COLUMBIA, MO. (AP) - Gary Pinkel was in no mood for holiday cheer a year ago.
Missouri had just gone a dispiriting 5-7 in its SEC debut season, the program’s first losing record since 2004.
“I love Christmas music,” Pinkel recalled. “But I’ll tell you, we’re not going to a bowl, I didn’t listen to any Christmas music. I didn’t want to feel good.”
There has been no sophomore slump for the fifth-ranked Tigers, who surprised nearly everyone by advancing to the SEC championship game against No. 3 Auburn on Saturday.
“When I look at Missouri, they do remind me of our team in a lot of ways,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. “You are talking about a team that can rise to the occasion.”
No matter what happens on Saturday, the Tigers have shown they do indeed belong in the conference that’s produced the last seven national champions.
“We knew what kind of talent we had, what team we had in the offseason,” senior linebacker Andrew Wilson said. “We knew what we had coming to us.”
The 61-year-old Pinkel has 101 wins in 13 seasons at Missouri, tied with the legendary Don Faurot for most in school history. He’s a finalist for Maxwell Coach of the Year.
So, yes, he can laugh about the chatter that he’d that he’d been distracted by a DUI in 2011 and a divorce in 2012, and had lost enthusiasm for the job. One five-win season was all it took.
“Me, in the hot seat? You kidding? Is that out there?” Pinkel joked, then added, “I’ve never, ever worried about that.”
The criticism seemed over the top to St. Louis Rams center Tim Barnes, who was a three-year starter under Pinkel at Missouri.
“A lot of people were panicking, a lot of people were wanting to fire coach Pinkel,” Barnes said. “I said, `Well, it’s going to be a rough year when you have that many people get hurt. This year just goes to show the job they’ve done and the kind of kids they’re bringing in.”
Last fall, Pinkel was almost defiant that Missouri was ready to make a move. He hasn’t wavered in that belief, saying last year was simply a case of getting overrun by injuries to quarterback James Franklin, All-Big 12 tailback Henry Josey and much of the offensive line.
This year, the line has been intact and a strength. Josey is a 1,000-yard rusher again, scoring the deciding touchdown against Texas A&M last weekend on a 57-yard sprint. Redshirt freshman Maty Mauk was ready when Franklin was sidelined with a shoulder injury, and could have been 4-0 as the starter had Andrew Baggett not clanked a chip-shot field goal attempt to give South Carolina an overtime win.
No one folded. Missouri beat Tennessee 31-3 the next week and has won four in a row.
“To me, it was a no-brainer,” Pinkel said. “One moment of sitting back saying, `Woe is me,’ when everything’s out in front of us. The players responded well.”
This is the second time Pinkel has guided Missouri to a conference title shot. The Tigers won 12 games in 2007 and were ranked No. 1 for a week before getting waxed by Oklahoma in the second half of the Big 12 title game.
Senior wide receiver L’Damian Washington, whose leaping, acrobatic fingertip touchdown catch was a key play in the victory over Texas A&M that wrapped up the SEC East, got it right. Washington upped the ante at the SEC media days in July, predicting 11 wins because he knew the talent was there.
“They couldn’t tell me about my team, that’s why I said 11 wins,” Washington said. “They can’t tell me that the guys in the locker room aren’t good enough for 11 wins. I saw those guys every day, I saw their ambition.”
Missouri players are well aware their opponent appears to have the more compelling story line. Auburn is coming off the wow play of the year, Chris Davis’ 100-yard plus touchdown return after a missed field goal that shocked top-ranked Alabama, plus the eight-win improvement under new coach Gus Malzahn that is the best in the nation this season.
“That’s cool,” Washington said. “Keep it that way.”
Pinkel points out it’s been only three years since Auburn won its seventh SEC title, while Missouri’s last title was in 1969. Fans stormed the field after the Tigers held off Texas A&M on Senior Night but appeared more interested in soaking up the moment than dragging off the goal posts.
Leave it to offensive guard Max Copeland, a former walk-on from Billings, Mont., to sum up the ride thus far.
“Can’t you just feel the energy around this place and around this town?” Copeland asked. “I’m excited to be a part of it, and excited to be in the eye of the storm.”