COLUMBIA - The Missouri football team finds itself in a familiar scenario today: Continue to win, and the Tigers are in.
Currently sitting atop the Southeastern Conference's East Division, Missouri has a shot to return to the SEC championship game in Atlanta for the second straight year. And, like in 2013, the Tigers cannot afford a loss as they close out their conference schedule.
The next step comes as Missouri faces Tennessee today at Neyland Stadium in the Tigers' second-to-last conference game (6:30 p.m., ESPN).
"We're in a great situation right now, and we realize what we have ahead of us," quarterback Maty Mauk said, "but coach (Gary) Pinkel's going to make sure, like he always does, that we're on Tennessee right now, and that's who we're going to focus on."
At times, it appeared the likelihood of Missouri controlling its own destiny was slim, as the Tigers had disappointing home losses to non-conference foe Indiana and SEC opponent Georgia. But the Bulldogs, who had already fallen to South Carolina in their first SEC game, lost to Florida on Nov. 1 and left the Tigers as the lone one-loss team in the SEC East.
"After that Indiana loss, we knew we still had everything ahead of us," senior receiver Bud Sasser said. "And after the Georgia loss, that was tough, but after they ended up losing, we knew that we could still control our own destiny. But even before that, we knew we just had to handle our own business. Couldn't worry about anybody else."
Missouri enters today's game coming off its best offensive performance of the year in a 34-27 defeat of Texas A&M. The Tigers' offense, which had struggled mightily in conference play, put up 587 yards of total offense - a season best for Missouri's offense and a season worst for the Aggies' defense.
Today's game will help determine whether that offense performance was an anomoly, as Texas A&M entered last Saturday's game giving up almost 500 yards per conference contest. Tennessee, the conference leader in tackles for loss, could prove a tougher foe.
Tennessee itself has had a recent offensive resurgence, winning two straight conference games after starting the season 3-5. Quarterback Joshua Dobbs, who regained his job midway through a loss to Alabama, threw for 598 yards in his first two starts, completing 63 percent of his passes and accounting for nine touchdowns. Tennessee's offense as a whole had its two best performances in Dobbs' starts, averaging 578 total yards of offense.
"He brings to their offense the ability to run the football," Pinkel said. "They use him in their running scheme, in other words, they'll scheme him to actually run the football, and he's throwing the ball well. It looks like he's got a tremendous amount of poise back there. ... They're competing at a very high level, and I think you've got to to point to him and say he's the reason why."
The Volunteers (5-5) are now at .500 or better 10 games into the season for the first time since 2009. With one more win, they would be bowl-eligible for the first time since 2010.
"They're still fighting for a bowl spot, so we're expecting their best effort," Sasser said. "They're a good team, and you can't go out there expecting just to walk over them. They're not going to hand anything over. They're still fighting for something."
Missouri has a history with Dobbs, forcing him to throw two interceptions as a true freshman last season at Missouri. The Tigers aren't expecting to see the same guy behind center today.
"He is a different player," Pinkel said. "He's playing at a whole different level, which is not unusual. ... I see that happen occasionally sometimes. A guy is not playing maybe up to his ability and all of a sudden ... he plays in a big-time environment, and he plays really, really well."
Missouri has won both its games against the Volunteers since joining the SEC in 2012. The Tigers can't afford to break that streak if they hope to return to Atlanta, as the Bulldogs have no remaining conference games to trip them up. The Tigers' 2012 comeback win against Tennessee was a bright spot for Missouri, one of just two conference wins that year. The Tigers have made sure not to have a repeat performance of those struggles since.
"I think we've just learned from having a pretty horrible year a couple years ago," Sasser said. "Some of those guys that were on that team are still here, and we still talk about that and try to make sure young guys understand that, and the coaches try to make sure we understand it, not to let anything on the outside affect our team. I think we do a good job of that."
Pinkel said that strategy has been key to the team's success away from Missouri. The Tigers have not lost a true road game since that rough 2012 campaign, winning nine straight road games, seven in conference.
"Whether you play here or you play on the road in this sport, it's the ability to be able to focus and be able to handle the good things and bad things that happen in the game," Pinkel said. "Bottom line, that's it. There's nothing else. Can you maintain your focus, whether it's in the "Zou or it's in South Carolina or wherever it's at? Can you maintain your focus?"
Offensive line coach A.J. Ricker said Pinkel enforces that more than any other program he has been a part of.
"The one thing that he really instills is it's all about us," he said. "We don't get caught up in personnel. We don't get caught up in where we're playing. It's all about us executing, and I honestly believe in that, because you can see it with the elements and everything else we don't get caught up in. That's what he preaches all the time. It's about what we do, not what they do."