumble recoveries in his last three games.
"He's the team leader here," Pinkel said. "We have a great group of seniors and captains, but there's no question about it, he carries the big stick around here, and the great thing about it, too, he puts the performance on the field that matches his leadership."
Even while at Hutchinson (Kan.) Community College, the St. Louis native's goal has always been to play at Missouri. He could be a big part in bringing the school its first conference championship since 1969.
"This is big," Golden said. "This is real big. We want to bring home a championship and we know we can bring the championship here.
"It would mean a lot. Not just to me but to the program. Big for coach Pinkel. Coach Pinkel has put in a whole lot of work over the years to build this program up, so we just want to do keep doing our part."
Missouri is 2-2 all time against Alabama. The Tigers won the first two matchups, in 1968 and 1975, and the Crimson Tide have won the previous two games, in 1978 and 2012. The teams have met once before in postseason play; the "68 game was a Gator Bowl appearance.
Today's game is the third straight time Alabama has entered a game against Missouri ranked No. 1 in the AP Poll.