Magical win, magical season for Missouri

COLUMBIA, Mo. -- About 10 minutes after the clock hit triple zeroes, as thousands of Missouri fans covered Faurot Field after rushing it in celebration of the Tigers' historic victory on a cool, crisp, clear November night they'll never forget, five words played over the stadium loudspeakers that led those fans to swoon.

"Georgia. Georgia ... the whole day through."

It was Ray Charles' rendition of "Georgia On My Mind." As the song continued to play, it sounded oh-so-sweet to the Tigers and their fans because they are indeed headed to Georgia next week, the result of a 28-21 win on Saturday night over Texas A&M which clinched the outright SEC East Division title and secured their spot in Atlanta for the SEC championship game against Auburn.

"Wow," coach Gary Pinkel said after plopping down in front of the microphone to meet with the media.

Wow, indeed.

The scenario that led to this sequence of events seemed impossible two years ago, because the Tigers and Aggies had yet to even enter the SEC and though they were on their way, many thought it would be a long time before either would have marked success or would play for the kind of stakes the Tigers did on Saturday night.

After a rough 2012 season that was marred by injuries, the Tigers heard the whispers. They weren't SEC-worthy. They didn't belong. They were in over their heads.

Saturday night -- and this entire season -- has been Missouri's way of silencing the critics. Even after putting the finishing touches on an 11-1 regular season, one that had the Tigers ranked fifth in the country heading into the weekend, there might be some who qualify Missouri's magical season by claiming it was a "down year" for the SEC East with Florida and Georgia not meeting preseason expectations.

Don't listen to them. This Missouri team is legitimate and worthy of being in the position it is in. It has done nothing but prove it week in and week out. With much more good fortune on the injury front this year than last, the Tigers have simply answered the bell at every turn with a lone exception, when they allowed a late lead to slip away in an overtime loss to South Carolina.

As heartbreaking as that loss was, the Tigers didn't allow it to snowball into something worse. Missouri had done enough good work in the first half of the season that it still controlled its own destiny in the division race. And down the stretch the Tigers did what they had to do -- win every game -- to secure their spot in the Georgia Dome.

For Missouri fans who are accustomed to having their hearts ripped out -- think "Five downs" against Colorado in 1990 or the kicked-ball touchdown against Nebraska in 1997 and all the "north end zone" heartbreak -- it's forgivable if their optimism was of the cautious type. But Saturday night, even when trailing, the Tigers didn't panic and they didn't collapse. They responded the way a championship team does.

Down 14-7 at halftime, the Tigers came out and made a statement drive to start the second half, coasting 75 yards down the field in seven plays and 2:45 to tie the game. Then, after a defensive stop, they covered 57 yards in eight plays to take a 21-14 lead. With the steady play of senior quarterback James Franklin (233 passing yards, 80 rushing yards, two touchdowns) and big-time plays from guys like L'Damian Washington and Marcus Murphy, the Tigers were in good hands.

Defensively, Missouri kept a bruised and battered Johnny Manziel in check and though the Aggies were able to tie the score in the fourth, the game never felt like it was out of the Tigers' control. Some Missouri defensive players said afterward they could tell Manziel wasn't 100 percent and they kept applying pressure. The Heisman Trophy winner finished 24-of-35 passing for 195 yards and one touchdown and had just 21 rushing yards on 11 carries.

"We were relentless in the effort," Pinkel said. "Our defensive line wanted him so bad. They wanted a piece of him every chance they got. He's a great, great player, one of the best players [I've seen]."

With 3:34 left, junior Henry Josey burst through the line of scrimmage and broke free for a 57-yard touchdown and the game-winning points. It was a fitting way to cap the victory, as Josey has been through catastrophic damage to his left knee after gruesomely injuring it in November 2011 and missing all of 2012.

"It's really special," Franklin said. "I kind of see Henry as senior. We've been together since the beginning."

As the clock wound down and Missouri ran its final few plays to secure its win, fans around the stadium could be heard chanting "S-E-C! S-E-C!" While their first campaign wasn't exactly what Pinkel and Co. had hoped, the second stanza has been one for the ages in Columbia.

Trying to digest the magnitude of the moment in the aftermath, Pinkel recalled words from his mentor and a coach he long admired, the late Don James, as Pinkel pondered the next challenge ahead against Auburn.

"This is awesome," Pinkel said. "This is great. The most important thing -- I know what Coach James would say right now -- he'd say 'Get the guys back fast. Get their heads back fast.'

"Honestly, I'm so happy and so excited for my players and team."